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The Land of Cotton

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

History of Agriculture in the Southern  United Stales to IH60, By l,<-wis Cecil Cray. WashiiiKlon: The CanicK.e  liis.ilii.ioM of Wa »liiii «loii. 2 vols. $6.25, Human Geography of the South.  Hy Unpen M. Vance. Chapel Hill: The University of Norlh Carolina I’rcsH.  $4.00.

Somehow it has always been found exceedingly difficult to portray in satisfying form the historic life of the South—or, for that matter, the contemporary life of the South. There have been various general treatises and numerous special studies—histories, biographies, novels, travel diaries, political diatribes, collections of documents— but few have attempted to give a comprehensive picture which is at once true in detail and in all proportions. Despite the substantial homogeneity and a large degree of cohesion in the economic and cultural life of the states which fall in the South, it is no easy task to evaluate those intangible factors which make it, in the words of Count Keyser-ling, “the one region of America which has a general cultural atmosphere in a broad sense.” We try in vain to measure in quantitative terms the love of individualism which from the beginning has been a predominant characteristic of the region, and which has been defined as a “certain gentility of spirit, a sense of romance, a capacity for enthusiasm, a habit of leisure.”

Both Lewis C. Gray’s “History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 18(10” and Rupert P. Vance’s “Human Geography in the South” are notable contributions on the historical development and present status of the South. The two volumes by Mr. Gray arc the product of careful research for more than twenty years in the history of Southern agriculture from the early settlements to the year 1800. The work, however, is much more than a chronicle of technical agriculture. It is a much broader study than is indicated by the title; for the author has not failed to leave the main highway for many side journeys into economic and social history as well. The original plan of the work was intended to correspond with the “History of Northern Agriculture,” prepared and published in 1925 by Percy W. Bid well and John I. Falconer. Yet it should be said that the latter investigation is far less extensive and complete than that of its Southern counterpart. Dr. Gray’s book is a mine of information, presented in simple and lucid style, which will long be consulted as a reference work of the first rank. Above all, it is a synthesis which, perhaps more than any other work covering the ante-bellum period, gives a “basis for integrating a mental picture with the degree of accuracy essential to clear thinking.”

A searching analysis of the conditions under which colonial and pre-war farming developed is especially important because of the acknowledged need for a general reconstruction of Southern agriculture at the present time. It is an agriculture which from the beginning has been subject to the wide fluctuations of a one-crop system. From early times it has been peculiarly dependent upon foreign markets. Should there be a further recession in these markets, as appears likely under the present trend toward an isolationist policy, it is obvious that the production of cotton, tobacco, apples, and other crops of less consequence, must be materially curtailed. While it seems inconceivable that the spirit of nationalism should again become the governing motif of the world, the South must in any event make radical adjustments in her methods of farming.

Possibly it will come through large-scale operations, under unified management, and through more adequate methods of marketing. Mr. Gray’s book affords a background for a better understanding of the problems now existent. Much light is thrown on the subject of planned economy and that of land utilization. As the introductory note points out, the colonial period in the South is “rich in examples of governmental control” of agricultural production and marketing.

There are various more or less controversial matters, the treatment of which is strikingly effective. Thus the notion has been implanted that the typical form of agriculture in the South was the highly commercialized plantation, in contrast with the thrifty farmer in the North who, like the “English yeoman of the seventeenth century,” was an active worker with his own hands. Mr. Gray has mustered convincing proof to show that, although the slave plantation was of outstanding importance, the great majority of Southern people were “neither large planters nor poor whites,” but were of the middle class and lived on small farms. While the economic disadvantages of slavery are well-known, emphasis is placed on the lack of uniformity of progress in the South, as a result of the high capitalization of the labor supply and the inhibition against the easy movement from one section to another. Hence the westward migration was highly disastrous to the older states.

In “Human Geography of the South,” Mr. Vance has made a critical though sympathetic examination of the South’s regional resources and the adequacy of the population in their development. The word “adequacy” is taken as a sort of yardstick by which to measure the accomplishments of the people—the ability to “master the resources” of the region and “to develop thereon a distinctive and competent culture.” Since the object of the author is to “give a synthetic treatment of the interaction of men and nature,” a considerable portion of the text is properly concerned with historical perspective.

While it is not Mr. Vance’s purpose to strike a note of pessimism or to make invidious distinctions, he is nevertheless compelled to face the fact that statistical indices of almost every sort—wealth and income, education, health, law and order, cultural achievement—give the Southern states the “lowest rankings in the Union.” To what may this unenviable standing of a whole group of states, territorially compact, be attributed? Is it the result of a paucity of natural resources, unfavorable climatic factors, barriers in transportation, or other physical causes? It is scarcely possible to find the explanation in any of these factors unless it be that of climate, which, however, is a mooted point. Furthermore, the author is not inclined to accept the view, now passing, that the South’s backwardness is the result of biological depletion in the upper classes during the Civil War. The real reason, he finds, lies in the fact that the South was founded in a system of colonial economy from which it has never really escaped. The essential fact in such an economy is the “over-exploitation of natural resources without the accumulation of capital goods to take their place.” It is an extractive system for which there is no real quid pro quo either in wealth or welfare.

One may wonder whether in this conclusion Mr. Vance may not to some extent have begged the whole question, but that is not to doubt the scholarly treatment that he has given and the importance of his book. Suffice it to say that, from the tragic history of the past, he seeks for an emergence into a more rational and better balanced economy. Both of these masterful works should be read and pondered by all of those who long to see the manifest destiny of the South realized in a more ideal fulfillment.


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