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Southern Farmers and Their Stories

Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Southern Farmers and Their Stories
    Book Description:

    The industrial expansion of the twentieth century brought with it a profound shift away from traditional agricultural modes and practices in the American South. The forces of economic modernity -- specialization, mechanization, and improved efficiency -- swept through southern farm communities, leaving significant upheaval in their wake. In an attempt to comprehend the complexities of the present and prepare for the uncertainties of the future, many southern farmers searched for order and meaning in their memories of the past. In Southern Farmers and Their Stories, Melissa Walker explores the ways in which a diverse array of farmers remember and recount the past. The book tells the story of the modernization of the South in the voices of those most affected by the decline of traditional ways of life and work. Walker analyzes the recurring patterns in their narratives of change and loss, filling in gaps left by more conventional political and economic histories of southern agriculture. Southern Farmers and Their Stories also highlights the tensions inherent in the relationship between history and memory. Walker employs the concept of "communities of memory" to describe the shared sense of the past among southern farmers. History and memory converge and shape one another in communities of memory through an ongoing process in which shared meanings emerge through an elaborate alchemy of recollection and interpretation. In her careful analysis of more than five hundred oral history narratives, Walker allows silenced voices to be heard and forgotten versions of the past to be reconsidered. Southern Farmers and Their Stories preserves the shared memories and meanings of southern agricultural communities not merely for their own sake but for the potential benefit of a region, a nation, and a world that has much to learn from the lessons of previous generations of agricultural providers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7150-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-36)

    Texan Leota Kuykendall explained, “Farm life of later years became like a factory in town really. It was a totally different kind of farm life.” Interviewed in 1992, Kuykendall offered a detailed description of the changes in southern agriculture since her 1936 birth. As she outlined the impact of specialization, mechanization, and expansion on farm families, Kuykendall was not sure that twentieth-century transformations constituted progress for farm people. She said, “I believe, personally, that the farm life of my childhood had more potential for a lot more personal fulfillment than the farm life of the later years. Even my own...

  5. Chapter One Three Southern Farmers Tell Their Stories
    (pp. 37-76)

    Ruth Hatchette McBrayer operated a peach orchard in South Carolina for nearly forty years, but the white landowner gave up peach farming in the mid-1980s. She explained, “I about stayed in peaches too long. . . . It was costing me too much. In the beginning, I counted 25 percent for expenses and 75 percent profit. Then it got to 50 [percent for expenses], then to 60, then it got to 75, then it was break even, and then it was going the other way, so it was time to quit. Past time to quit for me. Because it’s too...

  6. Chapter Two Rural Southerners and the Community of Memory
    (pp. 77-116)

    Black North Carolina sharecropper Susie Weathersbee told an interviewer, “And when I come up, I was a farmer. . . . And that’s all I ever done, any work on a farm.” Arthur Little, the son of a prosperous white landowner in Catawba County, North Carolina, concurred. Little was born on a 250-acre cotton farm. College-educated, he farmed for five years as an adult and then became an accountant and a glove-factory owner. He told an interviewer that all of his brothers and sisters “farmed as a main occupation” even though most worked full-time as textile industry owners and managers....

  7. Chapter Three Memory and the Nature of Transformation
    (pp. 117-138)

    During the twentieth century, waves of change buffeted agriculture. Rural southerners fill their narratives of rural transformation with details about dramatic alterations in the way daily farmwork was done, descriptions of an evolving agricultural economy, and information about a changing countryside. Rural southerners may have shared a community of memory, but their accounts of transformation varied widely by gender, race, class, and especially generation. The accounts of farmers who came of age before World War II (those born before 1920, about one-third of the sample used in this study) and those who entered adulthood during or after the war are...

  8. Chapter Four Memory and the Meaning of Change
    (pp. 139-176)

    Rural southerners’ narratives of change are peopled with villains and victims as well as heroes. Some stories are rich and complex; others are flat and one-dimensional. While their descriptions of change reveal the forces that they believed were driving transformation, their analytical and interpretive comments reveal the meanings that they gave that transformation. For the transformation of the rural South did not mean the same things to all members of the rural community of memory. The prewar generation of white landless and landowning farmers frequently saw rural transformation as the source of new choices and new opportunities for better lives...

  9. Chapter Five The Present Shapes Stories about the Past
    (pp. 177-222)

    Stories that southerners tell about life on the land in the twentieth century tell us much about the common experiences of farm people and about the meanings they ascribed to rural transformation, but they tell us more than that. In the late twentieth century, in the words of historian Ted Ownby, “[T]raditional identities rooted in ruralfamiliesgave way to new identities of urbanizingindividuals[emphasis in original].”¹ As rural southerners confronted sweeping changes in the ways they viewed themselves and their world, they experienced tensions and anxieties that found voice in their autobiographical narratives. As dozens of examples throughout...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 223-230)

    Rural southerners who told their life stories late in the twentieth century knew that a way of life was passing. The transformation of agriculture undermined farm people’s ties to the past—indeed their very sense of themselves. Through their memory stories, they sought a kind of redemption, a restoration of a sense that their lives and their way of life had mattered. They described transformations in ways calculated to give meaning to their losses. Their stories reflect their struggles to define the significance of farming and rural life once it was transformed.

    Farm people constructed a community of memory around...

  11. Appendix One Demographic Data
    (pp. 231-236)
  12. Appendix Two List of Interviewees
    (pp. 237-254)
  13. Appendix Three Interviews
    (pp. 255-280)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 281-304)
  15. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 305-318)
  16. Index
    (pp. 319-324)