Historical Perspective

A Farm Life in the South

Despite efforts to improve technology and farming methods, a farmer’s life during the 1920s involved a constant struggle for survival. The farming life was restrictive and demanding on both men and women. In fact, farmers often lived on an income of little over one hundred dollars a year. Therefore, even families who owned their land relied almost exclusively on themselves to supply both farm labor and basic necessities. Some would hire additional help during harvesting season, yet this expense could prove burdensome as well.

One can see, then, that Darl and Jewel earning three dollars to haul wood was a good job, and the purchases of luxuries like false teeth and bananas were a big deal. In essence, a farm family’s land, labor, livestock, and equipment were its only assets. To lose any of them could prove disastrous, a fact which underscores the impact of Darl’s decision to burn Gillespie’s barn.

According to many scholars of Southern culture, two belief systems provided many Southerners with pride and a sense of purpose: religious conviction and racism. Religion in this community was a potent emotional and psychological force, and a person’s relationship with God provided one with a set of values, activities, and friends. Many critics contend that poor whites used religious beliefs as a means of coping with economic deprivation, social inferiority, and political weakness.

White supremacist beliefs also served these ends for some white citizens, providing poor white laborers with a sense of personal worth and group solidarity against a perceived menace. The economic conditions, religious beliefs, and racial views of white farmers became important factors in Southern politics in the early twentieth century.

B Economics and Politics in the Rural South

On October 24, 1929, the day before Faulkner began writing As I Lay Dying, the American stock market crashed. This financial disaster ended a period of post-World War I economic expansion and marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the rural South, however, economic hardship had been a way of life for years, especially for poor farmers. Three factors, in particular, affected Mississippi cotton farmers. One, farmers operated under a lien system, whereby they pledged future crops to merchants in return for necessary supplies. Thus, they were in continuous debt. Second, a long-standing depression in the cotton market forced farmers to go further into debt until they could barely manage to sustain their farms or their families. Third, heavy rains and floods in the late 1920s nearly ruined production. These elements combined with outdated farming methods to make already difficult conditions even worse.

Such tensions were a staple element of Southern life in the early decades of the century. The exploitation of the working class generated populist movements that impacted Mississippi politics in the early 1900s. Sometimes termed “the revolt of the rednecks,” these reforms ushered in a new breed of politician.

One of the most prominent of these men, James K. Vardaman, serves as a representative example (especially since Faulkner’s family supported him and Faulkner named the youngest Bundren son after him). As Mississippi governor from 1904 to 1908 and a United States Senator from 1912 to 1918, Vardaman was a flamboyant orator and advocate of white laborers. Coming from a poor background, he called for greater regulation of corporations and supported such progressive causes as a graduated income tax, child labor laws, and women’s suffrage.

One of his most potent appeals, however, was his strident racism. His views and manner earned him both the nickname “The White Chief” and a reputation as a demagogue who used racial hatred to further his own ambitions. By 1918, Vardaman had lost his once-formidable influence because he opposed American involvement in World War I. “Vardamanism,” as his brand of politics was termed, had faded by the late 1920s, but populist loyalties still existed among farmers, as did the white supremacist ideals that provided poor whites with a false sense of superiority and power.

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