In Praise of Cottages, Makeshift, and the Commons

Ramp Hollow cover.JPG

I like to listen to long books and this summer’s listen was Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. Stoll is a colleague of mine at Fordham and it was exciting to see his book so favorably reviewed in the Times, so I put it on my list and, in the summer heat when running gets really slow and arduous, I started listening.

Readers of this blog know that I’m a Woolf scholar, not an economic historian. My literary criticism is always historical in its focus, and I have a lifelong interest in history, but I’m an amateur, and again and again, listening to this book, I was reminded of all the assumptions I’ve accepted that, in Stoll’s account, I’m questioning anew. So this isn’t a review so much as an appreciation for what excellent history can teach and do. I learned so much and it gave me a lot to think about. There are indeed downsides to audiobooks—sometimes I long to know how to spell a name, to see one of the several paintings he describes so vividly, such as Winslow Homer’s “Veteran in a New Field.” Even so, there is something powerfully immersive about spending forty minutes at a time, while under some cardiac stress, thinking about all that Alexander Hamilton (or any other of what Dwight Garner rightly notes as the book’s many villains) got wrong about the region.

(One of the things I loved about the book was the truly amazing and rich range of sources upon which Stoll draws: theories of capital from Adam Smith to the present, case studies of makeshift lives from Mali and the Philippines, novels and painting, scholarship by a diverse range of authors—women, people of color, 17th to 21st century writers.)

Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field."

Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field."

Stoll’s alternate account of the history of Appalachia is eye-opening: he goes all the way back to the story of enclosure in England to teach us to think of a makeshift economy as an alternative to capitalism, not as a stage on the way to it. So pervasive, Stoll shows, are our evolutionary metaphors for capital that we don’t really have a way to describe or understand people who live on the land without capitalizing every inch of it. In fact, for homesteaders before the civil war, a viable tract of land for a family was considered to be about 400 acres, only about 10% of which would be cultivated. The rest of the land, forest and meadow, operated as an ecological base and a kind of commons: it provided timber for housing and fences, grazing for animals, and food could be foraged and hunted there. Because that land was not capitalized, whatever it gave benefited the household and if it took—if, for example, free ranging cattle were eaten by a bear—was not a devastating loss. People living this way, where money is not everything but just a part of life, useful when you want, say sugar or calico or a pretty toy, but not necessary for survival, can manage when something terrible happens—a war, a drought, a fire, a crop failure.

I spend my summers in Clayton, New York. It’s on the Canadian border, in Thousand Islands region, near Fort Drum—the site of 45’s recent signing ceremony of the military spending bill named in honor of the (unnamed) Senator John McCain, in the North Country. That is to say, I’m in a touristy pocket of a poor and conservative region: farmland with a military base and a strong presence of Amish people. Three days a week, on the way home from yoga, I stop at the Amish farm stand and buy vegetables. Every day, I check on the progress of the vegetables I’m growing. When we started coming here, twenty years ago, the local businesses were pretty humble and catered to lower middle class tourists. Now, with more affluent visitors, we have a food co-op with organic meat, a brew pub, and several distilleries. Local shops are touting their support of each other—the brew pub serves pizza, but the fancier restaurants carry the brewery’s beer. The cheese shop even occasionally carries the organic cheese of a local competitor.

In this rural context, removed from my usual life commuting between New York and the Jersey suburbs, it is so much easier to see all that urbanites—like Hamilton—get wrong about Appalachia and to see, too, that, while it will take work and commitment and major political and structural changes, a better life for rural people, one based on a village economy, not outside capitalism but not wholly dependent on it either, makes sense.

You can watch Stoll talk about his book on CSPAN. You can listen to Stoll interviewed on WNYC here. You can read Dwight Garner’s NYT review here.

Personal History

One of my pastimes of the long, depressing spring (which was, sadly, not nearly as depressing as this summer is turning out to be) was to read, for the first time, Katharine Graham’s rightfully acclaimed memoir, Personal History. While reading it, Barbara Bush died. At the same time, accolades and admiration continued for The Crown and praise for the House of Windsor continued in the lead-up to the Royal wedding.

I thought about Graham, Bush, and the British Royal Family a lot as a consequence. In this moment of political turmoil, it’s interesting to turn back to these conservative figures who embodied (and continue to embody) the meaning of conservatism: the desire to preserve the culture of the past.

No feminist at first, Graham was slow to come into her own power. She was slow even to realize the damaging and dangerous hold her charismatic but mentally unstable husband had over her. Raised to imagine herself a wife and helpmeet, she continually describes her content at being one. Even when her women friends take her aside and fête her because they worry that her husband puts her down too much, she professes herself astonished at this observation, one she claims to have been new to her. Yet, in her husband’s final illness and then, after he committed suicide, she realized how profoundly committed she was to the success of The Washington Post. The rest, you probably know: Watergate, bravery, friendship with Warren Buffet, the Black and White Ball (she was the honoree), a long and prosperous old age.

When I was young, people talked about these figures, these stately women who slowly rose to authority, with derision. The cool ones were the men on Harleys, the women who ran away. I love rebels, too, but it makes sense to me now that when we talk about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, it’s not as a precursors the sexual revolution, but as spoiled fascists whose abdication was not merely the abdication of a stupid formality but the abdication of adult responsibility. It might indeed be a new kind of awful to be born so privileged that your future was set forward for you—as a monarch, as the publisher of a newspaper, as the bearer of your family’s name and legacy. But I think it makes sense that in this moment, when almost no one bears that kind of burden, we are interested anew in the people, maybe even particularly the women, who accept that mantle with all its limitations and all its possibilities.

Books are Bridges?

Margaret Wise Brown did not like the 1946 theme for Children's book week:

if I were a child, and saw [on posters] ‘Books are Bridges’ I’d go out and make channels of diverted water from a stream through the sand and stretch the Books across the little streams for my imaginary armies to march across….If I were a child and read ‘Books are Bullets’ I and other children would throw them at each other. If I were a child and read ‘Books Around the World’ I would wish that I had gone myself—If I read ‘Friendship Through Books’ I would have wished the Book weren’t there between us. Therefore for next year I propose ‘Books are Books’ for the Book Week slogan. A fact any child would recognize with relief.” (qtd. Leonard Marcus, Awakened by the Moon, 199-200)

Read in 2014

2014 began with a lot of talk about #readonlywomen. I didn't want to commit to that, but it made me want to keep track of what I did read. I've never done this before and some things surprised me more than others. Here, then, without comment, is the list of the thirty books I read this year. Is that a lot? A little? I'm not sure. 

1.    Miss Anne in Harlem, Carla Kaplan (nonfiction)

2.   Going Clear, Lawrence Wright (nonfiction; ebook)

3.   Wild, Cheryl Strayed (memoir; ebook)

4.   The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud (fiction; audiobook)

5.    Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction)

6.   Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction)

7.   The Golden Bowl, Henry James (fiction; audiobook)

8.   The Fiery Trial, Eric Foner (nonfiction; for teaching; skimmed final chapter)

9.   Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee (fiction, for teaching)

10.  Summer Will Show, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction; re-read)

11. The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan (nonfiction; audiobook)

12.  The Circle, Dave Eggers (fiction; audiobook)

13.   Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi (fiction, for teaching)

14.  The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (fiction)

15.  Aleta Day, Francis Marion Beynon (fiction)

16.   William—an Englishman, Cecily Hamilton (fiction)

17.   All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque (fiction)

18.  Stoner, John Williams (fiction)

19.   The Vacationers, Emma Straub (fiction)

20.  Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks (graphic novel)

21.   The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (fiction; audiobook)

22.   Remapping the Home Front, Debra Rae Cohen (nonfiction)

23.   My Education, Susan Choi (fiction)

24.    Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (fiction)

25.   The End of War, John Horgan (nonfiction)

26.  The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman (nonfiction; audiobook)

27.    The Elements of Academic Style, Eric Hayot (nonfiction)

28.    Inferno, Dante (poetry; audiobook)

29.  The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore (nonfiction)

30.    The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (fiction; audiobook)