How Subsistence Gave Way to Capitalism A study of Appalachia tells how wages impoverished everyone but the people who paid them and the government that encouraged them.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

By Steven Stoll (2017, Hill and Wang) 432 pages, including footnotes, bibliography, images, and index

At its most simple, Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow examines how the people of Appalachia lost their land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At its most complex, Stoll aims to connect agrarian dislocation across time and geography to critique capitalism and suggest policies that would return land and self-sufficiency to dispossessed residents around the world. Though he sometimes loses sight of his main subject, Appalachia, Stoll delivers an experimental and important work of history that takes on a task most academic historians are unwilling to confront: how to make history simultaneously academically rigorous and accessible to a general audience. In doing so, Stoll draws upon archival material, secondary sources, art, and literature.

Readers hoping for a focused case study of the rise and fall of the Appalachian way of life will be disappointed. Instead, Stoll moves frequently among a history of the global rise of capitalism, discussions of Appalachia, and comparisons with other subsistence communities destroyed by the rise of industrial business practices. After discussing popular stereotypes of Appalachia, Stoll spends an entire chapter detailing the international rise of capitalism. He contends that trade and money did not account for capitalism’s birth. Instead, he points to the population devastation brought by the plague in the medieval world as the event that destroyed the feudal social order and spurred the creation of capitalism. Along with other scholars, he argues that land enclosure, which started in Britain in the 17th century, made it increasingly difficult for subsistence farmers to live off the land and spurred reliance on monetary wages. Once peasants were no longer able to make use of common land, they could not produce the food and goods necessary to sustain a household. Around the world, Stoll argues, this transition from subsistence practices to wage labor made peasants increasingly vulnerable to poverty and hunger. Instead of moving chronologically, he bounces from history to cultural analysis and back to history. Stoll discusses the Whiskey Rebellion and political life in Appalachia in the 19th century. He then examines art and literature related to Appalachia, probing the changing place of the region in national identity. Toward the end of his work, he analyzes how coal and lumber corporations took control of land in Appalachia and made subsistence agriculture impossible. Stoll’s decision to buck the historical convention of chronological order will likely leave some readers disoriented, but his engaging writing style allows him to make these leaps through time and place.

Despite his unconventional organization, a timeline of the rise and fall of subsistence life in Appalachia emerges. After discussing the ways in which Appalachian dwellers have been simultaneously demonized and idealized in American artistic, literary, and political realms, he discusses the Whiskey Rebellion as a crucial event that ended the possibility of the subsistence lifestyle in Appalachia. He argues that Alexander Hamilton’s scheme to tax whiskey production initiated the process of pressuring subsistence farmers to rely on monetary wages over a makeshift economy based on surviving off the land. Hamilton’s purpose was to incentivize Appalachians to distill for profit rather than personal use because selling whiskey would produce monetary compensation the state could tax (whereas production for personal use involved no exchange of money and therefore could not be taxed). Perhaps challenging the mainstream celebration of Alexander Hamilton due to the popular musical, Stoll ties Hamilton’s efforts to tax whiskey production to the eventual destruction of subsistence in Appalachia.

Stoll makes a compelling case that the coal industry forced Appalachian residents away from subsistence lifestyles and toward a reliance on wage labor and coal company policies. Before the introduction of the coal industry, Appalachian residents maintained relative subsistence by farming and living off the land.

He says the Civil War was another turning point for the history of Appalachia, for the war brought surveyors who realized the business potential of the coal supply in the Appalachian Mountains. Stoll makes a compelling case that the coal industry forced Appalachian residents away from subsistence lifestyles and toward a reliance on wage labor and coal company policies. Before the introduction of the coal industry, Appalachian residents maintained relative subsistence by farming and living off the land. Stoll discusses, for example, the practice of collecting ramps (a kind of forest onion) that was crucial to the Appalachian diet before the spring harvest. Though these subsistence farmers were often very cash-poor, their lifestyle allowed them a comfortable and well-fed existence in comparison to their progeny who would be forced into wage labor. Stoll suggests that alongside coal mining, destruction of the Appalachian forest most directly shattered the possibility for subsistence lifestyles. As forests were cleared to allow for coal mining, Appalachian residents could not choose to maintain their subsistence lifestyle even if they wanted to. They had no choice but to submit to wage labor.

In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Stoll explains the myriad ways coal companies learned to extract labor from their employees while minimizing wages and keeping laborers dependent on companies. As other scholars have shown, corporations set up company towns in which employees lived in company housing and spent their meager, hard-earned wages in company stores, feeding money back into corporations. He also shows how entire households living in company towns fueled corporate profit. Many coal companies encouraged coal miner families to plant their own gardens. Rather than being a way in which families could maintain a degree independence from coal company wages and retain some of their subsistence practices, these gardens allowed corporations to pay miners less. In this way, Stoll argues that companies deputized the entire household to maximize coal profits, since toiling in household gardens was labor for which coal companies did not need to pay. He also briefly discusses union organizing that frequently ended in violence. In at least one labor dispute, corporations denied striking workers access to their garden plots in an attempt to starve workers into submission. The effect of these policies, Stoll shows, is that coal families are still stuck in low-wage jobs that keep people trapped in poverty.

Stoll ends by offering a “thought experiment” of legislation to correct for the rapacious government and corporate policies that have left Appalachian residents at the mercy of poverty wages. While totally unconventional for academic historical research, Stoll uses his proposed legislation to show how a government might begin to correct for the capitalistic policies that steadily denied the possibility of self-sufficiency to Appalachians. Some of the suggestions in this “legislation” are idealistic to the point of frustration. As a researcher of citizen participation, the call for federally-funded resident-led rural farming communities, while admirable, felt almost laughably unrealistic; at no point in American history have legislators ceded so much control over government funding to poor people. But Stoll’s aim is not to write a piece of legislation that could survive the congressional lawmaking process (and it seems that no legislation aimed at helping the poor could fit that bill in 2018’s political climate). Instead, calling himself a Democratic Socialist, Stoll imagines policies that could begin to push back against the capitalistic onslaught that ruined subsistence lifestyles in Appalachia.

For a book supposedly about the rise and fall of Appalachian self-sufficiency, we hear relatively little about what this subsistence lifestyle looked like, and we hear even fewer voices of Appalachian residents.

Due to the experimental nature of this book, Stoll’s work would be incredibly easy to criticize. Any evaluation must keep in mind that his book is meant to provoke and suggest as much as it is meant to make definitive conclusions. With this in mind, I want to offer one main critique. For a book supposedly about the rise and fall of Appalachian self-sufficiency, we hear relatively little about what this subsistence lifestyle looked like, and we hear even fewer voices of Appalachian residents. Stoll offers his readers some details about life in 18th- and 19th-century Appalachia—such as small-scale whiskey distilling and ramp collecting—but few of his primary sources illuminate life in Appalachia before the coal and lumber industries arrived. His best description of Appalachian ways of life is hidden within his discussion of the whiskey tax (100-110). His focus on artistic depictions of Appalachia does not make up for a lack of Appalachian sources. A closer attention to primary sources produced by Appalachian residents would have added crucial evidence about the subsistence way of life. A tighter focus on the people of Appalachia also would have given Stoll’s connections to present-day politics more credence. Stoll mentions Donald Trump’s popularity in the region, yet a close history of Appalachian people, missing from Stoll’s narrative, could have added to our understanding of the popularity of the Republican Party among poor Appalachians. And finally, tighter attention to Appalachian residents would have made his global comparisons more meaningful. It is difficult for the reader to assess the extent of similarities among subsistence groups across time and region without a firm understanding of subsistence practices for the book’s main subject.

Despite these problems, Stoll provides important lessons and much for his readers to ponder. He pushes against the tendency to think of subsistence peoples as old-fashioned relics of the past. He shows how the rise of capitalism made subsistence lifestyles impossible and ushered in the era of dependence on poverty wages that we are currently grappling with. He suggests global connections between subsistence communities and posits how governments might foster a return to subsistence through legislation. Even with its flaws, his work contributes crucially to the subfields of environmental, global, and economic history.