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J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 8 63 Reading Southern Poverty Between the Wars, 1918–1939. Edited by Richard Godden and Martin Crawford. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006. xvi, 264 pp. $39.95. ISBN 0-8203-2708-5. Like most European conferences devoted to American studies, a 2000 gathering at Keele University, United Kingdom, produced an anthology that focuses loosely on a single subject. Also characteristic of such conferences spawned by American Studies departments abroad, this one combines both American and European scholars from various disciplines , led by literature and history. The essays loosely fall into three categories: six were written by literary critics, seven by historians, and one by a scholar of photography. The result for American readers is always ambivalent: they gain insights from unfamiliar perspectives; because some perspectives are unfamiliar , they may find them uninteresting. For instance, social scientists and those interested in history may find literary criticism that projects contemporary issues of gender and sexuality on novels written half a century earlier to be presumptuous and unconvincing. Literary scholars and students may find the fact-driven narrative of historians stale and stultifying. Many of the essays are the product of a lifetime of scholarship, such as the one by the late British historian Stuart Kidd, who explores the famous Farm Security Administration photographs of the southern poor. He describes how “documentary journalism” created a new genre of photography during the 1930s and popularized the “sharecropper narrative” of American life (consider, for instance, the stunning photographs made by Walker Evans in Hale County, Alabama, some of which appeared in James Agee’s tortured Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Boston, 1941). Two of the most interesting essays deal with Alabama topics. My favorite essay was by James C. Giesen of the University of Georgia. His insightful essay on the making and unmaking of black Alabama sharecropper Nate Shaw/Ned Cobb is the most original in the collection. He carefully dissects the way author Theodore Rosengarten, who won a National Book Award for his oral history of the radical Alabamian from the 1930s (All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, New York, 1974), actually crafted, rearranged, and left out of the text materials that might have led to different conclusions about the way Cobb actually maneuvered successfully within a market-driven economy. The result was a book, now considered an epic, that is not entirely biography, autobiography, memoir, or even oral history. T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 64 The other essay partly focused on Alabama is Ted Ownby’s essay about three agrarians in the 1930s who celebrated ruralism in the South. Two of the three have Alabama connections, Herman C. Nixon, a native of Calhoun County and an Auburn graduate, and author James Agee. Ownby captures the essence of Agee’s naïve optimism and romanticism about staple-crop agriculture and the people who practiced it. But his discussion of Nixon is disappointing. He describes Alabamian Frank L. Owsley as the only historian among the twelve Agrarians who authored the famous 1930 manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (New York, 1930). But Nixon also authored an essay in the volume, and he had three history degrees—two from Auburn and a PhD from the University of Chicago. As Nixon’s biographer Sarah N. Shouse has noted in Hillbilly Realist (Tuscaloosa, 1986), Nixon was the most conflicted of the Agrarians, wrestling throughout his career with the contradictions of the South’s rural economy. He both celebrated the values of ruralism and worked for more vigorous federal intervention. He served as director of the New Deal Louisiana Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, chairman of the Southern Policy Commission (which favored government ownership of natural resources and public utilities, as well as socialized medicine), and as secretary of the left-of-center Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Nixon’s agrarianism was quite a different variety than Agee’s and W. J. Cash’s (see The Mind of the South, Garden City, N. Y., 1941). Other essays that I found particularly interesting, though they touched little if at all on Alabama, were Vivien Miller...


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