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Southward, Ho! Grassroots Environmental History: The Southern Federal Writers' Project Life Histories as a Source Jerrold Hirsch While historians have long studied the way generations of southern leaders and intellectuals have debated the benefits of an agrarian versus an industrial way of life, the attitudes toward the environment of those who lived and worked close to the land remain much less explored. In the past southern intellectuals, arguing for an agrarian or an industrial program, have simply declared their speculations about the views of other southerners to be fact and relied on their subjective and ideologically colored observations for an understanding of the life of the ordinary folk of the South. This debate contributed to the establishment in the 1930s of the pathbreaking southern oral history program of the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project (FWP). The FWP's southern life histories program allowed ordinary southerners to join that debate and created a valuable oral history source for a study of the relationship between southern cultural, social, and environmental history. In effect, W. T. Couch, the director of the FWP southern life histories program, tried to use oral history to break out of the confines of a sterile debate confined to a small elite. The FWP interviews documented southern folklife in a way that not only illustrated the connection between different southern ways of life and various southern natural environments but also allowed ordinary southerners to offer their own perspectives on this relationship.1 Only a few historians have explored the relevance of the FWP's southern oral histories to an environmental history that would deal with the relationship between ways of organizing human labor and ways of transforming the land that Donald Worster has called the agroecosystem. Despite a plethora of excellent studies in southern women's and social history, historians of the South, like those in other areas, have not yet provided the "gender analysis of the differential effects of women and men on ecology and their differential roles in production" that Carolyn Merchant argues should be high on the agenda of historians . William Cronon has noted, "we lack ... an environmental history of southern agriculture that adequately explores the different roles of slaves and masters and poor whites in reshaping the regional landscape," despite the fact that "southern historiography is certainly rich with the materials for such an analysis." Cronon has also warned that historians "might too readily be tempted to ascribe environmental change to 'southern society ' or tobacco and cotton agriculture." He laments that "in the face of social history's classic categories of gender, race, class, and ethnicity, environmental history stands much more silent than it should." Using the FWP's southern interviews, historians can escape this silence.2 Listening to the voices captured in the FWP's life histories, one learns that those 130Southern Cultures who saw agrarianism and industrialism in the South as diametrically opposed failed to understand ordinary southerners. The process of modernization in this case, as in so many others, produced polemics that obscured complex social realities. Here, as elsewhere, the idea that modernization stripped individuals of their traditional culture took hold and hid from view the way people responded to change. These life histories indicate that, because of the ways town dwellers and textile mill village inhabitants found to use their knowledge of the land in new sunoundings, there was no sharp break between rural and urban life, farm and factory life. The more than 15,000 manuscript pages of FWP life histories offer an important source for historians interested in undertaking the history of grassroots environmental consciousness.3 In terms he conceded were "hardly in the [farmer's] vernacular," southern Agrarian John Crowe Ransom claimed in /'// Take My Stand (1930), that the southern farmer "identifies himself with a spot of ground. ... He would till it not too hurriedly and not too mechanically to observe in it the contingency and the infinitude of nature, and so his life acquires its philosophical and even its cosmic consciousness." Such Agrarian rejections of industrialism coupled with an idealization of the Old South, W. T. Couch maintained, revealed that the Agrarians merely "assert that virtue is derived from the soil, but see no virtue in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 129-136
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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