Juliana Spahr

Conventional images of Appalachia provide a convenient scapegoat for the liberal electorate. But a change of images won’t mean a different Appalachia.

Shortly after the most recent election, I kept finding myself telling people that it was a bad time to be from the rural Midwest, or from a white, working-class family, or from Appalachia. At the same time, I was part of a small email strand where we sent each other links and then made snide comments about the links, as if we could make them less powerful. The links were to moments in the mainstream media where people said things about those terrible people from Appalachia who were felt at the time to have elected Trump. I went over these links recently. Highlights: a piece in the mainstream media about how the voters of West Virginia deserve to lose their health insurance; a journalist’s thirty-seven tweet thread about how rural residents were the true privileged citizens of the USA and not only because they hold urban residents hostage but also this thread went so far as to blame the founding fathers and their “glorification” of agriculture for this situation; an endless series of photographs that were appearing at that time in the mainstream media (an unusual amount of them taken within a sixty-mile radius of where I grew up) that showed the residents of Appalachia and their tendency to play video games, shoot heroin, or just look sadly out the dirty windows of poorly lit rooms, often while sitting on plaid couches. J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, same geography, got a lot of attention at this moment. The New York Times called it a “tough love analysis of the poor who back Trump.” I was refusing to read it, a refusal I have maintained.

What I read instead: Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia and Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. I read both these books because Twitter told me to do so, more specifically Aaron Bady’s Twitter. He was not wrong.

Ramp Hollow is a materialist history of “people who have been alternately praised and despised.” It is written in seven chapters. The first more or less a short history of the region; the second on capitalism and its devastating impact on Appalachia; the third on Alexander Hamilton and the Rye Rebellion; the fourth on coal; the fifth on how Appalachians were dispossessed of their squatter’s rights to the land; the sixth on the subsistence garden; the seventh on the commons. These chapters tell a history of the underdevelopment of the region, an underdevelopment that is so deliberate it is clichéd. At the same time Ramp Hollow is a celebration of the region, of its ecological diversity, and of the people who did not or have not yet left it.

Stoll’s book works backwards from those images of what others call poverty porn. He points out that the way to escape the false assumptions and dichotomies of these sorts of images is to ask “what went on just before the crisis that might have caused it?” He makes good on this sort of analysis throughout the book, pointing again and again to various and often contradictory global economic forces that brought poverty to the region while at the same time comparing it (carefully) to the dispossession of Native Americans or Haitians. This is one of the strengths of this book. Even sympathetic studies of Appalachia have a tendency to study its underdevelopment in isolation, as if it just grew there. Or worse, blame the work habits, the drug use, or the family structure of the residents for the underdevelopment that has been foisted on them from all sides.

The story Stoll tells of the household provision garden is exemplary. The provision garden, of course, existed prior to capitalism. In Appalachia, those who left the hills to work in the mines at first maintained their gardens. This let these workers hold onto “the simulacra of autonomy amid an industrialized landscape in which survival increasingly required dependency on wages.” This autonomy was, of course, somewhat illusionary, and not just because these workers turned to the mines for employment as their access to the land was restricted. As provision gardens provided much of the food needed to maintain the miners, it also allowed employers to pay lower wages. Still, as long as a miner had a source of food, they also had the ability to walk off the job when wages got too low or work conditions too terrible.

“It is going to take more than better optics. Better optics are not going to counter years of underdevelopment.”

The coal companies responded to this by importing workers not local to the area, many of them Hungarian, Irish, or African American. And they had their own agrarian knowledge even as they could make no claim to the land. So coal companies, in order to keep wages low, made provision gardens a requirement or gave away free supplies or incentivized by providing rewards to the best gardens. Once provision gardens were planted on company land, companies could restrict access or destroy them during moments of labor unrest. Miners and their families, of course, learned from those more local to the area and began to plant in the hollows. These were not the best places to grow, they were just possible places. Then the economists of the US government came in and called these gardens and their tenders “submarginal.” That many in the area planted in hollows rather than in the river basins was interpreted not as a sign of resistance but as a lack of education and agricultural inexperience. Combining this with the attention to the region brought by the US War on Poverty, the development of the Shenandoah National Park, and the arrival of tourism, the destruction of an Appalachian commons becomes clear.

Catte’s What You are Getting Wrong about Appalachia is framed even more explicitly as a corrective to Vance’s work. It was written in reaction to his book and also, perhaps, to those same articles that we were snidely talking about on that email chain. Much of Catte’s book is a history of the image of Appalachians as diseased and unschooled. Her book is more a cultural study and less a study of the economic forces that produced such images of poverty. She begins with the most recent election, with how the mainstream media made Appalachia into “Trump Country.” Part two turns to the past so as to get to Vance. She begins with the story of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O’Connor. It’s a complicated mess of a story. O’Connor was a Canadian filmmaker who in 1967 had been commissioned by the US Department of Commerce to make a documentary about the region. He paid Mason Eldridge, a coal miner in Kentucky, ten dollars for the right to film him “covered in coal dust and cradling his child.” Eldridge’s landlord, angry at the influx of outsiders who were coming to the region to document its poverty, killed O’Connor immediately after the filming and became as a result a local hero, seen as resisting with direct action the exploitative images made by outsiders for outsiders. Catte oddly does not spend much time on the obvious contradiction here, that the inherent exploitation of the landlord/tenant relationship remains, except to note that Eldridge sold his image for the same amount he paid O’Connor each month for shelter.

Catte also tells the story of Harry Caudill, a Kentucky politician and defender of eugenics, who wrote a lot about the poverty of the region. Caudill, like Vance, was both from the region and critical of its residents, or as Catte puts it, he “relied on romantic and problematic notions of Appalachia and its people.” By the mid-70s, Caudill was arguing that poverty in the region was genetic in origin and advocating sterilization for the genetically unfit. Catte is attentive to the historical echoes here. Caudill’s interest in eugenics, she points out, is echoed in the connections and camaraderie between Vance and Charles Murray.

In the last section of the book, “Land, Justice, People,” Catte describes an imaginary photo album of “our family.” It is full of images of resistance, of labor activists like Myles Horton and Robert Payne. As so much of her book strives to historicize the image of Appalachian residents as impoverished both financially and intellectually, this last section provides a much-needed correction. The focus on images is nonetheless the limitation of the book. Catte wants to provide a counter-history: “there are people here who deserve similar moments of liberation from their pain and shame, to see their lives and history as something other than an incoherent parade of destruction and wretchedness. I hope that people in the region who keep fighting will, like the figures in my favorite photograph, turn away from anonymous cameras and capture their own images.” Yes. And yet her own attempts to counter the negative images are so thin, even scant in page count. As Stoll’s work demonstrates, it is going to take more than better optics. Better optics are not going to counter years of underdevelopment.

Electoral politics loom large in both these books. Stoll notices again and again how inadequately Appalachians have been served by elected state and national officials and the resulting “astonishing lack of control over their environment.” Stoll on William MacCorkle (governor of West Virginia in the late 1890s): “no political leadership anywhere in the United States or the Atlantic World ever exposed its own people and environment to the same unbridled destruction and abuse.” Catte corrects the record on McDowell County (to which Stoll also attends), a county in West Virginia used by the media as exemplary of “Trump country” because 92 percent of voters went for Trump in the primary, and also, per the media,“the poorest county in West Virginia.” But as Catte points out, there are 17,508 registered voters in the county and 4,614 of them voted for Trump (another 1,429 for Clinton). McDowell County also had the lowest turnout in the state. Catte doesn’t know what to do with those 11,465 registered voters in McDowell who did not bother to vote (much less those that did not or could not register to vote).

Neither does Stoll. That is not to say he lacks for imagination. One of the more interesting parts of his book is when he presents a sort of thought experiment that he calls “the Commons Communities Act.” It’s a description of a meaningful commons. It is a bold and interesting move to turn suddenly to polemic. I confess it excited me to read it, even though Stoll admits that he favors “democratic socialism and a reinvention of the nation-state as a conduit for meeting human needs rather than for accumulating capital” and I am not at all convinced the nation state in this current formation is so malleable. Stoll is astute enough to recognize that democratic socialism might not be seen by many in the region—West Virginia regularly has the lowest voter turnout nationally—as the best or easiest path forward. He can at least see that “some within Appalachia might object to the participation of the federal government.” He also acknowledges, “people can do it for themselves, by squatting on abandoned land and defending their right to the commons” and he includes a provision that would allow the ability for residents to end their association with the federal government by majority vote.

It’s a start. He’s aware that it’s just a start: “An actual solution would require the knowledge of people who live in the mountains and the sponsorship of organizations and activists working on these questions.” He understands that the self-activity of the residents is the precondition for anything else. This is somewhat obvious but it is also what the conventions of talking about Appalachia, the conventional images, the conventional explanations of why this world is the way that it is, make unthinkable. Catte and Stoll provide ways of trying to unmake those conventions, to block them from seeping like dirty groundwater into the common sense, into the habits of media, but also into a certain region of leftist thought.

In the end the thing I wanted to do was to put the rethinking of Appalachia alongside in-process attempts to rethink a commons in the US. To put it alongside Cooperation Jackson. Kali Akuno in Jackson Rising explains that Cooperation Jackson is a variation on the Jackson-Kush Plan as developed by the New Afrikan Independence Movement, rooted in a solidarity economy and mutual aid, in land trusts, in cooperative credit unions, in education, in attempts to think about the role of technology in the development of any cooperative. Cooperation Jackson is more urban than rural. An Appalachian commons would require related but also very different moves. And yet both would be stronger if they could think of themselves as somewhat in alliance. Whether these new sorts of commons would be forced to reintegrate into a nation or would be a step toward territorial delinking, whether there is something other than a nation that can form a larger common—these questions hover over Jackson and Appalachia both. But they are out there. And these books begin to point to them, whether they mean to or not.