Appalachian Historiography Essay

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In Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, Stoll recasts the nature of both agriculture and land ownership and likens Appalachia’s early settlers to those who depend on access to a “commons”- in this case the forest as an ecological base. “The base gives everything but costs nothing.” Economy was self-created and self-supported through such techniques of slash-and-burn agriculture, and although there generally wasn’t surplus, Stoll argues that these Appalachian mountaineers were not poor. Stoll argues that, “Taxation… creates its territorial and financial power,” and that beginning under federalism in the Alexander Hamilton republic, it forced subsistence farmers towards a cash economy, extending the administrative reach of the federal government into the frontier. He goes on to discuss the entry of the railroads into the backcountry of coal and mineral rich areas such as West Virginia and the exploitation of both the land and the people that goes along with this invasion. Coupled with timber extraction, these multiple dispossessions spelled an end to those already seeking subsistence from a shrinking land base and a growing population.

Stoll paints a picture illustrating how with the land spoiled by coal, mineral, and timber companies, workers were at the mercy of whichever company dominated the Appalachian region in which they lived, thus effectively cementing them as second-class citizens and denying them any attempt at upward mobility. This was further reinforced with their dependency on company housing and company stores which sold food and other necessities only for company script. Coal company capital in effect brought stagnation, not human betterment, and that there was a correlation between corporate control of these Appalachian areas and the inadequate compensation which then helped to give rise to stereotypes and negative commentary that was geared towards the entire region.

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Another of Stoll’s primary arguments centers on the integrity and viability of agricultural practices, when not disrupted by developments of the bourgeoisie. Industry monopolized the area, effectively stifling other forms of growth and development, denying upward mobility to the area in which it spread. Elitists from the mid-Atlantic region declared agriculture an impoverished throwback that only impeded modernization. In doing so, they relegated those surviving this way to a second-class status. By gradually obtaining the land from these second-class citizens, they also gained the subsistence of mountain farmers, and were then able to decree the former land owners as poor and worthless.

Stoll does lack coverage of gendered relations and a gendered division of labor in his narrative, which is particularly disappointing in view of a definition of the agricultural economy as a household and family endeavor and way of life. This is the biggest failing in the narrative, in that Stoll does acknowledge that the mountaineer way of life and living is centered on patriarchy for the most part, but he never discusses wives or daughters’ roles in the institution.

Stoll effectively uses corporate records, private correspondence, and government census records to make his argument. He effectively argues for a return to a public commons to reinvigorate the community and start a democratic, place-based economy. This return would effectively raise and stabilize class relations as well, since everyone would be sharing equally. Stoll’s overarching theme here is that capitalist hegemony is not inevitable, and that collective land access and care are key to Appalachia’s future, because “If meaningful work and a decent occupation only exist elsewhere, then most Appalachians will be abandoned.”

In the narrative, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, Isenberg writes a narrative combating the idea that class in America was non-existent, successfully countering that American history has been a struggle simply for economic power between the haves and the have-nots. Isenberg masterfully tells a story of the changing concepts of class and its relationship to inferiority and second-class citizenship. Isenberg theorizes the British elite saw parts of America early on, and particularly the wild Appalachian area, as a dumping ground for the idle, indigent, and criminal from Britain.

For Appalachia, this process deepened in the early Republic and the 19th century, as the backcountry filled with landless white settlers chained to the yoke of tenancy and as itinerant laborers. Isenberg backs this claim with a catalog of the terms denigrating Southern Appalachian mountaineers. Many of these terms have European roots- elites knew these people as society’s “offscourings,” and “useless lubbers,” of “poor Carolina.” Isenberg even connotes the Appalachian Carolina’s as the “first white trash colony.” Isenberg concludes that by the 20th century, a scientific explanation of the region’s lower-class status based upon physical traits had been born which highlighted mountaineers who were birthing a race of inferior white people, unlike their pure white, resilient Anglo-Saxon forbearers. Coupled with apparent genealogical notoriety, eugenicists were supposedly able to trace the possibility of degeneration, and thus came up with a plan to stop these second-class citizens from continuing to procreate.

Perhaps Isenberg’s strongest case, akin to that which Portelli makes and then also coming full circle past Caudill, is that one of the most common ways in stigmatizing those at poverty levels centered on ethnic identity. The Appalachian backcountry settlers were viewed as savages and “trash,” thereby cementing their status as second-class with no hope of upward mobility. Isenberg theorizes that this intractable caste system continues to linger in Appalachia today. While America did not develop a House of Lords as Britain did, the skeleton of the system was imported and thus a class system was created. There was little social mobility for those from Appalachia to change position and achieve upward mobility on this ladder.

Contemporary attitudes, even from America’s founders, of the impoverished poor have been and continue to remain an ever-present presence in Appalachia. Especially with a majority of the white, rural poor concentrated in the South, the Appalachia’s geographical region. However, even among Appalachian whites, any perceived differences in skin color, such as those who were considered Melungeon or Mulatto, signaled a class split. Appalachian mountaineers struggling under poverty, induced decades prior by slave-owing plantation planters up through today’s bank and tax policies geared towards the affluent elite, systemically continues to harm the already-poor, who have been both ignored and patronized by both conservatives and liberals, often providing a good excuse not to extend federal assistance in the face of a people who are already mistrustful of wealthy, elite outsiders. Indeed, Isenberg, perhaps more than all the others reviewed for this historiography on class mobility and the intersections of race and ethnicity, maintains throughout the narrative that “Class had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.”

To understand a history of class in Appalachia, one must not assume total whiteness, thus relegating those of non-white race and ethnicity to an invisible background, but instead understand the basic reality that economic inequality will always intertwine at the intersection of class and racial/ethnic identity. To assume an entirely Anglo-Saxon and Caucasian Appalachia does its inhabitants a great disservice when looking towards economic betterment of the region. In all the historiographies reviewed for this paper, perhaps the most common and pernicious fallacy is that many historians- historically and contemporarily, write as though Appalachia was by default racially white and ethnically Anglo-Saxon, descending wholly from Scots-Irish lineage. While this lineage can indeed be traced by some in Appalachia, the area has in fact been a melting pot of races and ethnicities of those of varied descent since the region’s moniker was coined. Native American, European, African, Latin American, and Asian people have long called Appalachia home and continue to do so, often exhibiting a higher population growth rate than their counterparts of Caucasian descent.

There also continues to be a huge intersection of poverty and race with class and ethnicity, the former having been researched and written about with increasing interest in the past decade, but the latter only beginning to be so. Indeed though, this intersection must be included in the future discourse on upward mobility in Appalachia, and to not do so would be a disservice both to the region and the country as a whole.

At this time however, it appears many historians continue to fail to recognize that many of these non-white Appalachians were almost always at the bottom of the economic spectrum and were therefore subject to both racial discrimination and the discrimination cast upon Appalachian mountaineers in the form of what is still seen by many as the “traditional Appalachian hillbilly.”

Post-Civil War, Appalachian demography and social structure was changed as former slaves sought new economic and social opportunities, often in the form of low-status, previously white-held jobs. Racial tensions increased significantly with this shift, especially among Appalachia’s lower class whites, who perceived more than ever the impact this would have on their own lives, as both races were dependent and competing for their livelihoods from the white landowning elite. Land ownership was an important form of social, political and economic stability, and various factors worked against several demographic groups in Appalachia during their journey towards betterment.

As Appalachia was primarily a single-family farming economy based upon self-subsistence, land was an important factor in production, social status, and employment. Essentially, the diversity of racial and class experiences in the region was obscured by the focus on poor white families rather than on the economic changes placing these families in poverty, and thus relegating them to lower class citizenship, in the first place. Racial identities of non-whites have been systemically erased through the popular image of the mountain hillbilly and Appalachian poverty with which it appears inextricably linked. By recognizing that Appalachia was made up of a diversity of race and classes positions, it means that the historical and structural intersection of class, poverty, and race needs full examination. The Great Depression of the 1930s began a decade earlier when the industrial systems, in the form of coal mining, timber camps, and mineral extraction jobs, which had lured thousands both off their mountain farms and thousands of others to the mountains themselves, collapsed under overproduction and increasingly outsourced competition.

Historians must replace the monotone notions of Appalachians and their identity with complexity and varied conceptions of racial and social identities to clearly grasp the issue of poverty in Appalachia, as well as the role it plays in the negative class identity associated with the region. Indeed, there has been an attachment to Appalachia as a place of Anglo-agrarianism, preserving the nation’s roots in the face of immigration and post-slavery, for decades. Local elites in Appalachia used this national romanticism to self-promote instead of identifying with or advocating for regional assistance. So, the question we must ask as historians is if we are to truly see the opportunity to exist for upward mobility in Appalachia, must we first destroy the negative connotations associated with both race and poverty in Appalachia? The answer is certainly yes.

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