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Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont.

In Habits of Industry, winner of the Charles Sackett Sydnor Award of the Southern Historical Association, Allen Tullos has attempted a different kind of history, juxtaposing historical and biographical narratives in different voices to build up an evocative, impressionistic portrait of white southern society in the Carolina Piedmont and its "transformation" by industrialization. Eclectic in its method, Tullo's book draws as heavily on cultural and literary analysis as it does on conventional historical method in an effort to reveal the cultural roots of the modern South.

At the heart of Tullo's depiction of Piedmont culture stands the work ethic. His southerners (largely white males) are not leisurely planters, corrupted by slavery, nor are they degenerate crackers or free-and-easy yeomen. They more closely resemble W. J. Cash's "man at the center": chiefly Scotch-Irish in ethnicity, heavily Presbyterian in religion, and imbued by the harshness of their lives and their worldview with a ferocious devotion to discipline, both for themselves and for their patriarchal dependents. Such values, Tullos believes, explain the post-Civil War industrialization of the Piedmont, not only because they imparted drive to entrepreneurs and workers alike, but because they undergirded a social structure characterized by authoritarian control and relentless surplus-value extraction. In Tullo's eyes, the root of southern injustice can be found, not in the plantation but in the patriarchal household and the Presbyterian congregation.

By putting the non-plantation Piedmont culture at the heart of his analysis, Tullos had made a great advance over those scholars who have rooted southern industrial relations in the plantation regime; by fixing his gaze on the household and religious faith, he makes the closest approach yet to a full understanding of that much-misunderstood phenomenon, southern cotton-mill "paternalism." Along the way, Tullos provides those unfamiliar with the industrial Piedmont with a handy, if loose, account of the chief events and personages in its development. When he steps aside to let workers recount their own experiences (he began his research working with the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), the voices are rich and wonderful.

All told, however, the book falls well short of its potential. Part of the problem is its deliberately loose organization, which undercuts analytical rigor and necessitates considerable repetition. Tullos justifies his technique in part as an assault on what he terms "the industry of history," as a means of rendering the fullness of people's historical lives rather than processing them into "the fragmented parts of someone else's narrative" (p.256). Despite such disclaimers, the ruling voice is clearly Tullos's, and, as the book progresses, it becomes less and less compelling. Although Tullo's emphasis on "values" as explanatory factors in southern industrialization is refreshing, it carries us little beyond old Weberian arguments about the "Protestant ethic." Moreover, his clear distaste for those values leads him to stack the deck. Missing from his entrepreneurial gallery of work-obsessed Presbyterian elders and barren old bachelors are people like W. C. Hamrick of Gaffney, S.C., who always left his work at the office and reserved his evenings for his wife and family; such men, one suspects, were more numerous than their absence here might indicate. Tullos suggests that patriarchal authority and the work ethic have crippled the lives of workers as well as of industrialists; but the unencumbered voices of his workers speak in the end less of victimization than of family solidarity and triumphs wrested from stony ground.

The biggest problem with Tullos's voice, though, is its sentimentality. The argument proceeds less through logic and the marshalling of evidence than through appeals to academically fashionable prejudices, notably those against "patriarchy," Christianity, and especially industrial capitalism. In these pages industrialization is understood solely as a form of exploitation; its role in creating wealth goes unappreciated. The only effort to explain the social ills of the industrial South attributes them to "the intentions of particular men" (p. 289) evading their (unspecified) "responsibility" (p. 203) to their workers; Tullos snorts at the same propensity "to hold some individual responsible when things |go~ wrong in general" when he encounters it among upcountry Presbyterians (p. 51).

Finally, though Habits of Industry is "critical" of Piedmont industrial society, it offers neither a clear alternative social vision nor any means of realizing it. That it fails in this regard is hardly surprising, for that would require admission that the work ethic has progressive as well as conservative uses, that reformers and revolutionaries, too, need the sort of personal discipline that most modern Americans find so discomfiting. Habits of Industry would be a less frustrating book had it respected, and practiced, the discipline shown by its industrialist and workers.

David L. Carlton, associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, is the author of works including Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (1982) and "The Revolution from Above: The National Economy and the Beginnings of Industrialization in North Carolina," Journal of American History 77 (1990). He is currently working on a study of the industrialization of North Carolina.
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Author:Carlton, David L.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1991
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