Rural Worlds Lost

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Jack Temple Kirby. Rural Worlds Lost: The American South 1920-1960. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1987. pp. 390. ISBN 0-8071-1300-X.



In his book Rural World’s Lost: The American South 1920-1960, Jack Kirby argues that the rural south did not significantly change economically and culturally between the 1870’s and 1920. Transformation finally occurred between 1920 and 1960 as a result of the deliberate restructuring of southern agricultural economies through the implementation of federal subsidies, modern agricultural techniques, and government regulation that encouraged the formation of large “corporate” farms, coal mines and timber companies during the Great Depression and WWII. This economic transition led to wide spread migration to the urban south and north as well as significant cultural change for rural communities and the individuals who remained. Although Kirby acknowledges that there were many benefits to this change, he emphasizes individual suffering as well as the sense of loss felt by many communities in the rural south.

His narrative walks the reader through the structural change in agriculture and the resulting impact on employment and community. But, he highlights that these changes had different results at different times depending on region. One major goal of his book is to emphasize the diverse cultures of the south and refute the overgeneralized idea of a single southern white culture. To do this, Kirby divides the south into four main sub-regions based on race, geography and livelihoods.

First, he describes the predominantly African American “plantation south” which was dependent on outside capital and markets and consisted of plantations owned by white planters and worked mainly by African American sharecroppers and tenant farmers. This region was the first to modernize and evict tenant farmers in favor of mechanized agricultural techniques. The second region Kirby describes is the predominantly white “poor south” which consisted of marginal land farmed by African American and white families who grew crops for their own consumption as well as small amounts of cotton for money. The third region is the “corn belt” which consisted of fruit, vegetable, grain and beef farms that were prosperous, similar to farms found in the north and almost exclusively owned by whites. Each of these three regions were in some way modern prior to 1920 due to their connection to urban markets, focus on capital or adoption of some form of mechanized farming. Unlike these other regions, the “Remote Highland South” located in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains “cannot be described as modern in any way” according to Kirby who describes this region as almost exclusively white and completely self-sufficient. Individuals in this region lived in isolated communities and grew or made almost all of what they needed. Men worked for wages only for short periods of time in order to make money for taxes and the purchase of essentials such as flour.

In describing the culture of each region, Kirby also delves deeply into the complexities of class and race during this transitional period in the south. He convincingly describes the many different ways racism and white supremacy evolved in distinct regions. He describes how formal apartheid segregation in urban areas differed significantly from the white supremacist culture of neo-plantations and the “aversive” racism (similar to that in the north) of the southern mountain regions. He also explores how the “whitening of plantation districts [in the 1930’s] exposed the colorless class basis of that old order” (p. 237).

Kirby’s narrative takes each of the four regions up to the end of the 1950’s. Despite the struggles of many communities to adapt and maintain traditional cultures, the “economies of scale and subsidy” led to the “triumph of agribusiness” (p. 360). Individuals who remained in the rural south in all four regions became completely dependent on “corporate giants, whether as commuters to industrial jobs, as woodcutters, or as chicken farmers” for their livelihoods. He describes citizens of the rural south after 1960 as “new-style rural hostages whose very existence was manipulated by forces beyond their reach and region” (p. 360). He concludes by musing, “A New South had appeared, but whether it was better than the old one was a question not easily and fairly answered” (p. 360).


Daniel Curry, Spring 2014

Jack Kirby writes a thought provoking monograph that focuses on several key themes. One theme is unintended consequences. He describes how agricultural assistance from the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was intended to help large and small farmers. Despite this intension, Kirby describes in detail how AAA subsidies encouraged owners of fragmented plantations to evict their tenants and adopt mechanized farming which minimized labor. He supports this assertion by describing how AAA legislation wrote in unenforceable directives mandating the distribution of funds to tenants on fragmented plantations. Because Kirby’s assertion is contradicted by historians such as Jordan Schwarz, who believes the AAA and other New Deal legislature intentionally encouraged the stability that came with large corporate organizations, the overall intent of the AAA regarding small farmers needs to be examined further.

A second theme is the overwhelming power of the combination of the Federal Government and large corporations. An example of this is how in mountainous regions, the Federal Government seized land to form national forests and parks. The individuals on the land were evicted and those that remained struggled to pay increased property taxes. Many were eventually forced to move when large companies opened ski resorts and wealthy families built homes in these once isolated communities. These new additions raised property values and further exacerbated the issue of taxes for poor, formerly self-sufficient farmers who were forced to sell their property and move.

Despite the overpowering sense of hopelessness these examples invoke, Kirby also explores the theme of adaptation and cultural survival. He does this through examples of entire communities relocating to urban areas and adapting to their new surroundings while simultaneously maintaining aspects of their traditional culture. He also describes how many rural southerners forced into the labor market also preserved a tradition of farming while commuting to industrial jobs. A third example is how traditional folk life survived the “systematic program of ‘cultural intervention’” (p. 224) and “fashioned several regional voices that never existed before” through music (p. 224-229).

Although Kirby reveals many contributions to the study of the rural south, Rural Worlds Lost falls short in its analysis of gender and family. Kirby touches on the subject in his description of how only men (occasionally) worked for money in the Appalachians and Ozarks. He also points out that men exclusively made moonshine, but women were integrated into the sale and consumption of the product. But, he does not delve any deeper into the subject beyond noting the practiced gender division. The subject of family is also only lightly addressed when Kirby describes how individuals interviewed by the Federal Writers Project noted that big families had become a liability with the encroachment of a capital driven economy. But, because of the wide scope of his work, this lack of analysis is understandable.

Overall, Rural Worlds Lost is an important and provocative book which forces historians to reevaluate the generally accepted periodization of the rural South after Reconstruction. His use of primary sources from the Federal Writers Project and use of comparison between regions in the south with the rural north as well as the Enclosure Movement in England is extremely effective and encourages the reader to question accepted definitions of a single southern culture.

Stephanie Seal Walters, Spring 2016

According to Kirby in _Rural Worlds Lost_ historians have failed to assess the periodization of the New South. Unlike most of the modern world, the "New" in New South did not come with mass industrialization. Additionally, even in the post Civil War and into the 20th century, the South never truely industrialized and instead remained largely agricultural (xiv). Thus, the goal of Kirby's work is to assess "the collapse of this rural southern world...and its economic systems and ways of life..." (xiv). By examining agricultural crises such as the emergence of the Mexican Boll weevil, the loss of labor, and problems on local, national, and international markets, Kirby argues that the South did not change very much from the Civil War and into the New Deal. In fact, Kirby explains that things actually got much worse for the South. However, things for the South got better after federal intervention with the implementation of the New Deal. Federal regulation with the New Deal gave farmers better support, allowed them to expand agriculture, and pulled many rural areas from the brink of extinction.

Each of Kirby's sections are based on different themes. The first is about the South during reconstruction. The South, which was suffered the loss of land and labor from the amount of people killed in the Civil War and with the abolition of slavery was in a downward spiral. Farms simply could not catch up with pre-Civil War statistics. Additionally, the South experienced "black flight" at the turn of the century, with hundreds of thousands of African American abandoning the South for the West and Northern cities.

Kirby explores different regions throughout the book including the Appalachia South, the "corn belt", The Delta, the Pine Belt, and the Atlantic coast. For each region, Kirby explains the racial diversity of each region, as well as staple crops, their relationship to urban centers, and how each region transitioned from the 1860s-1960s.

However, Kirby's assertions go far past agriculture. Instead, Kirby examines the lives of those who lived in rural communities and how the New Deal changed the lives of farmers and their families. One of the biggest implementations were health organizations that moved into the South. Women were given better chronological care in North Carolina and West Virginia--even if most refused to use it--and health clinics were opened up across the South that helped with family planning and prenatal care. Government programs were created to help provide better housing for those in poorer areas.

In his epilogue, Kirby concludes that the New Deal affected the different regions of the South in different ways. The South West seemd to do much better than the South East--which felt little to no progress (336).

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