What the People of Appalachia Want

J. D. VANCE

The narrative Stoll substitutes is less linear. Subsistence farming isn’t a relic of the past but a way of life made nearly impossible in Appalachia, not because of historical progress but because of dispossession. Farmers grew what they could, hunted what they could, consumed what they needed and exchanged the rest to satisfy various wants and needs. But population growth and the demands of industrialization overwhelmed the ecological base that subsistence farmers depended on. This drove people to wage-earning work, which in turn accelerated the disappearance of the subsistence farm. The old homestead might have been tough, but it provided the necessities of life along with independence. The wage-based economy, on the other hand, fostered dependence, powerlessness and the privation that comes with depending on the boom-and-bust cycle.

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Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

If you couldn’t tell already, Stoll has a viewpoint. He explains that he favors “democratic socialism” and a “reinvention of the nation-state.” As a conservative, I often have a different viewpoint. Stoll’s criticisms of the market economy are sometimes needlessly polemic. Capitalism has its problems, of course. But “Ramp Hollow” is sometimes so earnest that it ignores obvious complications for its core thesis. Undoubtedly, a lot of West Virginia families suffered in the boom-and-bust coal economy of the early 20th century. But 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. Over the 20-year period from 1920 to 1940, for instance, child and maternal mortality dropped precipitously in West Virginia.

The book’s great strength is that it acknowledges something our politics often fails to: that not everyone wants the same things or possesses the same preferences. Stoll discusses the difference between “lowlanders” and “highlanders” of Appalachia, implicitly revealing the importance of culture. “Mountaineers needed to think differently about how they did things” about the rapidly changing nature of commercial agriculture, he writes. “But they approached the landscape with longstanding assumptions that they could not (or would not) adjust or abandon.”

For many, a better future — the American dream, you might call it — isn’t about yachts and private jets, but about simpler pursuits: family comfort instead of wealth, stability instead of dynamism and a life rooted in a thriving community rather than individual achievement. Our public policy sometimes ignores this, pretending, for instance, that struggling people just need a good educational or work opportunity to achieve some measure of success in the modern economy. But maybe they need something different — emotional skills that their traumatic family life deprived them of; a social community or civic organization that behavior or circumstance destroyed. Or, as Stoll encourages us to consider, maybe they don’t want “success” in the modern economy at all. Maybe they just want a warm fire and a nice garden. “Ramp Hollow” reminds us that integrating some people into the modern economy will always be a difficult challenge, even as Stoll questions the wisdom of such an integration in the first place.

I disagreed with much of this challenging, interesting and engrossing book. But it made me think. And that, it seems to me, is the whole point.

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