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MATTHEW LESSIG SUNY Cortland Mongrel Virginia: Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground and the Curse of Tenancy IN HER 1925 NOVEL BARREN GROUND, ELLEN GLASGOW CAMPAIGNS FOR A modernized South, rejecting plantation romance for rural realism, Southern womanhood for feminine sexual autonomy, aristocratic rule forJeffersoniandemocracy,andplantationforindustrializedagricultural production, a combination that inspired the novel’s publisher to claim that “with Barren Ground realism at last crosses the Potomac” (Scura, Contemporary 241). While presumably highlighting the novel’s role in bringing Progressive political values, realistic narrative techniques, and a new critical consciousness to Southern letters, the publisher’s trope of regional crossings hints at the novel’s still unremarked location amid a broader array of regional exchanges that accompanied the collapse of the plantation economy in the South and that marked a critical moment in the making of race in America. In the early decades of the twentieth century, financial capital traveled South, along with new technologies of industrial agriculture, labor management, and scientific racism, to fuel both New South economic development and a corollary crisis in traditional paternalistic racial relations. Meanwhile, some 600,000 African Americans practiced their own brand of realism by abandoning the plantation South for the urban and industrial North—having determined that “migration from the South was the most realistic option available to improve [their] standard of living” (Mandle 71). By the mid 1920s, their migrations precipitated what Matthew Guterl has labeled a “southernization of northern racial discourse,” in which a “southern traditionofnegrophobia”supplantedNorthernnativistfearsofracialized new immigrant groups (12, 13). Matthew Jacobson argues that this new biracialism in American racial discourse would, in the decades following the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, enable the “consolidation of a unified whiteness” (93), as once suspect, non-Nordic European identities were assimilated to “a pattern of Caucasian unity” (91). Yet even as the South exported white supremacy, economics and eugenics 236 Matthew Lessig conspired to generate new divisions within whiteness through the racialized figure of the Southern poor white. As Neil Foley has argued, While immigrant Jews, Slavs, Italians, and Irish were “becoming white” in the urban areas of the East, poor whites . . . in the South were heading in the opposite direction—losing whiteness and the status and privileges that whiteness bestowed. Poor whites in the cotton South came not only to be seen as a social problem but also to be located in the racial hierarchy as the “trash” of whiteness. (6) Drawing from these contemporary racial logics, Glasgow envisions a modernized rural South that is underwritten by agricultural labor and articulated through a “biological interpretation of history” (Barren 461). Glasgow’s novel chronicles thirty years in the career of Dorinda Oakley from approximately 1894, when Dorinda is twenty years old, to 1924. The restless daughter of a supposedly middling Virginia tobacco farming family, Dorinda is betrayed in love by a young local doctor, Jason Greylock. After an errant rifle shot at Jason, Dorinda runs away to New York City, where she is hit by a cab, loses her pregnancy, gains wealthy benefactors, and studies agricultural science. Forsaking romance and sexuality, Dorinda applies herself to reclaiming the family’s struggling farm. She borrows two thousand dollars from her Northern friends, hires a number of mostly black local laborers, and transforms the family’s failed tobacco farm into a thriving dairy operation serving the Washington DC hotels. By the novel’s end, a middle-aged Dorinda is able to face “the future without romantic glamour, but . . . with integrity of vision” (525). In Barren Ground, Dorinda Oakley’s success in reviving the family farm—and by extension the rural South—depends on her ability to secure black labor and to discipline that labor to an industrial work regimen. In the process, Dorinda emerges as a modern white Southern bourgeois subject, distinguished from the “mongrel breed” of poor whites by a gap “as wide as the abyss between alien races” (45). Glasgow’s attention to agricultural reform and agricultural labor—what the novel calls the “curse” of tenancy (113)—provides an early example of a literature of sharecropping that would prove an important site for charting developing American race and class formations between the Wars.1 With the demise of plantation 1...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 235-269
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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