The Ordeal of Appalachia
Hill and Wang 2017
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Critical TheoryNew Books in EconomicsNew Books in Environmental StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books Network September 19, 2018 Chelsea Jack
As you’ll hear in this interview with Steven Stoll, his latest book Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (Hill and Wang, 2017) is “really a book about capitalism.” Specifically, it’s about how the people of the southern mountains––meaning, the area between southern Pennsylvania and southern West Virginia––lost their land. Though the book focuses on Appalachia, Stoll presents readers with vivid confrontations between peasant economies and capitalism in the Atlantic World over the last four centuries to support his contentions.
Stoll spends a lot of the book describing a time when people lived in the southern mountains without a dependence on money. That was possible when people could garden and draw from a rich ecological base, like a forest where they could grow rye, for example. (Speaking of rye, the third chapter offers a splendid reinterpretation of the Whiskey Rebellion by renaming it the Rye Rebellion––you’ll have to pick up the book to find out why.) That ecological base, Stoll argues, was compromised with the industrial invasion of the southern mountains in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and then industrial capitalists “captured” the labor that went into practices like gardening. Stoll describes this process in our interview.
“We think of industrial capitalism as eliminating all of these sources of subsistence, when in fact that is hardly ever true. They capture certain forms of subsistence that they find advantageous to use. Why the garden? If a family living in a coal town produces their own food, they can be paid a lower wage.” He explains that the labor of wives, daughters, young songs, grandparents––people not typically down in the mines––can be captured by industrial capitalism. “That labor, outside of the mine, can subsidize a wage for mining that would not otherwise sustain them.”
Stoll closes the book with a hopeful reminder to readers that the story is far from over, but that people and landscapes cannot continue be regarded as “instruments of wealth,” as has been the case in the southern mountains since the nineteenth century. He ends with this inspiring thought, “Freedom, in order to have any meaning, must include the freedom to live in a village and farm as a household, with all its uncertainty.”
Chelsea Jack is a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at Yale University. She focuses on sociocultural and medical anthropology.