A Question of Class: The Redneck Stereotype in Southern Fiction

By Duane Carr | Go to book overview
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5

The New South and the Forgotten People

During the Civil War, the various classes of the South were brought together through sheer circumstance, creating what many editorialists in the postwar period believed was a democratic spirit engendered by a common cause. Others of a more conservative persuasion felt the war proved the social order that had existed in the Old South was valid, that the aristocrats, as officers, had proven themselves worthy of the top spot in the hierarchy through bravery, endurance, and leadership, and that the lower classes had been happy to follow their lead. This view was promoted as late as 1962 by historian Richard M. Weaver (246-53).

Neither theory, however, proved to be right. Bell Irvin Wiley, through research into contemporary sources, uncovered a great deal of resentment and bitterness during the war on the part of the poor toward the aristocrats. This, he says, was due to two primary causes: the law that exempted owners of twenty slaves or more from military service, and the exempted slaveowners' habit of hoarding foodstuffs while the wives and children of conscripted poor farmers were on the verge of starvation. One such wife was prompted to complain that her husband was fighting for nothing except "for his family to starve" (64-68).

Nonetheless, a number of southerners, no doubt looking for signs of hope in those devastating years after the war, got themselves to believe not only that a democratic leveling had taken place during the war but that the war's aftermath had actually created an "economic democracy" in which the plantation system had broken down into a "New Order"—a process Sidney Lanier called the "quiet rise of the small farms." Supposedly these farms were happily tended, not by "poor whites," but rather by that picturesque figure celebrated by later southern apologists, the "yeoman farmer."

But, as C. Vann Woodward has pointed out, this rosy picture of a new Jeffersonian democracy was more myth than reality. In truth, "the evils of land monopoly, absentee ownership, soil

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A Question of Class: The Redneck Stereotype in Southern Fiction
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