Mid-20th Century American Peasant Communities

Industrial capitalism is radically new. Late stage capitalism came rather late. That is true for the United States. Until about a century ago, most Americans still lived in rural communities, worked manual labor on small family farms, survived on subsistence in growing most of their own food, and bought what little else they needed through store tabs and barter. Many Americans were still living this way within living memory. A few such communities persist in places across the United States.

Segmented Worlds and Self
by Yi-Fu Tuan
pp. 17-21

Most peasants are villagers, members of cohesive communities. What is the nature of this cohesion and how is it maintained? A large and varied literature on peasants exists—historical studies of villages in medieval Europe and ethnographic surveys of peasant economy and livelihood in the poorer parts of the world at the turn of the century. Though differing from each other in significant details, peasant worlds nonetheless share certain broad traits that distinguish them from urban and modern societies. First, peasants establish intimate bonds with the land: that one must labor hard to survive is an accepted truth that is transformed into a propitiary and pious sentiment toward Mother Earth. Deities of the soil and ancestral spirits become fused. Peasants see themselves as belonging to the land, “children of the earth,” a link between past and future, ancestors and progeny. Biological realities and metaphors, so common in the peasant’s world, tend to suppress the idea of the self as a unique end or as a person capable of breaking loose from the repetitive and cyclical processes of nature to initiate something radically new. Although peasants may own the land they work on, they work more often in teams than individually. Many agricultural activities require cooperation; for example, when the fields need to be irrigated and drained, or when a heavy and expensive piece of equipment (such as the mill, winepress, or oven belonging to the landlord) is to be used. Scope for individual initative is limited except in small garden plots next to the house, and even there customary practices prevail. Individualism and individual success are suspect in peasant communities. Prosperity is so rare that it immediately suggest witchcraft.

In the peasant’s world the fundamental socioeconomic unit is the extended family, members of which—all except the youngest children—are engaged in some type of productive work. They may not, however, see much of each other during the day. Dinnertime may provide the only opportunity for family togetherness, when the webs of affection and lines of authority become evident to all. More distant relatives are drawn into the family net on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. Besides kinsfolk, villagers can count on the assistance of neighbors when minor needs arise, whether for extra hands during harvest, for tools, or even for money. In southeast China, a neighborhood is clearly defined as five residences to each side of one’s own. Belonging to a neighborhood gives one a sense of security that kinsfolk alone cannot provide. Villagers are able to maintain good neighborly relations with each other because they have the time to socialized. In Europe the men may go to a tavern, where after a few  beers they feel relaxed enough to sing together— that most comradely of human activities. In China the men, and sometimes the women as well, may go to a teahouse in a market town, where they can exchange gossip among themselves and with visitors from other villages. More informally, neighbors meet to chat and relax in the village square in the cool of the evening. Peasants desire contentment rather than success, and contentment means essentially the absence of want. When a man achieves a certain level of comfort he is satisfied. He feels no compulsion to use his resource and energy for higher economic rewards. He has the time and sense of leisure to hobnob with his fellows and bathe in their undemanding good will. Besides these casual associations, peasants come together for planned festivals that might involve the entire village. the New Year and the period after harvest are such occasions in many parts of the world. the number of festivals and the days on which they occur vary from place to place, but without exception festivals come to pass when people are relatively free, that is, during the lax phases of the calendar year.

Festivals, of course, strengthen the idea of group self. Tehse are the times when the people as a whole express their joy in the success of a harvest, or the growing strength of the sun. Simultaneously, they reaffirm their piety toward the protective deities of the earth and sky, their sense of onennss with nature. Group cohesiveness s a product of need, a fact that is manifest n the traditional world of villagers at different scales, ranging from that of family and kinsfolk, through those of neighbors and work team, to the entire community as it celebrates the end of a period of toil or the passing of a crisis of natue, or as it is girded in self-defense against natural calamity or human predators. Necessity is not a condition that human beings can contemplate for long without transforming it into an ideal. Thus, the cooperation necessary to survival becomes a good in itself, a desirable way of life. Units of mutual help achieve strong identities that can persist long after the urgencies that called them into existence have passed. In such groups, forged initially out of need but sustained thereafter by a sense of collective superiority, wayward and questioning individuals have no place.

A common image of America is that it is a land of individualists. Even in the colonial period, when towns were small and isolated, intimately knit communal groups like those of Europe did not exist. The people who lived in them, particularly in the Middle Colonies, shared too few common traditions and habits. Moreover, they were continually moving in and out. In New England, where settlers made periodic attempts to establish communities artificially by means of consciously constructed models, the results were mixed in relation to satisfaction and permanence. In the countryside, the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer seems to have held sway. Nevertheless, not only individualists but families and clusters of families migrated to the frontier, and in the course of time some of them became deeply rooted agglutinate communities, in which such characteristic American ideals as upward social mobility, individual intiative, and success were alien.

Traditional farming communities, relics from the past, persist in rural America at mid-twentieth century. Consider the sixty-odd families whose roots in the hollows of Tennessee, a few miles south of Nashville, go back to 1756. Over a course of two hundred years, inter-marriage has produced the closest bonds. Natural warmth between kinsfolk and neighbors is reinforced by a deep suspicion of outsiders. The community is strongly egalitarian. Work roles differ by age and sex, but social stratification as it exists in most parts of the country is unknown. “In work terms,” writes John Mogey, “no one is clearly leader: collective responsibility for work assignment is the rule to an extent that to speak of individual or family farming enterprises would be to violate the facts.” In her study of this community, Elmora Matthews notes how warm feelings between farmers can emerge from a combination of blood ties, laboring at common tasks, and informal socializing. One woman described the relation between her four brothers, who have adjoining farms: “They work all day long together, eat their meals together, and then always sit around and visit with each other before they go home. ” Ambition and even efficiency, when it is obtrusive, are bad. On the other hand, “no one ever condemns a husband who evades his work. If anything, a man who sits around home a lot blesses a family group.” One of the most respectable activities for man is to loaf and loiter with other men. The greatest satisfaction lies in the warm exchange of feeling among relatives and close friends at home, church, or store.

People in this Tennessee community almost never organize formally for special ends. There are no communal projects. The community is not a provisional state that might be altered and improved upon, or used for some larger, ulterior purpose. It is the supreme value and sole reality: whatever threatens to disrupt it is bad. Critical self-awareness seems minimal. Thus, although this Tennessee people fervently believe in freedom, anyone who exercises it to develop his talent and becomes a success is harshly judged. Thorough conformists in thinking and behavior, they nevertheless resent the government for its tendency to impose rules and regulations, and they regard communism as unimaginably horrible.

Close-knit communities of this kind can be found in the more isolated countrysides of Western Europe and North America even in the middle of the twentieth century.

Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir
by Joe Bageant
pp. 15-20

When Virginia Iris Gano and Harry Preston Bageant crested that ridge in their buggy and began their life together, they stood an excellent chance of making it. For starters, in that world the maths of life was easier, even if the work was harder. If you could show the bank or the seller of the land that you were healthy and sober, and knew how to farm, you pretty much had the loan (at least when it came to the non-arid eastern American uplands; the American West was a different matter). At 5 percent simple interest, Pap bought a 108-acre farm — house, barn, and all — for $400. (It was a cash-poor county, and still is. As recently as 1950 you could buy a 200-acre farm there for about $1,000.) On those terms, a subsistence farmer could pay off the farm in twenty years, even one with such poor soils as in these Southern uplands. But a subsistence farmer did not farm to sell crops, though he did that, too, when possible. Instead, he balanced an entire life with land and human productivity, family needs, money needs, along with his own and his family’s skills in a labor economy, not a wealth economy. The idea was to require as little cash as possible, because there wasn’t any to be had.

Nor was much needed. The farm was not a business. It was a farm. Pap and millions of farmers like him were never in the “agribusiness”. They never participated in the modern “economy of scale” which comes down to exhausting as many resources as possible to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible. If you’d talked to him about “producing commodities under contract to strict specifications”, he wouldn’t have recognized that as farming. “Goddamned jibber-jabber” is what he would have called it. And if a realtor had pressed him about the “speculative value” of his farmland as “agronomic leverage”, I suspect the old 12-gauge shotgun might have come down off the rack. Land value was based upon what it could produce, plain and simple. These farms were not large, credit-based “operations” requiring annual loans for machinery, chemicals, and seed.

Sure, farmers along Shanghai Road and the Unger Store community bought things at the junction store on credit, to be paid for in the autumn. Not much, though. The store’s present owners, descendants of the store’s founders, say that an annual bill at the store would run to about ten dollars. One of them, Richard Merica, told me, “People bought things like salt and pepper. Only what they couldn’t make for themselves, like shotgun shells or files.” Once I commented to an old Unger Store native still living there that, “I suspect there wasn’t more than $1,000 in the Unger Store community in the pre-war days.”

“You’re guessing way too high,” he said. “Try maybe $400 or $500. But most of it stayed here, and went round and round.”

So if Pap and the other subsistence farmers there spent eight bucks a year at the local crossroads store, it was eight bucks in a reciprocal exchange that made both their subsistence farming and the Unger Store possible as a business and as a community.

Moneyless as it was, Maw and Pap’s lives were far more stable than one might think today. In fact, the lives of most small farmers outside the nasty cotton sharecropping system of deep-southern America were stable. Dramatic as the roller-coaster economics of the cities and the ups and downs caused by crop commodity speculators in Chicago were, American farm life remained straightforward for the majority. Most were not big Midwestern broad-acre farmers who could be destroyed by a two-cent change in the price of wheat. Wheat in Maw and Pap’s time hovered at around fifty to fifty-five cents a bushel; corn, at forty-five; and oats at about fifty-six. Multiply the acreage by average bushels per acre for your piece of land, and you had a start at figuring out a realistic basis for your family’s future. It was realistic enough that, after making allowances for bad years, plus an assessment of the man seeking the loan, the banks lent Pap the price of a farm. That assessment was not shallow.

Pap was expected to bring to the equation several dozen already-honed skills, such as the repair, sharpening, and use of tools (if you think that is simple, try laying down wheat with a scythe sometime); the ability to husband several types of animal stock; and experience and instinct about soils and terrain, likely weather, and broadcasting seed by hand. Eastern mountain subsistence farms needed little or no planting equipment because plots were too small and steep. What harvesting equipment such as reapers and threshers might be needed was usually owned by one man who made part of his living reaping and threshing for the rest of the community. Other skills included planting in cultivated ridges, managing a woodlot, and estimating hours of available sunlight for both plant growth and working. The subsistence farm wife’s life required as much experience and skill on a different front of family provision.

That said, Pap wasn’t a particularly good farmer. He wasn’t a bad farmer, either. He was just an average farmer among millions of average farmers. The year my grandparents married, about 35 million Americans were successfully engaged in farming, mostly at a subsistence level. It’s doubtful that they were all especially gifted, or dedicated or resourceful. Nevertheless, their kind of human-scale family farming proved successful for twelve generations because it was something more — a collective consciousness rooted in the land that pervaded four-fifths of North American history.

They farmed with the aid of some 14 million draft horses and God only knows how many mules. Pap wasn’t much for mules; all the farming he had to do could easily be done with one horse. Without going into a treatise on horse farming, let me say that, around 1955 at the age of ten, I saw the last of Pap’s work horses in use, a coal-black draft animal named “Nig” (short for nigger, of course). By then, Nig, who was Nig number three, if I remember correctly, was over twenty years old, and put out to pasture — a loose use of the term, given that he spent his time in the shade of the backyard grape arbor waiting to be hand-fed treats. But Nig still pulled a single tree-plow in a four-acre truck garden down in the bottom land — mostly melons, tomatoes, and sweet corn — while I sometimes rode atop barefoot holding onto the wooden hames at the collar. Pap walked behind, guiding the plow. “Gee Nig! Haw Nig! Step right … Turn and baaack. Cluck-cluck.” The rabbit dogs, Nellie and Buck, trotted alongside in the spring sun.

Though Pap owned a tractor by then — a beaten-up old Farmall with huge, cleated steel wheels, a man-killer prone to flipping over backward and grinding the driver bloodily under the cleats — he could still do all his cultivation walking behind Nig in the spring. In summer he’d scratch out the weeds with a horseless garden plow, or “push plow”, and pick off bugs by hand, dropping them into a Maxwell House coffee can half-filled with kerosene. Pap hand-harvested most things, even large cornfields, using a corn cutter fashioned from an old Confederate sword. But it is that old horse and that old man with the long leather lines thrown up over his shoulders, the plow in his iron grip, and cutting such straight lines in the red clay and shale, that I remember most fondly. He made it look easy. Fifty years in the furrows will do that.

pp. 41-53

THE CULTURAL VALUES MAY REMAIN, HANGING over everything political and many things that are not, but there are few if any remaining practitioners of the traditional family or community culture by which Pap and Maw lived — the one with the woman in the home, and the man in the fields, although Maw certainly worked in the fields when push came to shove. This is not to advocate such as the natural order of things. I am neither Amish nor Taliban. But knee-jerk, middle-class, mostly urban feminists might do well to question how it all started and what the result has been — maybe by getting out and seeing how few of their sisters gutting chickens on the Tyson’s production line or telemarketing credit cards on the electronic plantation relish those dehumanizing jobs that they can never quit.

It would do them well to wonder why postwar economists and social planners, from their perches high in the executive and management class, deemed it best for the nation that more mothers become permanent fixtures of America’s work force. This transformation doubled the available labor supply, increased consumer spending, and kept wages lower than they would have otherwise been. National production and increased household income supposedly raised everyone’s quality of life to stratospheric heights, if Formica countertops and “happy motoring” can be called that. I’m sure it did so for the managing and owning classes, and urban people with good union jobs. In fact, it was the pre-war trade unions at full strength, particularly the United Auto Workers, that created the true American middle class, in terms of increased affluence for working people and affordable higher education for their children.

What Maw and Pap and millions of others got out of it, primarily, were a few durable goods, a washing machine, a television, and an indoor toilet where the pantry, with its cured meats, 100-pound sacks of brown sugar, flour, and cases of eggs had been. Non-durable commodities were vastly appreciated, too. One was toilet paper, which ended generations of deep-seated application of the pages of the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog to the anus (the unspoken limit seemed to be one page to a person at a sitting). The other was canned milk, which had been around a long time, but had been unaffordable. Milk cows are a wonderful thing, but not so good when two wars and town work have drained off your family labor-supply of milkers. […]

The urging of women into the workplace, first propagandized by a war-making state, was much romanticized in the iconic poster image of Rosie the Riveter, with her blue-denim sleeves rolled up and a scarf tied over her hair. You see the image on the refrigerator magnets of fuzzy-minded feminists-lite everywhere. This liberal identity-statement is sold by the millions at Wal-Mart, and given away as a promotional premium by National Public Radio and television.

Being allowed to manufacture the planes that bombed so many terrified European families is now rewritten as a feminist milestone by women who were not born at the time. But I’ve never once heard working-class women of that period rave about how wonderful it was to work long days welding bomb-bay doors onto B-29s.

The machinery of state saw things differently, and so the new reality of women building war machinery was dubbed a social advance for American womankind, both married and single. In Russia, it was ballyhooed as Soviet socialist-worker equality. And one might even believe that equality was the prime motive, when viewed sixty years later by, for instance, a university-educated specimen of the gender writing her doctoral dissertation. But for the children and grandchildren of Rosie the Riveter, those women not writing a dissertation or thesis, there is less enthusiasm. Especially among working mothers. The Pew Research Center reports that only 13 percent of working mothers think that working benefits their children. But nearly 100 percent feel they have no choice. Half of working mothers think their employment is pointless for society. Forty-two percent of Americans, half of them women, say that working mothers have been bad for society on the whole. Nearly all working mothers say they feel guilty as they rush off to work.

Corporations couldn’t have been happier with the situation. Family labor was siphoned off into the industrial labor pool, creating a surplus of workers, which in turn created a cheaper work force. There were still the teeming second-generation immigrant populations available for labor, but there were misgivings about them — those second-generation Russian Jews, Italians, Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, and their like. From the very beginning, they were prone to commie notions such as trade unions and eight-hour workdays. They had a nasty history of tenacity, too.

On the other hand, out there in the country was an endless supply of placid mules, who said, “Yes, Ma’m” and “No, Ma’m”, and accepted whatever you paid them. Best of all, except for churches and the most intimate community groups, these family- and clan-oriented hillbillies were not joiners, especially at some outsiders’ urging. Thus, given the nature of union organizing — urging and convincing folks to join up — local anti-union businessmen and large companies alike had little to fear when it came to pulling in workers from the farms.

Ever since the Depression, some of the placid country mules had been drifting toward the nearest cities anyway. By the 1950s, the flow was again rapidly increasing. Generation after generation couldn’t keep piling up on subsistence farms, lest America come to be one vast Mennonite community, which it wasn’t about to become, attractive as that idea might seem now. Even given America’s historical agrarian resistance to “wage slavery” (and farmers were still calling it that when I was a kid), the promise of a regular paycheck seemed the only choice. We now needed far more money to survive, because we could no longer independently provide for ourselves.

Two back-to-back wars had effectively drained off available manpower to the point where our family farm offered only a fraction of its former sustenance. Even if we tried to raise our own food and make our own clothing out of the patterned multi-colored feed sacks as we had always done, it took more money than ever. […]

By the mid and late 1950s, the escalating monetized economy had rural folks on the ropes. No matter how frugal one was, there was no fighting it. In a county where cash had been scarce from the beginning — though not to disastrous effect — we children would overhear much talk about how this or that aunt or uncle “needs money real bad”. […]

WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY, I AM TOLD THAT BEFORE the war some Unger Store subsistence farmers got by on less than one hundred dollars a year. I cannot imagine that my grandfather ever brought in more than one thousand dollars in any year. Even before the postwar era’s forced commodification of every aspect of American life, at least some money was needed. So some in my family, like many of their neighbors, picked apples seasonally or worked as “hired-on help” for a few weeks in late summer at the many small family-owned apple- and tomato-canning sheds that dotted Morgan County. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, between farming and sporadic work at the local flour, corn, and feed-grinding outfits, and especially the small canning operations, a family could make it. Pap could grow a few acres of tomatoes for the canneries, and Maw or their kids could work a couple of weeks in them for cash.

This was local and human-scale industry and farming, with the tomatoes being grown on local plots ranging from five to ten acres. Canners depended on nearby farm families for crops and labor, and the farm families depended upon them in turn for cash or its equivalent. […]

Farm-transport vehicles were much scarcer then, especially anything bigger than a quarter-ton pickup truck. So the sight of Jackson Luttrell’s one-ton Chevy truck with its high wooden sideboards was exciting in itself. In those days, farmers did not buy new $45,000 trucks to impress other farmers, or run to the nearest farm supply in one of them to pick up a couple of connector bolts. Every farmer had a farm wagon, whether pulled by horse or tractor, but almost nobody owned a truck. Common sense and thrift prevented them from spending big money on something that would only be used during one month each year at harvest time. Beyond that, farmers would not even think of growing those small acreages of tomatoes that the canneries depended upon if they had to buy a truck to transport them there — any profit made on the tomatoes would be lost on the truck. So, for folks such as Jackson Luttrell, who had one, ownership made more economic sense. He profited through its maximized use in getting everyone else’s crops to the mill or processing plant. One truck served the farm community, at minimum expenditure to the entire group. They didn’t even have to pay Jackson Luttrell any cash for the hauling.

That was because Cotton Unger, who owned the canning operation, was expected to get the tomatoes to his factory himself. As a businessman and entrepreneur, it was Unger’s job to deal with the problems that came with his enterprise. Unger’s job was to run a business; a farmer’s job was to farm. These were two separate things in the days before the rigged game of agri-business put all the cost on the farmers through loading them with debt, and all the profits went to business corporations. Nor did Unger’s duties as a capitalist end with getting the hauling done at his own expense. It was also his job to turn the local crops such as wheat, corn, and tomatoes into money, through milling or canning them for sale to bulk contractors elsewhere.

Cotton owned more than just the family store, which he’d inherited from his father, Peery Unger, and for which the community was named sometime after the Civil War. The store at the junction had gasoline pumps, a grinding mill, and a feed and seed farm-supply adjunct. It was also the official post office for that end of the county; and, just to be safe, Cotton Unger also farmed. The Unger family’s store was a modest, localized example of a vertically integrated, agriculturally based business, mostly out of necessity.

Cotton never saw much cash, and never got rich by any means. Not on the ten-cent and fifteen-cent purchases that farmers made there for over one hundred years. Yet he could pay Jackson Luttrell for the tomato hauling — in credit at the store. That enabled Jackson to buy seed, feed, hardware, fertilizer, tools, and gasoline, and farm until harvest time with very little cash, leaving him with enough to invest in a truck. Unger could run his tomato cannery and transform local produce into cash, because he could barter credit for farm products and services. This was a community economic ecology that blended labor, money, and goods to sustain a modest but satisfactory life for all.

At the same time, like most American businessmen then and today, Cotton Unger was a Republican. He was a man of the Grand Old Party: the party of a liberator named Abraham, who freed millions of black men from the bondage of slavery; and the party of two presidents named George, the second of whom subsequently ushered Americans of all colors back into slavery through national indebtedness. Being of a Republican stripe made Cotton Unger a rare bird in the strongly Democratic Morgan County.

Today he would be even rarer, because he was a Republican with the common wisdom to understand something that no Republican has ever grasped since: he realized that any wealth he might acquire in life was due not only to his own efforts, but also to the efforts of all other men combined — men who built the roads that hauled his merchandise; men who laid rail track, grew crops, drilled wells, and undertook all the other earthly labors that make society possible. Whether they were Democrats or not, he needed the other citizens around him as friends, neighbors, and builders of the community. To that end, he provided transportation to the polls at election time for farmers without cars — and they were many, Pap and Maw among them — full knowing that nearly every last one of them was going to vote against his candidate. In his ancestors’ time they had voted for Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James Polk, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman — all Democrats.

The old-timers say that Cotton always looked kinda weary around election time. And well he must have been. On election day, Cotton chauffeured around Democratic voters, people who would vote against his interests, vote in favor of higher business taxes or to increase teachers’ pay to the point where the school-marm could almost make a living. But Cotton also understood that his personal interests resided more with his community and neighbors than with his political affiliation. Republican politicians in faraway Charleston took the back seat to his face-to-face daily life with his neighbors. Cotton, like his father Peery, and his grandfather, C.J. Unger, before him, knew that when you depend directly on neighbors for your daily bread, you’d damned-well better have their respect and goodwill. And you’d best maintain it over generations, too, if you plan to pass the family store down to your sons and your sons’ sons. We may never see that level of operative community democracy again.

pp. 61-69

Not that money was unimportant. Money has been important since the first Sumerian decided it was easier to carry a pocket full of barley shekels than hump a four-foot urn of barley down to the marketplace on his back. And it was certainly important 5,000 years later to the West Virginia hill country’s subsistence farmers. But in the big picture, money was secondary to co-operation and the willingness to work hard. A considered ecology of family labor, frugality, and their interrelationship with community was the economy. And the economy was synonymous with their way of life, even though that would have been a pretentious term to Pap and his contemporaries. He always said, “You just do the next thing that needs doing. You keep doing that, and everything gets done that needs to be done.” When I’d ask him what to do next, he’d say, “Just look to see what needs doing, dammit!”

Understanding what needed doing was the glue of subsistence farming’s family-work ecology, which was also ecological in the environmental sense. Knowledge was passed along about which fields best grew what produce, the best practices to maintain fertility, and what the farm could sustainably produce year in and year out. It was a family act.

Those farm families strung out along Shanghai Road could never have imagined our existential problems or the environmental damage we now face. But, after having suffered such things as erosion from their own damaging early-American practices, they came to understand that nature and man do not stand separately. The mindfulness involved in human-scale farming demands such. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, we should understand our environmental problem as a kind of damage that has also been done to humans. In all likelihood, there is no solution for environmental destruction that does not first require a healing of the damage done to the human community. And most of that damage to the human world has been done through work, our jobs, and the world of money. Acknowledging such things about our destructive system requires honesty about what is all around us, and an intellectual conscience. And asking ourselves, “Who are we as a people?”

Meanwhile, as settlers migrated down the Great Valley of Virginia, as they called the Shenandoah Valley toward the fertile southlands, the poorer among them kept seeping westward into the uncleared Blue Ridge, where land was cheapest and work was hardest. When they settled on Fairfax’s land, they may have become human assets to his holdings. But they were not slaves and they were not employees. The overwhelming portion of the fruits of their labor were directly their own. They could not be fired. They could not incur oppressive financial debt. And if their farms were isolated specks in the blue Appalachian fog with their split-pine log floors, they were nevertheless specks located in a great, shared commons called nature.

In contrast to Fairfax and the planter society’s money-based economy of wealth, these settlers lived by a family-based economy of labor. Not that they had a choice. Any kind of coinage or currency was rare throughout the colonies. Their economy depended on the bartering of labor and sometimes goods between themselves. Dr Warren Hofstra, an eminent historian of the area, tells me this system was so complex that they kept sharply detailed ledger books of goods and services bartered, even of small favors done for one another. In essence, this was an economy whose currency was the human calorie. Be it a basket of apples or a week’s labor hauling stone for a house, everything produced (which was everything in their subsistence world, there being no money), was accomplished by an expenditure of human energy. Calories burned could only be replaced by an expenditure of calories to plant, grow, and preserve future calories for sustained sustenance. This was a chain of caloric expenditures or barter going all the way back to the forging of the iron hoe or plow that made subsistence possible at all. Keenly aware that both time and their own human energy were finite, they measured, balanced, and assigned value to nearly every effort, large or small. Wasting these resources could spell hunger or failure to subsist.

This attitude lives on today among the descendants of the settlers. When outsiders move into this area, they often comment on what they perceive as the miserliness of the natives. Or the fact that they will not let you do them even a small favor, lest they be obligated in return.

A lady new to the area, a physician who hails from Delaware, told me: “I went shopping with Anna at the mall last week. We went in my car. She tried to give me three dollars for ‘gas money’. I told her that was very kind, but we’d only driven two miles at best and that it wasn’t necessary. She kept pushing the money at me, saying ‘Here, take this,’ getting more and more insistent each time. I kept declining until I noticed that she was becoming honestly and truly angry with me. It was so damned strange, I’ve never seen anything like it. So I took the three dollars.”

I explained that many natives are like that, and told her about the early settlers’ rigid barter-and-favor economy, and how these attitudes have unconsciously come down through our cultural history, remaining as deeply instilled social practices and conventions. It can work the other way around, too. Some people will unexpectedly do something very nice for you, or give you something — maybe an antique or whatever.

“Don’t let the Southern charm fool you, though,” I said. “In the back of their mind they have marked it down as a favor or a social debt owed. And they’ll expect you to recognize when to pay it back. Maybe volunteer to feed their dog or water their lawn when they are away. At the same time, you should feel somewhat honored. It’s a down payment on developing further friendship. If they hadn’t judged you to be a worthy, reliable, and reciprocating person, dependable in a friendship, they wouldn’t even bother to know you at all. In fact, that’s why so many outsiders perceive some natives as snotty and cold.”

“Amazing,” she said. “I’d never guess their behavior had such deep cultural roots.”

“Neither would they,” I replied.

As the hill-country population grew, their isolation lessened. Farmers grew more connected in a community network of seasonal mutual efforts, such as threshing, hunting, hog slaughtering, haymaking, clannish marriages, and birth, burial, and worship. These conventions were still being observed into the 1950s as I was growing up there.

Family and community life in that early, non-wealth-based economy is impossible for us to comprehend. No man can fully grasp a life he has not lived, or for that matter completely grasp the one he is living. But we Blue Ridge folk most surely live subject to the continuing effects of that dead culture which is never really dead.

For example, the old agrarian culture of reserve, frugality, and thought-out productivity translate as political conservatism today, even though few of its practitioners could identify a baling hook if their lives depended on it. At its core stood — and still stand, for the most part — “family values”, which meant (duh!) valuing family. Valuing family above all else, except perhaps God’s word. Grasping the true meaning of this is to understand much of the conservative American character, both its good and its bad qualities. I dare say it also holds some solutions to the dissolution of human community, the destabilizing of world resources, and the loss of the great commons, human and natural, all sacrificed to the monstrous fetish of commodities, their acquisition and their production through an insane scale of work and round-the-clock commerce and busyness.

Joe Bageant: On the White Underclass

I highly recommend reading Joe Bageant. I’m reading my second book by him, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, and I’m impressed by his insight.

He grew up in a poor white family living in rural Appalachia. His family and neighbors made their livings through subsistence farming. In the early to mid 20th century, most of these people moved to the cities where they became the poverty-stricken working class, that is when they could find work.

This is the white underclass that are rarely discussed by either liberals or conservatives, although the latter loves to rile up this demographic for political gain. This white underclass has little money, education, or opportunity. The only way they can experience the larger world is by enlisting in the military.

 
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This interests me personally because this is where my mom’s family is from. Bageant’s description of his own family more or less describes my family on that side. The main difference is that my mom’s family moved to the cities a generation before Bageant’s family. Also, my mom’s family moved into more Northern Indiana and so was able to escape the much worse poverty of Appalachia.

 
The first book I read by Joe Bageant was Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War. I happened upon it by accident. From what I understand, Bageant may be more popular abroad than in his home country. Certainly, he is speaking a truth that the American MSM has little interest in.
 
The book Deer Hunting With Jesus woke my mind up like few books ever do. The topic wasn’t dissimilar to what Thomas Frank Tackled in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but there is a big difference between the two books. Bageant isn’t looking in as an outsider, isn’t studying the Appalachian people as a journalist or academic or economist. Bageant was able to portray these people, his people, as genuine human beings. They weren’t strange characters or mysteries to be dissected. They are just people struggling to get by, people trapped in their circumstances.
 
In reading that book, I immediately recognized my own family. I never before quite grasped who were my mom’s family or where they came from. I regularly visited Indiana as a kid, but I never lived there. Plus, my maternal grandparents were already a generation removed from the rural Hoosier communities of Southern Indiana and several generations removed from the Appalachia of Kentucky. Still, the Appalachian culture and dialect clung to them, even though it had lost its regional context.
 
I only knew them as working class whites, and the bias of my middle class Midwestern upbringing disconnected me from the Appalachian culture. But as Bageant makes clear, there is a lot more going on with working class whites than would first be apparent. Like most things in life, there is a long and complex history behind it.
 
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I recommend Bageant’s writings to others because he offers a unique glimpse into the dark heart of America as well as offering a remembrance of what came before. In my endless readings, I’ve never come across any other author who quite as fully sheds light on this particular issue.

I would add that this isn’t just about America for this country is representative of the larger shifts that have happened all over the world. All countries have similar underclasses. And most of these countries have a history of subsistence farming that was common just a few generations ago.

Joe Bageant isn’t just a voice for an often unheard sector of society. He speaks as one who personally knows about this world hidden out in the open. He speaks as a member of this culture for this underclass has had a hard enough time understanding themselves much less explaining how they came to be that way.