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Economics and Southern Literature

Updated on March 13, 2013

Economics, especially in terms of the rigid class structure inherent in many economic models, has long been a major concern in Southern literature. This is evident in the 19th Century plantation literature just as it is an apparent theme in the most recent publications of the 21st Century South. In considering all elements which might be collectively considered zeitgeist, economic prosperity (or lack thereof) seems to be the predominate factor in our cultural and social understanding of the United States; especially in the South. In an historically agriculture-based economic region that exists in a country that has been defined by its industrialization and financial markets, the South has experienced greater occurrences of poverty than other regions. This economic stagnation has proved to be a pervasive force that has defined the South, underlying issues of race, gender, and hierarchy. This has been directly translated to literature creating the setting of stories, the circumstances of characters, characters understanding of others based on social structure, and the power each character has over their own life – because of this, the economics of a time and place defines that scene. In this essay I will discuss three stories representing three distinct time periods in the history of the South. The first is ”The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles W. Chesnutt, published in The Atlantic magazine August of 1887; the second is “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner, published in Harper’s magazine June 1939; and the third is “An Upright Man” by Holly Goddard Jones, published in Epoch literary journal 2006. These stories signify particular trends that shaped the economic landscapes of their time and place.

The late nineteenth century was an economically dynamic time period in the United States. The age of modern industrialization was on the horizon, the railways proved a boon in transportation costs by generating greater value in bulk trade and thus greater demand for mass production, and the financial markets that would come to dominate the economic landscape of the Twentieth Century were being created by those that would come to be known as “The Robber Barons”. The post-civil war North had a wealth of first and second generations of skilled laborers in industries that were still growing due to the positive economic trends that began with the war efforts. These skilled laborers, though often suffering poor work conditions in this time period, would be the seeds of the modern middle-class. There were many jobs to be had in manufacturing, and these jobs often went to the least-expensive candidates – such as immigrants and African Americans – giving rise to the migration to cities as industrial centers. Industrialization (manufacturing, transportation, finance) had come to define the latter Nineteenth Century economics of the U.S., but the South had, for the most part, remained an agrarian economy dependent on the North to buy the raw materials they produced. As large groups of young Southerners migrated North to participate in the promise of greater prosperity, the remaining population, still recovering from reconstruction-era economic decline, struggled to survive. It would seem that the need for mass production of goods in the North that had produced jobs came at the cost of the Southern farmers that would have to sell raw materials at ever-decreasing costs. This exploitation led to a greater divergence of wealth between the North and South, and the lack of wealth in the South would play a part in the racial tensions that would come to define the area. Part of this tension can be attributed to the fact that post-civil war African Americans and whites were direct economic competitors in an area that, though rich in potential resources, lacked major profitability. “For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Mississippi was an overwhelmingly agricultural state. While farming provided a route to economic success for many white Mississippians, a number of whites could always be found at the bottom of the agricultural ladder, working as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, a status more typically associated with black Mississippians in the century after the American Civil War” (Bolton) It is in this socio-economic environment that Charles W. Chesnutt would write “The Goophered Grapevine”, which is as much a commentary on the capitalistic system that undermined Southern prosperity as it was a commentary on race relations.
The first mention of Southern economics occurs on the first page of the story, where the narrator describes the conditions by which he came to the decision to buy a vineyard in the South: “…the climate was perfect for health, and, in conjunction with the soil, ideal for grape culture; labor was cheap, and land could be bought for a mere song” (Chesnutt). The narrator is an example of the Northern industrialist and can be understood as a symbolic representative of the Northern culture ripe for critique. His explanation of the South perfectly describes the financial circumstances of this time period and how the Northern entrepreneur perceived it. As many have noticed, the Northerner and his wife come to represent the industrial North, detached from the land that they hope to profit from, “Outside of their buggy--that recurring symbol of American enterprise--the Northerners are weak, unable to fit comfortably into the natural environment, and indifferent to the bounties of nature” (Hovet 86). The narrator’s concerns lie entirely in business, blind to the implications of what that business means to the people who already inhabit the area. On the second page the narrator mentions the war saying: “Several planters thereabouts, in former years, with greater or less success; but like most Southern industries, it felt the blight of war and had fallen into desuetude” (Chesnutt). While able to acknowledge the impact of the war, though through a naïve perspective, the narrator is unable to acknowledge personal responsibility. Instead, he paints a picture of himself as a savior of the land rather than a participant in its destruction.
The narrator’s tone and language becomes a frame for Julius’s story, which is far richer with symbolic meaning. Julius describes the man Henry, who through no fault of his own came to be tied to the land for survival. Henry was bought and sold time after time to build the fortune of his master who had come to notice that Henry strength waxed and waned with the growing seasons and the plenty of the grapes. Julius has thus created a parable of the economics of slavery, where those that work the fields are but a commodity that can be used as leverage in the accumulation of wealth. Julius goes on to describe the fall of Mars Dugal’ McAdoo, as he was tricked by a Northerner at the cost of his vines, and thereby his wealth. Though not stated directly, one might believe that the Northerner had come to ensure the failing of the crop in order to defeat competition. If this is the case then it can be believed that this part of the story comes to represent the Southern perspective of the causes of this civil war. Henry dies along with the vines, symbolizing the end of the natural way of life.
Julius describes the Southern reaction to the war, “We’n de wah broke out, Mars Dugal’ raise’ a comp’ny, en went off ter fight de Yankees. He say he wuz mighty glad dat wah come, en he des want ter kill a Yankee fer eve’y dollar he los’ ‘long er dat grape-raisin’ Yankee” (Chesnutt 12). Julius has described the Southerners desire to go to war for economic reasons. Ultimately, the North (due to economic and industrial resources) won the war, symbolized in Julius’s story through the death of Mars. The remaining portion of Julius’s narrative describes the way that he had come to live off the new vines, able to tell the difference between them and the cursed vines. This can be understood as the free African American’s understanding of the promise of the new freedom and the dangers of the old slavery economics.
This could then be read as Julius’s polite deferment of the narrator, a way of saying that it was the North’s fault for the destruction and though it resulted in his own freedom, that he does not wish to become the slave of the new Northern enterprise. The narrator does not understand this, saying; “I found, when I bought the vineyard, that Uncle Julius had occupied a cabin on the place for many years, and derived a respectable revenue from the product of the neglected grapevines. This, doubtless, accounted for his advice to me not to buy the vineyard…” (Chesnutt 13). The narrator describes an African American man that attempts to trick him from buying the land so that he can continue to profit without ownership, ignoring the fact that Julius had worked the land throughout his life and was far more invested in it than anyone else could be. The Northerner takes the land and begins to profit from it himself, making a concession of a coach-man’s job for Julius. If, as Hovet proposed, the buggy represents Northern industry, then Julius is taken from the land and imposed into the new system of Northern capitalism. The irony then, is that the North freed the African Americans from the slavery economics of the South, only to enslave them in a new system of Northern Capitalism. Poverty, then, is the equalizer – not freedom. The Northerner began to profit from the land saying “I bought the vineyard, nevertheless, and it has been for a long time in a thriving condition, and is often referred to by the local press as a striking illustration of the opportunities open to Northern capital in the development of Southern Industries” (Chesnutt). In this, the symbol is complete. The narrator has come and using the wealth of the North has exploited Southern economic value. The narrator’s displacement of Julius represents the attack on the fragile new beginning of the South that was undergoing an ever increasing lower class job market expansion, falling prices in mass produced raw materials such as cotton. Julius, then, becomes the tool of Northern expansion, taking the job as a means to survive.

The United States economy boomed in the 1920’s. American financial firms grew at unprecedented rates, and American manufacturing was the envy of the developed world. Post WWI found Europe in shambles as they attempted to rebuild, paving the way for American financial dominance in the Twentieth Century. Though, to the outside world, the American economy was strong, trouble was brewing in the mechanics of it. This growth was fueled by the incredibly low prices for raw materials produced at the expense of the American farmer. One-third of American assets were held by 1% of the people, creating an ever-greater wealth disparity. This lack of redistribution slowed economic growth as the spending power of the middle and lower class waned, making demand stagnant and work unavailable. Much of this wealth held by the richest 1% was reinvested into financial markets and stocks that were risky at best and, due to a lack of regulations, on Black Thursday[1] the stock market crashed, destroying much of the perceived value held. The Great Depression began, and suddenly the once-thriving economy was destroyed. As work became scarce, families were torn asunder, many men choosing the “poor-man’s divorce” abandoning their wives and children. A new migration occurred finding many residents of cities leaving their homes to find new opportunities. In an attempt to artificially raise the value of the crops, the AAA was formed which issued subsidies to farmers to produce less of certain crops, under the principal of supply in demand – which says that the scarcity of a resource will make that resource more expensive, just as the abundance of that resource will lower the price because competitive forces will lower asking prices. Already impoverished farmers hoping to receive these subsidies destroyed their crops and livestock, even as the lower classes of Americans were starving. Unfortunately, the practice of sharecropping that had been the means of survival for many farmers after the civil war was all but destroyed because these subsidies benefited the landlords rather than the sharecroppers. This, coupled with the rising occurrences of foreclosures of homes created an epidemic in the agricultural-based micro-economies of the U.S. Despite a great number of social reforms put into effect in Roosevelt’s New Deal, the unemployment rate would remain at 19%, the rates not meeting pre-depression levels until 1943. ( It is in this economic climate that William Faulkner began his writing career. Nearly ten years after the market crashed Faulkner published the short story, “Barn Burning”.
Faulkner set the story, “Barn Burning” in an era that would be relatable to the reader, the Reconstruction-Era South, a time period that was very much like the Great Depression except on a much smaller scale. The conflict in the story lies between Sarty’s sense of duty to family and his duty to higher principals such as justice, truth, and morality. These higher principals are put into contrast with poverty and poor-reputation. The story begins with poverty represented by Sarty’s hunger, as he sits in the store that also serves as the local courthouse. Sarty’s father, Abner, is on trial for the burning of a barn, an incident that is understood as an act of revenge. Abner’s actions set the precedent for all of his other conflicts in the story. Still, the story isn’t as simplistic as the difference between right and wrong, the choice for Sarty isn’t clear cut. In order to understand why Abner is so vengeful, one must look at the environment and circumstances of Abner’s life. He is a sharecropper, a farmer that doesn’t own his own land in a period of time where farming doesn’t pay much to a person even if they did own the land. He is barely able to feed his family and is forced into a transient life that is difficult and wrought with hard labor. Abner, when taking these facts into consideration, is understandably resentful. In the scene where Abner takes Sarty to Major de Spain’s house he says of the house, “Pretty and white ain’t it. That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it” (Faulkner 12). This passage indicates that Abner was not disposed financially by the civil war, but rather that he is resentful even of the old slave-based agricultural economy that existed before the civil war. This implies that not only is Abner a poor sharecropper but that he had been in a state of poverty his whole life; a poverty that has shaped him into a stoic man with pent-up anger for which he must find a release. This release, as we know, becomes serial arson.
Though the arson is hardly an acceptable approach to the frustration of poverty, one could sympathize with Abner, and if the reader does then the story is not about Sarty’s choice between his morally corrupt father versus a society that represents the higher good; rather, it is a story about Sarty’s choice between his impoverished father versus a society that is inherently stacked against him. Ultimately the choice can be seen as Sarty’s decision to accept his fate as a sharecropper’s son or to believe in the possibility of rising above his station in life, complicated then by Abner’s anger and destruction. Except for the barn burnings, Abner would have come to be Sarty’s teacher of stoicism, as has been discussed in Zender’s essay “Character and Symbol in ‘Barn Burning’”. Zender says, “When Ab takes Sarty to the de Spain for the first time, he engages in two acts of instruction, both of which are aimed at overthrowing his son's naive, inarticulate view of the house as exhibiting a "peace and dignity . . . beyond [Ab's] touch" (Faulkner 10). The house is not beyond his touch, Ab says, through his actions, because its whiteness can always be marked by the merde of his anger. It is not beyond his touch in a more profound way as well, one that holds the possibility of creating allegiance not simply through fear but through empathy and shared understanding” (Zender 52, 53). Abner attempts to teach Sarty how to survive in socio-economic circumstances that he understand to be outside of their control. Even as he attempts to teach Sarty his station in life, he attempts to prove an altogether greater message of loyalty to family. This, however, backfires as Sarty interprets his father’s destruction as morally reprehensible, thus creating a dichotomy in which the wealthy land owner becomes the moral superior. In the end, Sarty betrays his father, resulting in the father’s death, the irony being that it is Abner’s one act of stepping outside of his pre-destined station (arson) that leads to Sarty’s act of rejecting his own station in life. Abner teaches his son individualism rather than stoicism. Symbolically, Abner comes to represent the self-destructive Old South just as Sarty comes to represent the hopeful New South, buying into the overarching promise of the American Dream.
Abner comes to represent the symbol of the often overlooked portion of the Old South; the poor whites. Even as the atrocious era of slave-economics was occurring, there was a segment of society that was both white and underprivileged – people, though not slaves, that suffered harsh economic conditions and servitude, forced to accept that the wealthy were building their fortunes upon their labor by levying great debt upon them. “Other furnishing merchants kept accounts during the year of the debts incurred by their sharecroppers, and at the end of the year, at “settlement time,” the merchant would deduct these charges from the sharecropper’s share of the crop. Oftentimes, the debt exceeded the amount the sharecropper made from his share of the crop, and his only alternatives were to sign on for another year with the same landowner/merchant or move on to another farm. In both cases, the cycle of debt and landlessness remained unbroken” (Bolton). Abner is of this class of whites before and after the civil war, the major difference being that post-civil war found an economic shift away from slavery toward greater competition in sharecropping. By this, I mean that freed African Americans, more often than not, lacking the resources to buy their own land, joined the sharecropping class, creating ever greater financial competition. The Snopes would have been faced with already mounting debt incurred before the civil war, expanded by the war, and then made insurmountable by an influx in the labor market. Debt was, in essence, a form of slavery sanctioned by society. Because of these economic pressures, Abner could be seen as fighting back against this system that has enslaved him, and through his perspective the wealthy are simply attempting to use laws to further increase his enslavement.
Sarty then, as the symbol of the New South, seems to embrace the same system that has enslaved him. He begins to believe that the rule of law represents justice and truth as morally correct and universally right, even as these laws would often further disenfranchise him. Abner’s actions are not necessarily justifiable, but are understandable; making his death caused directly by his son’s intervention a tragedy. Sarty’s believe in the wealthy as morally superior, and his desire to join this class of people is overshadowed by the forboding symbolism at the end of the story; a warning to against wealth as a virtue.

The slow constellations wheeled on. It would be dawn and then sun-up after
a while and he would be hungry. But that would be to-morrow and now he
was only cold, and walking would cure that. His breathing was easier now
and he decided to get up and move on, and then he found that he had been
asleep because he knew it was almost dawn, the night was almost over. He
could tell that from the whippoorwills. They were everywhere now among the
dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the
instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no
interval at all between them. He got up. He was a little stiff, but walking would
cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on
down the hill, toward the dark woods…
(Faulkner 25).

Cold and heat are used throughout the stories as symbolism for stoicism and anger. Abner is often described as performing actions that lacked heat, opposed to actions of his true anger which is arson. This final passage can be read as Sarty’s new stoicism that replaces occasional burning anger with the hope that through work he can find that warmth that his father lacked. This passage symbolizes that New Southerners attempt to work their way out of servitude and into the better life that they had seen in the Antebellum rich. The whippoorwills then would be the growing middleclass that seemed to benefit from the growth of industry post WWI, growing louder and more sure until the night was over, promising a greater wealth for all. Sarty is the working poor of the South, believing all the time that the sun was about to rise, that warmth would come. Unfortunately, he is walking down the hill into the dark woods, the depression.

The Great Depression came to an end due to a number of factors such as social security, work programs, and aid to the banking system. The military-industrial complex created even more jobs through the course of WWII and in conjunction with a resource-responsible U.S. population that scrapped unused metal and rationed food, the middle class gained a foothold that would help create the dominant world economy of the Twentieth Century ( Free from the negative economic cycle of job loss and decreased middle class spending power, The U.S. began a trend toward the economy as we understand it today.
The middle class was able to afford homes, appliances, televisions, and cars. The initial shock to the agricultural economy shifted to an uneasy but balanced system of subsidized projects that left the remaining workload primed for industrialized agriculture. These things, great as they were, came at a cost though. The sudden demand for electrical power put a heavy reliance on natural resources, such as coal (which would lead to the destruction of waterways and natural forests in Appalachia). Cars became the major form of transportation, but with that came an ever-increasing need for oil that was compounded by the plastics industry. America was no longer so cleanly divided between the rural and the urban areas as suburbia emerged creating an increased need for transportation. Industrialized Agriculture found a greater reliance on always newer and more powerful machinery, allowing major interests to cultivate massive farms that kept the prices low on food and raw materials. Though these lowering prices were good for the average American consumer, smaller, more localized farming was becoming a thing of the past as they were unable to compete in a market where prices were too low to compensate for the cost of machinery, fuel for machinery, and seeds (which would eventual evolve into a system where seed only be planted once due to seed industry contracts). The economy was growing ever-stronger; eclipsing the gold standard in the seventies, replaced with a system of fiat currency. The strength of the American economy made it the most likely candidate as the world’s reserve currency, even as the money issued by the Federal Reserve came with interest that could never be paid, prone to inflation.
The American way of life was irreversibly changed, as the paradigm shifted from national economies to a global economy. In order to create greater profits, jobs began to shift overseas to countries with workers that would produce more goods at lower wages, so unlike their American counterparts who had long demanded reasonable work conditions, over-time pay, and minimum wage. Though, for the Twentieth century, the U.S. had remained an industrial giant in the world, the damage was beginning to be felt. Smaller towns’ micro-economies were shifting farther from agriculture and industry, becoming consumer-based economies defined by service-industry and retail jobs, selling the goods produced elsewhere. Chain stores became the norm, as small, specialized businesses could no longer compete with the lower prices found in the business models of the giant corporate stores. The U.S. macro-economy became dominated by the financial industry that worked not only in commodities such as goods, but in the debt of the people. It began to become necessary to create debt, both from banking systems and credit cards, to maintain the standard of living that had defined the American way of life. As agriculture and industrial jobs waned, the need to enter into professional careers became important, and the education required for such careers came with its own mounting debt. The younger generations would be faced with the choice of massive debt accumulation through higher education or to remain in consumer-industries that maintained low wages in order to increase corporate profits.

In the nineteen-eighties, the political landscape of the U.S. government began to become ever-more entwined with the U.S. economy. The necessity of welfare programs became greater and through a system of “supply-side” economics became the norm. Through to the end of the century, a great divide emerged between the rich and poor. Middle class families found themselves with ever growing debt; living paycheck to paycheck in the best of circumstances, unable to save, falling ever-closer to being lower-class. The wealthy began to accumulate the majority of wealth, just as they had before the great depression. The political atmosphere came to demonize the redistribution of wealth, taxation, and regulations. By 2006, the cumulative effects of the factors resulted in a slowed economy. Job growth dropped, retail sales fell, a short lived housing-boom came to an end as home-owners became so riddled with debt that foreclosure appeared to be inevitable, the U.S. imported far more than it exported, and incomprehensibly massive debts were owed to foreign investors. The South, as indicated in 2007, was particularly suffering as the lowest personal income per capita of the people existed in states that are traditionally considered Southern States[2] ( This is the environment in which Holly Goddard Jones published “An Upright Man”.
The story is set in a fictional small Kentucky town called Roma. The distinction between the rural and the urban teenagers is blurred, as shown in the second page of the story. The perceived notion of people in cities being of greater wealth is a traditional concept in the South, but as Jones has indicated, “During the school year county kids would hang out at the Hardee’s on Friday and Saturday nights, while city kids (though calling Roma a city always struck me as a bit optimistic) set up house at the McDonald’s across the road. There was some fraternizing, of course, but maintaining an appearance of separation was important. They’d call us snobs and queers and wiggers, and in turn we’d call them rednecks and hillbillies and retards. None of which made any sense, considering some of the richest kids in the area went to county and had daddies who farmed tobacco, while a lot of us city kids—me included—were shouting distance of the housing projects” (Jones 124). This distinction between the city and county teenagers is the difference between what they call each other, the former being the traits associated with rich city life and the latter being the poorer rural life. Much of this story is a realization that the wealth distinction between the two areas is non-existent.
The best possible solution for most of the teenagers in the story is to go to college, as Jones wrote, “Three of us were going to college in the fall. I had a full ride to Western Kentucky University, which was the default for an RHS student with no money or no special aspirations, but still a lot better than rotting away in Roma for the rest of my life (Jones 124). She goes on to elaborate on the alternative, which is remaining in Roma in the hard labor market, “…nine dollars an hour sounds like a lot when you first get on, but you’re not making much more than that when you retire forty years later, when you leave with a broken-down body and a broken-down spirit and a broken-down version of the Chevy truck you bought when you were still young and wifeless and flush with cash. (Jones 125). The setting of the story determines the outcomes of the characters, Matt being able to leave for college despite anything that he had done, and Robbie having to stay behind.
In Chesnutt and Faulkner’s South, it was the Northern industrialism that was fueled by the Southern agricultural economy that dominated and put pressures on the lives of Southerners. In Jones time, it was the ingrained, systematic economic trends of globalization. Ultimately this is part of the same capitalistic structure, evolving through the course of time. Where Chesnutt’s Southerner’s understood the financial power of the north, Faulkner’s Southerners would have seen the collapse of the whole of the economy. Jones’s Southerners, being of our time, can understand the progression of this economic standard as it has, without fail, always grown on the backs of the labor of the less fortunate, a stacked system that seems inescapable.

[1] October 24th, 1929, the day that the financial markets attempted to sell the majority of stocks due to market uncertainty thus lowering the prices of the stocks. This could be seen as the day the Great Depression began.

[2] These states are (in order of lowest number to greatest number): Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Kentucky.

Works Cited

Bolton, Charles C. “Farmers without Land: The Plight of White Tenant Farmers and Sharecroppers” Mississippi History Now 2012. WEB.
farmers-without-land-the- plight-of-white-tenant-farmers-and-sharecroppers 10 Oct. 2012.

Chesnutt, Charles W. “The Goophered Grapevine” Conjure Tales and Stories of the Color Line New York: Penguin 1992 pp 1-13 Print.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” William Faulkner Collected Stories New York: Vintage 1976. pp 3-26 Print.
Jones, Holly Goddard. “An Upright Man” Girl Trouble New York: HarperCollins 2009. Pp 123-188 Print.

Hovet, Theodore R. “Chesnutt’s ‘The Goophered Grapevine’ as Social Criticism” Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 7, No. 3. St. Louis University 1973, pp. 86-88. JSTOR 10 Oct. 2012

“Personal Income Per Capita In Current Dollars, 2007” United States Census Bureau, U.S. Dept. of Commerce. 2007 WEB. 10 Oct. 2012

“U.S. History, Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium” USHistory.Org Independence Hall Associate, Philadelphia 2012. WEB 10 Oct. 2012

Weller, Christian E. “The U.S. Economy in Review:2006” Center for American Progress 2006. WEB. 0/the-u-s-economy-in-review-2006/ 10 Oct, 2012

Zender, Karl F. “Character and Symbol in “Barn Burning” College Literature, vol 16, No. 1 (1989) pp 48-59 JSTOR 10 Oct. 2012


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