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A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-Century Arkansas.

A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-Century Arkansas. By Jeannie M. Whayne. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1996. Pp. xvi, 324. $39.50.)

This book is a study of economic development, with attendant social and cultural transformations, in Poinsett County, Arkansas, between the county's formation in 1883 and the present. Jeannie Whayne's well-told story is a case study of the emergence of the modern southern agricultural system, a change in Poinsett County marked by a shift from a world at the turn of the century where the average farm was under 50 acres and operated by a tenant or sharecropping family, to one dominated by corporate farms typically in excess of a thousand acres and worked by wage laborers. The work's broader conclusions regarding causal forces support the generalizations of scholars such as Jack Kirby, Pete Daniel, James Cobb, and Gavin Wright who have emphasized the role of national and international economies, government policies, and shifting labor markets in producing the present farm pattern.

This study is more than simply a reaffirmation of existing hypotheses, however. Its microscopic examination of a single county expands our understanding of the transition by showing the complexity, the local variation, and the human dimension of the process. Poinsett County proves to be a particularly interesting example. A part of what is called the "Sunken Lands," a vast swamp created by the New Madrid earthquake of 1811-1812 and the St. Francis River delta in eastern Arkansas, the county remained economically undeveloped until the 1880s, when drainage programs and the cutting of the virgin forests opened up land to farming. The first economic interests in the area were timber companies, and the earliest towns in the delta portion of the county grew out of that industry. Northern in origin, these businessmen hardly appeared to be the sort to become southern planters. They quickly established themselves as lords of the land, however, and introduced a plantation system that, except for a lack of traditional southern paternalism, looked like that of the older farm country throughout the rest of the South.

While all of the usual factors help account for the triumph of planters and the plantation, Whayne shows that result was not inevitable. The businessmen-planters had to contend with rival prairie and upland interests in controlling their own county. More critically, they struggled for power with tenants and sharecroppers who tried to shape the system in the framework they desired, asserting themselves as independent farmers rather than wage laborers and limiting planter control over them. The latter posed a particular threat in the 1930s when many united in the bi-racial coalition of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

In the end, the northern newcomers showed remarkable skills at mimicking their southern counterparts in the use of economic problems, racism, and political power to ensure their control over the local economy. Conflict between black and white tenants, control over local drainage districts, the Red Cross's accession to planter hegemony in the flood of 1927 and the drought of 1930, the Agricultural Extension Service, and federal farm policy all were used by the business-plantation elites to their advantage. At the same time, Whayne shows that labor mobility, one of the few means tenants had of demonstrating their independence, proved a major factor in assuring the triumph of elites.

A New Plantation South is a superb example of how local case studies can temper the easy generalizations that historians desire so much and recapture the sophistication of the actual human experience.
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Author:Moneyhon, Carl H.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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