Last August marked the 50th anniversary of the first field trials of the Rust cotton picker, an occasion little noted outside the pages of Forbes, where I saw it. Somebody should have made a bigger deal about it. For better or for worse, that machine has transformed the South in my lifetime, and maybe yours, too.
Oh, sure, you don’t want to give Mr. Rust (whoever he was) as much credit or blame as, say, Eli Whitney, whose invention got us into cotton monoculture in the first place. Southern agriculture might have diversified in any case, driving tenant farmers and sharecroppers off the land. And, in time, industrialization would probably have lured them off, with or without mechanized agriculture.
Besides, it’s not obvious to some people I know that Mr. Rust did us any favors. Are we in the South better off now that only 5 percent of us are farmers than we would be if half of us were, like 50 years ago?
Well, there’s no question that we’re collectively better off in economic terms. Getting out of cotton agriculture has done good things for the South’s per capita income: 50 years ago it was about the same as Venezuela’s today. The good people of one Deep South town even put up a statue of a boll weevil, in gratitude for that bug’s suggestion that they find some other way to make a living. A blessing in disguise, they felt.
But a lot of individual Southerners suffered to make the average Southerner better off. The collapse of cotton tenancy wasn’t painless, and we shouldn’t forget that. Moreover, my agrarian friends would say. Southerners of all people ought to recognize that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Have we sold our cultural birthright for a mess of economic pottage?
Maybe so. But let me tell a story.
Last fall I was driving north from Sumter, South Carolina, headed back to Chapel Hill on a pretty two-lane highway. It was about 8:00 on a beautiful, crisp morning, with (believe it or not) Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony on the car radio. I was feeling good, soaking up the rural scenery, and watching for the notorious South Carolina speedtraps when, behold, I came upon a cotton field, to the right of the road, where the crop was being harvested. A solitary black man in a camouflage jacket and a cowboy hat was perched high above what I now assume to have been a Rust cotton picker. As I said, it was 8:00 in the morning, but he had already covered half of the field.
Was this sad? Did I miss the rank of cotton pickers, men, women, and children, inching their way across the field, dragging their long picking sacks? Did I miss their sweet singing, evidence of their vibrant folk culture? Did I regret the passing of the ordered, traditional society that guaranteed them their humble living?
Not a chance.
Anybody inclined to nostalgia on that score needs to read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on cotton agriculture as experienced from the bottom. Better yet: pick some. I never picked cotton myself, but as a teenager I did work hurley tobacco one summer for dinner and four dollars a day and—well, I’m still resting up from the experience.
Still, there is the question of what those folks are doing these days instead of picking cotton. Some of them, as you may have noticed, have left South Carolina to seek opportunity in the North, where some have found it, but many have not. The answer for others, though, was evident just across the road from that cotton field, on my left as I drove by: a one-story brick building with a sign identifying it as a factory producing bearings (I think it was). In the parking lot were a couple dozen cars, vans, and pickup trucks: Pontiac, Chevrolet, Dodge (not a Volvo in sight).
This is the kind of rural industrialization that has been coming—slowly, painfully slowly—to much of the South. It’s not the sort of whiz-bang, high-tech, high-wage industry advanced thinkers get excited about. It’s the kind of industry that finds low-wage, poorly educated, grateful-for-a-job, displaced cotton pickers attractive workers. It’s also often the kind of industry so economically marginal that it needs tax breaks and subsidies of various sorts. It doesn’t do much for our average industrial wage, or our image. Some say that we’re basically competing with the Koreans, on equal terms, and that’s uncomfortably close to the truth. But it beats picking cotton, and Mr. Rust’s machine does that these days, anyhow.
As Hamilton Horton has pointed out (in his contribution to a symposium called Why the South Will Survive), though, because industry has come to us late, it offers some interesting, desirable features to offset its obvious shortcomings. Most of all, it doesn’t uproot its workers. These factories don’t have to be located in cities, near harbors or railheads; they form instead a sort of archipelago along the Interstate highway system. Their workers don’t have to move to within streetcar distance either (recall those Toronados and Firebirds in the parking lot); they can stay in rural communities where they were raised, and they do.
Just down the road from my cotton field and bearing factory were two Baptist churches, almost within sight of one another. I presume that one was black and one white, but I couldn’t have said which was which: Both were modest brick buildings of recent vintage; both stood on carefully maintained grounds; both had large gravel parking lots. Both were obviously very much in business.
Who goes to those churches? Well, not cotton pickers. There aren’t any left in that county, as far as I could see. Some farmers, to be sure, and perhaps a few agricultural wage-laborers. (The machine operator I saw could have been either.) But most members of their congregations would probably fall in the category the census bureau calls “rural, nonfarm”—a quarter or more of the South’s population, and a higher proportion here than elsewhere. These are folks who live in the countryside, generally own some land there, but work at bluecollar jobs in rural factories or commute to such jobs in the South’s towns and small cities.
These are the children of yesterday’s cotton pickers. A few years ago, when Howell Raines went to Alabama for the New York Times Magazine and tracked down some of the tenant children Agee wrote about, that’s what he found: men and women living in mobile homes not far from where they grew up, working at jobs like welder, meat-packer, nursing-home attendant.
I know a couple who live about an hour from here, in an unfashionable direction. They’re 10 miles from the nearest small town and close to 50 from the nearest cities. Both grew up on farms, but she’s now a receptionist, and he’s working as a mechanic while trying to get a job as a rural mailcarrier. Each commutes an hour to work (in opposite directions)—an hour there and an hour back. They’re certainly not rich, or even well-off; I presume they’re in debt up to their eyebrows. But they have a comfortable new double-wide on six acres with a garden, deer, and wild turkey. He’s got a boat that I covet, two cars, and a four-wheel-drive truck. (A country boy can survive.)
They have relatives nearby and will soon have one even nearer: A son who just got out of the army is probably going to put his mobile home on their property. They seem to feel this arrangement beats apartment living, and I agree with them. They also believe their lives are better than they would have been 50 years ago; they work very hard, but I don’t know anybody less nostalgic.
This new pattern of industrialization—one really made possible only by the automobile and decent roads—does have cultural consequences. In particular, it avoids the sort of “proletarianization” supposed to result from yanking people out of the villages and countryside and jamming them together in an urban working class. It allows for the possibility of blue-collar workers as individualistic and conservative as the farmers and peasants Marx had in mind when he groused about “the idiocy of rural life.” Certainly, in much of the South it has produced factory and service workers who support their churches, clean their graveyards, tend their gardens, hunt and fish, and generally manifest that vibrant folk culture we were talking about.
Of course, it wouldn’t do to romanticize this new pattern, any more than the old one. The South’s rural, nonfarm population is more amiable and contributes more to social stability than an urban mob. But we’re not talking here about a happy industrial peasantry, miraculously preserved from the acids of modernity. To judge from the number of satellite dishes, a good many spend a lot of time watching television. We can hope they’re watching Pat Robertson. But it’s probably the Playboy Channel.
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