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.