What J.D. Vance Doesn't Get About Appalachia: A new history shows how Big Coal created a culture of dependence.

Author:MacGillis, Alec
Position:On political books - Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia - Book review
 
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Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

by Steven Stoll

Hill & Wang, 432 pp.

We are, one hears, spending too much time on Appalachia. There are too many dispatches from woebegone towns, coastal reporters parachuting in to ascertain that, yes, the hard-bitten locals are still with their man Donald Trump. There are too many odes to the beleaguered coal miner, even though that entire industry now employs fewer people than Arbys. Enough already, says the exasperated urban liberal. Frank Rich captured this sentiment in March in a New York magazine piece entitled "No Sympathy for the Hillbilly." "Maybe," he mused, "they'll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose."

The superficial "downtrodden Trump voter" story has indeed become an unproductive cliche. And upheavals in industries with larger, more diverse workforces than coal, such as retail, deserve close attention as well.

But our decades-long fixation with Appalachia is still justified. For starters, the political transformation of the region is genuinely stunning. West Virginia was one of just six states that voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980; last year, it gave Trump his second-largest margin of victory, forty-two points.

More importantly, the region's afflictions cannot simply be cordoned off and left to burn out. The opioid epidemic that now grips whole swaths of the Northeast and Midwest got its start around the turn of the century in central Appalachia, with the shameless targeting of a vulnerable customer base by pharmaceutical companies hawking their potent painkillers. The epidemic spread outward from there, sure as an inkblot on a map. People like Frank Rich may be callous enough to want to consign Appalachians to their "poisons," but the quarantine is not that easy.

We should be thankful, then, for what Steven Stoll, a historian at Fordham University, has delivered in Ramp Hollow: not just another account of Appalachia's current plight, but a journey deeper in time to help us understand how the region came to be the way it is. For while much has been written about the region of late, the historical roots of its troubles have received relatively little recent scrutiny. Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance's best-selling memoir of growing up in an Appalachian family transplanted from eastern Kentucky to the flatlands of southwestern Ohio, cast his people's afflictions largely as a matter of a culture gone awry, of ornery self-reliance turned to resentful self-destruction. In White Trash, the historian Nancy Isenberg traced the history of the country's white underclass to the nation's earliest days, but she focused more on how that underclass was depicted and scorned than on the material particulars of its existence.

Stoll offers the ideal complement. He has set out to tell the story of how the people of a sprawling region of our country--one of its most physically captivating and ecologically bountiful--went from enjoying a modest but self-sufficient existence as small-scale agrarians for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a dreary dependency on the...

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