Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia made the review circuit relatively entertaining for the months after the book’s release. I realize, now, that my response will be—prepare yourself—a response to Lorraine Berry’s response to J.D. Vance’s response to Steven Stoll’s response to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but academia and theory are in themselves only worth their weight in conversation. These theoretical conversations are only worth a damn in practice.
I’ve already reviewed Hillbilly Elegy, and I think I still feel the same way about the book after so many months of diving into the responses and scholarship. At its core, the memoir is only valuable if taken as a memoir. I disagreed with every policy recommendation made by J.D. Vance, but his development narrative is important to situate how we are where we are—sort of. I’ve always been cognitively disconnected from a working-class conservative’s thought process, all while disbelieving that these conservatives speak for the rest of us. His work delineated some of that relationship for me, even if he was full of shit.
When I began reading Stoll’s book, I expected a politically charged narrative of why Appalachia is the way it is–poor, insular, and desperate for relief. That’s naive but, based on the reviews and responses, seemed accurate. It historically was accurate. Stoll’s narrative is thoroughly academic and historical, following the vein of Isenberg’s White Trash. Drawing on my undergraduate history minor and current academic proclivities, I loved that, but the reviews did not take portray his work as the rigorously researched scholarship that it is.
In November of last year, Lorraine Berry published a phenomenal review of Stoll’s book while paying acute attention to the relationship between language and ideology. Using literary theories like Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, and Postmodernism, Berry articulates the ways that these theoretical frameworks and questions have both permeated and transformed political conversations. She says, “It is remarkable to me to observe how academic questions that have lost some of their prominence in the universities have appeared in twisted form out in the political world.” Citing current concepts of truthiness—like the “fake news” “school” of “thought” that came to a head this week with the “Fake News Awards”—Berry defines several primary examples of the deconstruction of language in layman and political situations.
On a topical level, Stoll’s book doesn’t read as an overt and politically charged manifesto. He navigates the colonial and colonized history of Appalachia, as Berry claims, where his “argument represents the structural reasons behind the poverty of the Appalachian region. An entire history of exploitation and violence and the forces of corporate capitalism have helped to create a situation in which those who remain in Appalachia endure high rates of poverty.” By relaying the structural history of corporations and economic assimilations, as well as land displacement and the makeshift economy, Stoll is making an overt political comment on the present state of Appalachia that has been deemed a wasteland of Trump voters by the majority of middle- and upper-class America, which becomes undoubtedly clear in the final chapters. Stoll dissects systemic displacement and exploitation that formulate an Appalachia not dominated by Vance’s lazy, shiftless “trash,” but dominated nonetheless by corporate greed and forced capitalistic transformation.
In December, J.D. Vance’s response to Stoll’s book made The New York Times. Though Vance acknowledges the many successes of Stoll’s research, he takes issue with the thesis of dispossession wrought by coal and resource extraction, citing Stoll’s democratic socialist viewpoint and its “simplistic” conclusion. He claims that “the wealth created in the capitalist economy didn’t just enrich the coal barons, it also enabled the development of new technologies, medicines and professions that made many lives materially better,” and argues that ignoring these advancements to focus wholly on poverty and displacement somehow misses the mark. Well, buddy, I think Vance has missed the mark. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but he needs to ask his buddy Ayn Rand about her philosophy on individual liberties. Regardless, Vance’s rural-minded conservative viewpoint does make him open to rural-minded, radically pragmatic populism: maybe history’s steady march toward tech and “modernity” will result in agrarian displacement and has dissolved the makeshift economy, and maybe those results are bad and need policy intervention.
Stoll’s work, intently focused on displacement, briefly addresses the “brain drain” problem so frequently (too frequently) addressed in working-class and poverty studies. To make his point, Stoll uses J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which narrates Vance’s exodus from his small Ohio town to Yale. Stoll takes multiple factors into consideration from Vance’s perspective to question why “getting out” is viewed as either requisite or preferable, including that Appalachians might just:
“…see themselves as different from those outside their families or counties. People in other parts of the country view them harshly, with many of the same racialized stereotypes present a century ago. All of this makes geographic and social mobility difficult.”
Insularity, whether ideological or ecological, is a major myth that posits Appalachia as a “removed” locale outside of mainstream American culture. Stoll rightfully critiques Vance’s exodus premise, claiming, “The most unsettling currents in Hillbilly Elegy lie in the necessity of leaving and in its emphasis on a strong and uncompromising grandmother.” If meaningful livelihoods are only available elsewhere, might there be a structural, historical and underrepresented problem that doesn’t hinge on individual or moral failure? Hm, Vance?
So what does Appalachia need? Poverty is an issue. Exploitative resource depletion is an issue. Opioids were the topic of choice when I visited Tazewell, Tennessee and Cumberland Gap last week. With all of this talking and all of this theorizing, we must adopt sociological and historical studies into policy intervention rather than leaving Appalachia to suffer under outsider-imposed-unnatural-selection. What I took from Stoll’s recommendations were pretty simple. He lays out a “Commons Communities Act” toward the end of the last chapter, which outlines an actual solution that will “require the knowledge of people who live in the mountains and the sponsorship of organizations and activists working on these questions.”
My preconceived suggestions are similar if slightly less radical. Policymaking must involve extensive research into what the people of Appalachia need from a makeshift economy and a self-sufficiency perspective. I’m thinking about Louisiana, which has imposed extensive policies on local foods, which were adopted to benefit local agriculture. Policies must be infused with ecological responsibility, including conservation and landscape incentives for an agricultural-minded makeshift economy. I’m thinking about wide tax-breaks for new, small farmers in Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Wealth distribution must be adopted in particular states, including taxes imposed on resource-mining to support social services like schools, welfare, agricultural subsidies, vocational schools, and community colleges. FHA mortgages should be widened and reframed with rural households–not necessarily poor households–in mind. This means farming and livestock should make a significant dent in FHA mortgage rates, resulting in lower if not interest-free land ownership. Soll’s communal arrangement is ideal and, unfortunately, idealistic. I agree with the place of the makeshift economy in Appalachia, and I agree that hemorrhaging young minds to growing urban centers is surely happening. We aren’t going to stop the bleeding with coal mining, but rather targeted social and communal support that considers Appalachia’s long history of ecological dependence and systemic displacement.
Toward the end of the book, Stoll says:
“Nonetheless, most development thought insists that the poor and hungry of the world—people who once took care of most of their own needs by farming and trading in once robust environments—will be saved by somewhat different versions of the same thinking that made them poor in the first place” (350)
Vance, policymakers, politicians, writers and thinkers alike need to consider and reconsider this concept long and hard before suggesting tactics that address rural poverty. If not, we’ll impose the same policy and ideological catalysts that wrought this poverty to begin with.