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

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Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History. By Melissa Walker. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Pp. xiv, 324; $45, cloth.)

In this work, Melissa Walker examines over five hundred oral histories of farmers in the American South. From the agrarian Jeffersonian age forward, the farmer has symbolized independence, "clean living," and a connection with the natural world and its ecology. As Walker points out, misunderstandings of the historical significance of southern farmers are prevalent in both the pre-existing and contemporary literature. The author not only deconstructs misconceptions surrounding southern farmers and their past and present place in American society, but also, through their voices and an effective narrative, goes a long way toward painting a clearer image of farming in the twentieth-century South.

In her introductory chapter, Walker writes that "the very act of telling stories about the past is a way of making meaning-of interpreting and explaining" (p. 2). The stories rural southerners tell about changes in their lives and in the countryside are rooted in memory, a memory forged through the experiences of a lifetime. Walker (and David Blight before her) argue that memory cannot be completely detached from history and that we must "learn to explore the meaning of the memory and incorporate that exploration" into historical writing (p. 3). Walker's book provides a case study in how ordinary people construct and use memories about the personal and national past in their daily lives. The author canvasses rural southerners' stories about the social and economic transformation they experienced in the twentieth century. Her study seeks to answer three questions: what experiences formed rural southerners' sense of a shared past; how do they remember rural transformation; and what do rural southerners' stories regarding change tell us about how people utilize memories and knowledge of the past to make sense of the world in which they live today. Through her study, Walker found that rural people across the South-the largest numbers of her interviewees were from Alabama, Texas, and North Carolina-shared a similar "mental map of the boundaries of their community of memory" (p. 4). However, the author writes that stories and memories of the past were divergent and dissonant in the recounting of twentieth-century transformations in southern agriculture.

Southern Farmers and Their Stories demonstrates that oral historical methods can and should be used in exploring the process of constructing historical memory. Interviews by Walker and others clearly highlight that people connect personal experience with the larger historical context, and they indeed use historical memory to interpret their lives and the world around them. Not only are oral histories under-utilized (even under-appreciated) by historians, they can often serve as correctives to larger historical problems or oversimplifications. Many of the people quoted in this work share idealized memories of life on the land and pride in self-sufficiency. However, to generalize the romantic nature of rural Uf e would be a mistake; Walker and her interviewees make it clear that not all remember farming and rural life fondly. Oral histories like these provide a voice for traditionally marginalized ethnic or gender groups. …