Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920.
In Transforming the Appalachian Countryside, a major scholar of Appalachian history has brought together, synthesized and made sense of much of the debate and literature that have characterized the field of Appalachian history for the past two decades. Ron Lewis has examined the transformation of Appalachia from a "rural agricultural society ... to a twentieth century society denuded of the forest and fully enmeshed in capitalism and the markets." As he makes very clear, this is a story that involves much more than a study of the timber and lumber industry as it developed from local, small-scale operations to a powerful industry controlled from afar. The development of this industry was inextricably involved with railroad building, urban growth, creation of a wage labor class, the decline of agriculture, as well as changes in political, legal and social structures. Not since Ron Eller's book Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers has there been such a comprehensive narrative and analysis of the changes wrought in Appalachia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Let me delineate some of the ways that Lewis has contributed to synthesizing and sharpening of the issues that have been debated over the last twenty years in Appalachian history. First, he takes for granted that Appalachia was and is connected to the rest of the United States and the world through both commerce and culture--thus putting the final nail in the coffin of isolationism as the cause of Appalachian cultural characteristics. Lewis acknowledges the now voluminous scholarship, which documents these connections, especially the recent book by Wilma Dunaway which ties the changes in Appalachian society to the expansion of European capitalism. Yet, while acknowledging these links, Lewis is sensitive to the historical changes in those connections over time. By his analysis, Lewis shows that herding stock, digging ginseng and floating logs downstream to nearby towns are not equal in economic scale to the massive changes wrought by railroads and corporate control of the timber industry. This, I think, is th e strength of his analysis of the economic and political connections of Appalachia to the rest of the country.
Second, Lewis summarizes and evaluates the debate over the transition to capitalism in Appalachia. Although clearly not denying that market forces were at work in Appalachia long before the intensive industrial development of the late nineteenth century, Lewis, rightly in my view, argues that there was an undeniable "escalation" (52) in capitalist development which "profoundly altered life for most people in the state." (52) He also brings a refreshingly sensible approach to the analysis of mentality, especially in his analysis of the County Seat Wars. In his discussion of "old men" vs. "new men", Lewis clearly analyzes the political and ideological stances of these men, attributing them, not to some inherent world view committed to egalitarian and communal values but, rather, to the situation in which they found themselves, geographically, socially, and politically.
A third area is the effect of the Civil War on Appalachia. By now we have had numerous studies, including those by Paul Salstrom, Ken Noe and Robert Tracy Mackenzie, which demonstrate that the Civil War was not the primary cause of the economic downfall of Appalachia in the post war period. We now know that agricultural decline in the region began before the Civil War and thus, the turn to attempts at small-scale lumbering and other industrial ventures came from within the region in an attempt to counter that decline. We also know that there was significantly more Confederate and Democratic sentiment in the mountains than perviously thought. Lewis builds on the work of many scholars to thresh out the argument.
Lewis's analysis of the politics of statehood in West Virginia closely follows the political economy of class as well as party and he further builds on this in his brilliant analysis of the County Seat Wars. As in the rest of the United States, class and economic interests superseded older political loyalties. In fact, Lewis s arguments about a capitalism that is not imposed from outside but emerges from the existence of a middle class urban based elite in conflict with rural farmers is an excellent synthesis of the "two Appalachia's" that Mary Beth Pudup, David Hsiung and myself have illustrated in localized areas of Appalachia. However, I do like the way in which Lewis makes clear that despite the existence of a capitalist mentality within the region, the most dramatic movement to a more exploitative capitalist society and culture came from without. That is, there were not the financial resources within Appalachia for indigenous develoment.
In my estimation the best part of this book is Lewis's chapter on the legal system in West Virginia in comparison to Virginia. Drawing on the work of legal historians Hurst and Horowitz, Lewis, in what I believe is the most original contribution of this book, traces legal cases relating to agrarian vs. Railroad interests and finds that West Virginia abandons the common law-natural rights tradition much more quickly than Virginia. However, despite debates over timing and questions as to why West Virginia and not Virginia took these steps, I find Lewis's marshalling of legal cases and his examination of the lives and values of particular jurists most persuasive.
Despite my general admiration for this book, there are some issues that I would like to have seen addressed, especially given the recent plethora of scholarship in such areas as gender and environmental history. As historians such as Bill Cronon have shown, nothing is static, not even nature. In particular, indigenous populations had an important role in shaping and re-shaping the environment even when they had no permanent settlement upon the land. Thus, the modern yearning for wilderness, untouched and unchanging, is a social construction, a phenomenon that emerges only because urban places seem so artificial and distanced from the natural landscape. Lewis does not give us much of a hint about the changing landscape before European "resettlement" and the uses of the forests by indigenous peoples. Similarly, in the conclusion of this book, Lewis's discussion of "restoration" applauds the efforts of conservationists and preservationists who are, by and large, attempting to create (not restore) a wilderness e nvironment for consumption by middle class and elite sportsmen and tourists. In short, Lewis accepts the declension and revival model too readily.
Finally, gender is nowhere employed as a category of analysis in this book. Despite the fact that nature is always constructed as having gender and referred to as "she" and that industrial exploitation in Appalachia routinely involved the destruction of household economies in favor of all male communities such as lumber camps, Lewis does not analyze the ways in which gender shaped the small farm economies of the early nineteenth century or the rowdy and sometimes violent world of lumber camps and coal towns. Stephanie McCurry, in Masters of Small Worlds, has demonstrated how political, religious and social structures and ideologies predicated on gender relations were central to the rural South. Far from being tangential to Lewis's focus, I believe that cultural constructions of gender may help explain the ways in which the geographic as well as the political landscapes were transformed.
These are relatively minor criticisms, however, and do not detract from my admiration for a very fine book that will be of enormous use to Appalachian historians in the future.
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|Author:||Waller, Altina L.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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