The Poor White in Transition

Article excerpt

That sociological phenomenon, the Southern poor white, has been an object of interest and curiosity to almost every writer from William Byrd onward who has seriously considered social classes in the South. Ante-bellum writers North and South described an almost mythic creature when they wrote about the poor white: a being--the legend had it--descended from inferior stock, pushed off the good land back into the pine barrens; gaunt, hollow-eyed, subsisting on whatever he could shoot or trap, and not averse to eating clay. To the Southwest humorist, the poor white was a less mythic, more immediate figure--a hard-drinking, eye-gouging, easily duped barbarian who by contrast made the semi-respectable Southerner all the more genteel. The poor white was relatively neglected by Southern writers of the late nineteenth century, but at the turn of the century he was rediscovered by outside journalists, social workers, and public health teams--who announced that, after all, his slovenliness and inertia were due not to his inferior racial stock but rather to his diet and environment. Shortly afterward, in the twenties, he was rediscovered by writers of fiction, and has been a prominent figure in Southern fiction and mythology ever since. Modern South-watchers have been careful to point out that not all economically deprived Southern whites qualify as "poor whites"--that is, that there is a category best called "plain white" that was all too often ignored by ante-bellum commentators, and that the plain white, no matter how materially deprived, can be distinguished from the poor white by his greater industriousness, his dignity, his pride, his potential upward mobility. The plain white is often poor, that is, but he is not grotesque and depraved.

The poor white, in one sense, has been the last Southern holdout, the one Southerner who has not been romanticized or at least had not been before the mid-twentieth century. The planter and the Negro were both idealized, albeit in different ways, in nineteenth-century fiction. The plain white's day came somewhat later, but historian Frank L. Owsley in his Plain Folk of the Old South (1949) did for the plain white--or the antebellum yeoman farmer--what John Esten Cooke and Thomas Nelson Page had done for the planter. The Agrarians--at least some of them--and William Faulkner also celebrated the virtues of the "plain white." Only the poor white, then, continued to be seen "realistically," which meant negatively and critically, devoid of glamour or saving grace--negatively, that is, until about the nineteen-sixties when even the poor white achieved a certain eminence. Tom Wolfe may have been writing as much about plain as poor white in his 1965 Esquire essay on stock car hero Junior Johnson, but many of the qualities Wolfe found and celebrated in the hollows and gulches of Wilkes County, North Carolina, were precisely those qualities which previously had been associated with and deplored in the Southern poor white--crudeness, recklessness, hillbilly insolence, irreverence for law (home-brewing, moonshine-running, and serving time in prison), and contempt for authority. If the Southern poor white has not yet arrived with Wolfe's essay and with the recent vogue for country music, evangelical religion, unkempt dress, and stock car racing, at least he does not occupy the onerous position he once did.

All of this is in way of introduction to a consideration of a book which treats a rather limited aspect of the Southern poor white. Sylvia Jenkins Cook's From Tobacco Road to Route 66 is concerned not with the total picture of the poor white but rather with his treatment in Southern literature of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Her scope is narrow, too narrow perhaps, but her treatment is sound and perceptive. After a brief introductory chapter in which she traces the development of the poor white tradition in Southern letters, she discusses several Southern pioneer realists of the twenties--Edith Summers Kelley, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and T. …