“I am interested in how people get kicked off land,” writes Fordham University history Prof. Steven Stoll in the preface to his “Ramp Hollow.”

He’s talking about dispossession — how a half-century ago an English peasant suffered the same fate as many dwellers on the land do today, in Africa, in India and in places such as Ramp Hollow, W. Va.

In “Ramp Hollow,” on the turn of a dime, one loses the status of heroic settler, taming the wild for the sake of progress, to become the blot on the landscape sitting on top of a coal seam. Or the American Indians become heroic, an icon of the nation’s history, once their land has been taken out from under them.

Stoll writes like he is taking a leisurely punt down the River Cam, but each sentence contains a little (or a great) item of value. He is a marginalian’s nightmare.

The cruel river of dispossession guides the story. But Stoll poles off into side streams to explore entire ecosystems, always accompanied by the surrounding circumstances that make a space a place.

Or he gets into the intricacies of laws leading up to the Dawes and Homestead acts that robbed Indians of their treaty lands.

He is also interested in explaining the whole, grinding, centuries-long, place-specific, nonlinear movement from one mode of production and social relations to another. Here, that would be feudalism to capitalism. But it wasn’t inevitable, no matter what David Hume, Adam Smith and Karl Marx tell us. Stoll himself favors “democratic socialism and a reinvention of the nation-state as a conduit for meeting human needs rather than for the accumulation of capital.”

“Ramp Hollow” is a perfect example of a perfectly good mode of production: the household as a closed loop, the members growing and eating their own food, raising livestock for food and wool, plants for hemp and cotton, and surplus used to trade or sell for other necessities.

This lifeway was bullied off the land because there was gold under the people’s fields — gold in the form of coal, coal to drive industry and profit. Capitalism requires the increasing accumulation of wealth, not some hayseed system of self-sufficiency. Stoll is sharp as a tack delineating how this process of dispossession has evolved over half a millennium.

The book is a masterpiece of panoramic history. It follows as the Black Plague, the Little Ice Age (which at 500-plus years must not have seemed so “little” to those in its midst), the acts of enclosure and the state taking ultimate ownership through eminent domain.

As for Appalachia, “this is how a fierce and mobile people served the interests of the United States,” he writes. “Their unsanctioned seizure of a contested frontier justified the expansion of American authority.”

This is Manifest Destiny. But once the settling was done, well, “mountain people knew how to soldier and hunt, track an animal or an enemy through the woods. But few of them could organize against an act of legislature or to stop a clear-cut.”

They learned that for some there is never enough, if you have the right friends and the right mode of production behind you.

 

Peter Lewis is the book review editor at the Geographical Review. He lives in New York state.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia
By: Steven Stoll.
Publisher: Hill & Wang, 410 pages, $30.