Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Cultivating Success in the South: Farm Households in the Postbellum Era

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Cultivating Success in the South: Farm Households in the Postbellum Era

Article excerpt

Cultivating Success in the South: Farm Households in the Postbellum Era. By Louis A. Ferleger and John D. Metz. Cambridge Studies on the American South. (New York and other cities: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 206. $93.00, ISBN 978-1-107-05411-0.)

After a wide-eyed southern tour in 1924, New York journalist Frank Tannenbaum declared with horror that "[t]he beautiful, sunny South is afflicted with a plague, a white plague--cotton." The tyranny of this "single crop," he observed, caused "not only the poverty of the mral community" and "the low standards of living" but also the "laziness, near-peonage, monotonous diet and its influence upon ... lack of proper schooling" in the entire region (Darker Phases of the South [New York, 1924], 116, 117).

Though Tannenbaum's muckraking account was sensationalist, few scholars today would disagree with its basic narrative: that between Reconstruction and the New Deal, cotton's grip on the South vastly expanded, pulling in former yeomen and freedpeople and submerging them in tenancy, dependency, malnutrition, and stagnant poverty. Louis A. Ferleger and John D. Metz's meticulous new study seeks to explode such monolithic portrayals of the postbellum South. Analyzing the Georgia Piedmont counties of Jasper, Franklin, and Crawford between 1880 and 1910, Ferleger and Metz describe a cotton belt sharply distinct from Tannenbaum's: a dynamic place of innovation, investment, consumerism, and indeed success among smallholding farmers.

Providing the evidence for this unorthodox argument are previously overlooked primary sources: probate inventories, the seemingly mundane registries of property owned by deceased individuals. Ferleger and Metz have compiled a database of 228 estates across their three counties and mine it both quantitatively and qualitatively. Though hardly dismissing the existence of poverty or dependence, the authors find a wide diversity of experiences. Cotton indeed expanded its acreage after the Civil War, but it was often complemented by small grains that enabled a surprising degree of self-sufficiency. Small farmers were "shrewd consumers who focused on acquiring those things that would give them a productive edge," most often agricultural implements that promised to maximize their output and independence (p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.