Reclaiming the American Farmer: The Reinvention of a Regional Mythology in Twentieth-Century Southern Writing

By Conlogue, William | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming the American Farmer: The Reinvention of a Regional Mythology in Twentieth-Century Southern Writing


Conlogue, William, Southern Quarterly


Reclaiming the American Farmer: The Reinvention of a Regional Mythology in Twentieth-Century Southern Writing. By Mary Weaks-Baxter. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. 200 pp. Cloth: $42.95, ISBN: 0-8071-3129-6.)

In Reclaiming the American Farmer, Mary Weaks-Baxter argues that writers of the Southern Literary Renaissance (1900-1960) replaced the myth of the cavalier, which had dominated southern literature since before the Civil War, with the myth of the yeoman farmer. She goes so far as to assert that the yeoman myth became the "driving force in the literature of the [twentieth] century" in the South (11). In rediscovering Thomas Jefferson's definition of the nation as a country populated by small freeholders, writers opened a space in southern literature to address in fresh ways issues of race, class, and gender.

Nodding to the South's distinct geographies, Weaks-Baxter surveys the work of writers from across the region: Ellen Glasgow, the Nashville Agrarians, Jean Toomer, Olive Dargan, ZoraNeale Hurston, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Arnow, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and two Faulkner scholars, M.E. Bradford and Elmo Howell. In her book's conclusion, she glances at the work of Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Madison Smartt Bell, Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, Dori Sanders, and Bobbie Ann Mason. That these authors all emphasize hope and renewal is, for Weaks-Baxter, a manifestation of their writings' attention to the yeoman myth.

Although the yeoman and cavalier myths competed for prominence in the early nineteenth century, the South gradually invested itself in the mythology of the plantation in an attempt to legitimize slavery, the foundation of the region's economic system. Describing and perpetuating a vision of the South as dominated by wealthy, white males, the cavalier myth relegated African Americans, women, and the poor to the margins of southern history and culture. The myth justified the enslavement of blacks, isolated white southern women on a pedestal, and divided white males into plantation owners and "white trash." Following the Civil War, the myth elided issues of race by blaming the war and the South's postwar misfortunes on northern industrialization. As Weaks-Baxter points out, the argument that northern aggression erased the harmony of the Old South ignored the plight of southern women, the horrors of slavery, and the lived experience of people caught up in the sharecropping system after the war. Grounded in defeat and nostalgia, the cavalier myth held no promise for twentieth-century southern writers seeking to understand southern history and culture in new and varied ways.

Bound up with the founding of the nation, the yeoman myth offered southern writers a way to "recover a usable past" (6). Weaks-Baxter argues that they understood the myth as a frame of mind through which the South could shed its post-bellum sense of isolation, which the cavalier myth had perpetuated. In this spirit, southern modernists created characters "modeled after the Jeffersonian ideal of the democratic American who gains individual strength, sustenance, and social and political power through a relationship with the soil" (7). By embracing the yeoman myth, some writers believed, the South could give back to the United States its roots, which it had largely forgotten in the run up to the Civil War and in its headlong postwar industrialization. …

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