Review: Reassessing the 1930s South

Matthew L. Downs

Matthew L. Downs is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Mobile.

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Matthew L. Downs, "Review: Reassessing the 1930s South," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Karen L. Cox and Sarah E. Gardner, eds., Reassessing the 1930s South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. vi, 261pp. 978-0-8071-6921-6.

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Early in their introduction to this collection, Karen Cox and Sarah Gardner note the essentialist debate that has shaped scholarly discussions over southern culture and identity during the decade of the 1930s. Best exemplified by Margaret Mitchell’s epic Gone with the Wind, some writers and artists celebrated a romanticized, “Lost Cause”-inflected vision of the antebellum South, free of the strains caused by the Depression and New Deal. Others imagined a “beknighted” South, one shaped by poverty and stagnation, as in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (4). The essays in Reassessing the 1930s South seek to complicate that debate, navigating the complexities of modernization and contending with a variety of efforts, some more effective than others, at defining the changing region. Scholars whose works have successfully interrogated the image of “South” in the national consciousness, Cox and Gardner present an interdisciplinary collection that forces readers to question their own understanding of the South as the region’s writers, artists, and cultural commentators came to terms with an uncertain future.

The essays defy an easy or concise categorization; given the collection’s intent to encourage reconsideration of regional identity and character across a volatile decade, such complexity is to be expected, even encouraged. Nevertheless, a number of broader themes are at work. Several of the contributors use literature to investigate the ways southerners sought to portray themselves and their region to a wider, increasingly interested world. In the book’s most literary essays, Bryan A. Giemza recounts the life and work of E.P. O’Donnell, a southerner who gathered the threads of the changing era, combining the local color of the Depression South, the long traditions of “southwestern humor,” with an emerging global South, embodied, once again, in New Orleans, which Giemza colorfully describes as the “Maritime Zone of the Southern Wilds” (58). Anthony J. Stanonis’s essay describes the way that civic boosters in New Orleans used Tennessee Williams’s work to “sell” their city, creating a cultural image of the city that would be popular among tourists; Robert W. Haynes argues that Williams and fellow southern playwrights Stark Young and Horton Foote brought their own understanding of southern political and social life to the theaters of New York. In both cases, audiences “read” the South in ways not always intended by the authors. Steven Knepper’s analysis of the work of Sterling Brown and Charles Johnson demonstrates the consequences of selective reading and interpretation. As he notes, the authors’ efforts to center black labor in descriptions of southern life failed in the face of both the romanticized cotton plantation and descriptions of poverty that focused on white sharecroppers.

Another through-line in the collection is the conflict between modernizing forces and traditional folkways. Two essays center this debate on the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the New Deal agency tasked with spurring conservation and economic development in the Tennessee River Valley. Lisa Dorrill’s close reading of TVA murals illustrates the agency’s effort to emphasize technical and scientific accomplishments, like dams and factories running on cheap electricity, over the very people affected by such changes. In a broader reading of TVA’s cultural representations, most notably the films touting the agency’s successes, Ted Atkinson describes its support for a “modern creation myth” in which its work emerged from inherently southern environment and culture (135). TVA stressed the compatibility of modernity and tradition in the service of progress. Emily Senefeld, too, suggests that traditional southern folkways could serve more modern ideals; her analysis of Highlander Folk School’s musical culture demonstrates that traditional music fit more the school’s radical demands for racial and economic justice. Other contributors suggest the inherent conflict between old and new. Douglas Thompson argues that southerners embraced cars as conducive to southern values like independence and self-reliance, only to experience the disruptions caused by the automobile’s impact on dating and courtship, social mobility, and economic development. Scott Matthews situates the debate in Greene County, Georgia, when a Colliers magazine feature portrayed rural poverty in a way that local leaders contested; the “old order” saw in the article an “assault” by the federal government and outside interests on their traditional, paternalistic control over their workforce (162). Portraying a South in transition, these chapters reflect a sometimes-contentious debate over the merits of change and the persistence of tradition in the face of economic and social transformation.

Finally, several authors encourage readers to broaden the historical understanding of the decade with a renewed emphasis on those outside the traditional southern power structure. In their joint biography of the economist Ruth Alice Allen and the sociologist Margaret Jarman Hagood, Rebecca Sharpless and Melissa Walker emphasize the importance of the experience of farm women to the story of Depression-era southern agriculture and the essential role that women played in effort to document and address southern poverty. Nicholas Roland focuses his efforts on the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, and particularly the “Hall of Negro Life,” which exemplified the “last gasp” of Washingtonian efforts to combat white supremacy and segregation. The exhibition emphasized civility and cooperation between the races, even as the emergence of the tactics of the mainstream civil rights movement in the postwar era made such efforts seem outdated (224). Ella Howard adds to a growing literature on the intersection of segregation and housing policy, arguing that across Georgia, federal policies disadvantaging minority homeowners and home buyers were rooted in longstanding patterns of residential segregation and entrenched poverty. And Robert Hunt Ferguson suggests that scholars of the New Deal have failed to account for the radical alternatives posed by activists like William Amberson, whose call for agricultural communalism posed a solution for poverty different from both the federal government’s New Deal and the traditionalism espoused by the Nashville Agrarians.

Encompassing textual analysis, cultural history, race and gender studies, as well as more traditional political and economic histories, Reassessing the 1930s South asks readers to think broadly about a region in transition. The authors convincingly show that, far from a simple binary, southerners participated in a broad discussion with each other and with those outside the South over the very question of southern character and identity.  In the resulting negotiation, southerners sought to engage modernization while maintaining tradition and to challenge the long-standing socio-economic order even as leaders held fast to the hierarchies of inequality and segregation. Editors Gardner and Cox have produced a thought-provoking collection of essays that should force scholars to reimagine the Depression-era South, just as the southerners of the era were forced to reimagine themselves.