From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction

From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction

From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction

From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction

Synopsis

In the early nineteenth century, the southern poor white had a reputation for comic vulgarity and absurd violence; postbellum writers saw him as a quaint peasant; the 1920s transformed him into a revolutionary proletarian. Of the literary treatments discussed, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath emerges as a skillful compromise of documentary accuracy and political daring by reviving the tradition of degeneracy.

Originally published in 1976.

Excerpt

The southern poor white is one of America's oldest and most enduring folk figures. His image is an elusive one, compounded of popular prejudice, a rich literary tradition, and myriad sociological investigations; but most typically it derives from the alliance of extreme material deprivation with slyness, sloth, absurd folly, and random violence. The actual prevalence of people of this nature in the South has long been a sore point with the region's defenders, who have argued persistently and convincingly that the vast majority of the white population there neither are, nor have been, wealthy exploiters or miserable trash. Instead they emphasize the "plain folk," "sturdy yeomen," and "good old boys": expressions that suggest solidity and self-sufficiency rather than shiftlessness and want. However, the fascination of poor whites has never lain in the magnitude of their numbers. Originating in the familiar ethnic and cultural background of the Anglo-Saxon pioneers who settled the South, they represent the obverse reflection of the most revered values of that tradition; their curious, alien, and debased lives challenge all complacency about such an inheritance. Poor whites, by their capacity to provoke both compassion and ridicule, have provided a perennial stimulus to the artistic consciousness and social conscience alike. These, in turn, have constantly reshaped and redefined their qualities in response to both personal and public imperatives.

The poor whites' recorded history stretches back at least to the early eighteenth century, and a partial listing of the various synonyms by which they have been known indicates not only their diverse geographic distribution but also their changing characteristics and occupations: lubbers, crackers, dirt eaters, woolhats, river rats, piney-woods tackies, po buckra, sandhillers, hillbillies, tarheels, lintheads, and factory rats. The attributes implied by these names are not necessarily consistent. The difficulty of discovering any satisfactory synthesis of qualities that compose the term "poor . . .

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