By:Tom Landess | April 16, 2018
Andrew Lytle’s “The Hind Tit” is the best essay in I’ll Take My Stand (1930), not only because it focuses on the small, independent farmer, the class the Agrarians most admired, but also because Lytle nails the volume’s primary thesis to the church door, the dilemma his region and nation faced in 1930—the choice between virtue and practicality:
One common answer is heard on every hand: Industrialize the farm; be progressive; drop old-fashioned ways and adopt scientific methods. These slogans are powerfully persuasive and should be, but are not, regarded with the most deliberate circumspection, for under the guise of strengthening the farmer in his way of life they are advising him to abandon it and become absorbed. Such admonition coming from the quarters of the enemy is encouraging to the landowner in one sense only: It assures him he has something left to steal. Through its philosophy of Progress it is committing a mortal sin to persuade farmers that they can grow wealthy by adopting its methods. A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn.
In 1930, his tough yet almost idyllic description of small farmers was accurate. Those who lived on subsistence farms worked hard, survived on little, and cherished the same spare pleasures their European ancestors had enjoyed in the Middle Ages. Many still rode horse-drawn wagons to town, made their own clothes from feed sacks, borrowed money to put food on the table till harvest time, picked the cotton themselves, hauled it down to somebody else’s gin, sold what few bales they’d made, repaid the lender, and walked out of his office broke.
If the crops were scorched as the result of drought, the cotton might bring too little to pay off the loan. In small towns, the lender—whether a local bank or the owner of the general store—might carry the note for another year or two. But in the 1930’s, many families lost land their grandfathers had tilled and the house in which they’d been born. The Great Depression changed the economy of the region so rapidly that by the end of the decade they were wriggling in the maw of Leviathan.
Many of the dispossessed free farmers joined the ranks of those who found large landowners willing to let them farm a few acres in exchange for one third to one half of the crop. Those with a small amount of capital “cash rented” other people’s land. In Lanterns on the Levee (1941), William Alexander Percy said that “sharecropping is one of the best systems ever devised to give security and a chance for profit to the simple and the unskilled.” The question is infinitely debatable, and its answer may depend on whether you begin in the real world or in an economic Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Franklin D. Roosevelt spent much of his presidency in Cloud Cuckoo Land. He had led a privileged life; traveled often to Europe; could speak German and French fluently; had learned to ride, shoot, row, and play polo; but knew less about family farming than the members of his mother’s book club. From the well-appointed White House—cluttered with Stuart portraits and priceless étagères and sideboards—he denounced “the infamous sharecropper system” and inaugurated a series of programs designed to raise the price of cotton, corn, wheat, and other agricultural products in order to save the small farmer from the economic crisis the New Deal was exacerbating.
Like most economic schemes produced by central planning, the New Deal measures had unintended consequences. For example, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) reduced the acreage farmers were allowed to plant and instead gave subsidies to landowners. In other words, the agency paid farmers not to farm. Fewer acres in cultivation meant a reduced need for tenants, something Roosevelt’s Brain Trust apparently figured out only after noting the rise of unemployment in agricultural regions. But they instituted other programs to compensate for the fallout from this one.
And that’s what happened to most of Andrew Lytle’s small farmers in a mere decade. No longer sucking hind tit with their independence and dignity intact, they ended up subsisting on the New Deal’s watered-down alphabet soup. There was nothing independent or dignified about it.
In the small Florida town where I grew up, these programs were chugging away by the middle-to-late 1930’s: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and other “relief” programs.
Fathers of children in my elementary school were in the CCC. The men, most of whom came off the farm, were outfitted in uniforms (like prisoners) and forced to live in barracks—the next thing to Army posts, yet without the patriotic aura surrounding the military. Typically, they worked outdoors, building state and national parks and other woodsy projects. They were nicknamed “tree boys” and ate mostly potatoes and beans. In those hard times, they earned a dollar per day. Self-sufficient folks knew the CCC was created to take the jobless off the breadlines and regarded them at best with sympathy, at worst with condescension.
Their wives and children—if they had any—lived in whatever cheap housing they could find. I don’t recall ever seeing a father around. Certainly, these arrangements were not as conducive to family life as a farm, where father, mother, and children often worked side-by-side in the field. However, the New Deal wasn’t officially concerned with families, but rather with using tax dollars to manage lives.
Around 200,000 colored people—as they wanted to be called then—joined the CCC, most of them landless farmers. They worked in segregated units, whether in the North or in the South.
The WPA hired millions and millions of people. From 1936 to 1939 the agency spent nearly seven billion dollars and was shut down only when World War II came jogging along to end the Great Depression. In books by liberals, you can read heart-bracing accounts of the WPA’s successes. It built buildings and bridges and paved roads. It landscaped city parks. It funded would-be artists, poets, playwrights, actors, folklorists, and historians. It distributed food and clothing and provided low-rent housing.
However, most sharecroppers and cash-renters weren’t used to paying for housing. The house went with the land they farmed. Government housing was cheap, multi-unit, and mercilessly supervised. The colored women in our town didn’t want to live in New Deal housing. They much preferred work as maids in white households—cooking and serving all three meals, with Sunday nights off; cleaning the house every day; and babysitting in the evening. On Monday mornings after cooking and serving breakfast, they would take the week’s laundry into the backyard, start a wood fire under a giant washtub filled with water, pour in Oxydol, and keel the pot. When the clothes were clean and rinsed in another hot tub, they would hang everything out to dry on wire clotheslines. On Mondays you could drive down a certain street and see the Baptist preacher’s underwear, flapping in the wind.
In the mid-1930’s, maids were paid five dollars per week plus bus fare. However, they ate the same meals as their white employers, were provided with uniforms to wear each day, and lived in a one-room garage apartment, grandiosely called “the servants’ quarters.” That one room was their castle, and no white woman would presume to enter it.
On the other hand, white social workers routinely inspected the rooms in low-rent government housing, gave orders to clean this or get rid of that, and asked hundreds of impertinent questions. They never let the tenants forget at whose discretion they were allowed to remain. The increase of social workers during the Roosevelt years marked the ascendancy of a new class in America—mid-level bureaucrats whose job was to manage the intimate lives of ordinary Americans. After all, it followed that if government was to hand out jobs, housing, food, clothing, and other essentials, it had the right—indeed the responsibility—to keep a close watch on the beneficiaries of such gifts.
The colored women of that day weren’t about to submit their autonomy to social workers, white or black. They preferred the privacy they experienced on the farm.
The job description for a New Deal social worker read as follows:
Must have a healthy curiosity about the lives of others: their finances, their problems, their sins, their annoying habits, their secrets, their phobias, and above all their relationships. Must demonstrate a passion for snooping in places where even spouses and siblings would be reluctant to go: closets, dresser drawers, medicine cabinets, mattresses, purses and wallets, letters, and diaries. Must be bossy. Women preferred.
My grandmother fit this description perfectly. A woman of limited intelligence, she was only actualizing her potential when she was ordering others about, poking around in their lives and pushing them in one direction or the other. In the early 1930’s, my grandfather left town in the dead of night, never to return. Some said he was fleeing from the exposure of a shady real-estate deal. My mother, his daughter-in-law, believed he was fleeing from Granny.
Abandoned, never having held a job, she went to work for what she called “The Relief,” an office that helped people in desperate straits—the sick, the hungry, the broke. Granny’s “clients” were poor whites, virtually all straight off the farm; and she enjoyed giving lectures and barking orders to people whom she considered her inferiors, despite the fact that she came from a similar background.
At the same time Hitler was rising to power in Germany, Granny was rising to power in South Florida. She would often boast of terrorizing her captives: “I said, I’m not letting you live like white trash. You get outside and clean up that yard.” “I don’t want you messing with those people, you hear?” “Don’t you sass me. I’ll smack you.” Albert Speer tells us that during World War II Hitler refused to stop making Volkswagens for civilians because he feared the wrath of the German people. Wielding the borrowed power of the federal government, Granny feared no one.
She assumed that her own tastes and values were the norms against which to measure the conduct of those who lived under the shadow of her thumb. She made women change their perfume. She ordered one elderly man to stop listening to hillbilly music on the radio. She removed a picture of the End of the Trail from the wall, because she despised Indians.
She was also a pirate: someone who boarded the lives of others and took whatever she saw of value. Occasionally, she would show off treasures she’d found in these desperate households and bought for a dollar or two: a 14K gold spider with a sapphire thorax, a sterling pickle fork, a brass mortar and pestle marked with the date 1761.
One day her supervisor told her to take on a new family with a disturbing set of problems. The couple had farmed some 30 acres of sandy land south of town. A hurricane followed by flooding had wiped out their crops. The bank—teetering on the brink of failure itself—had foreclosed. The man and wife had five children, ages two to six—an economic asset on a farm, a liability to the homeless. They moved into an abandoned one-room house in a forgotten field—four walls, a floor, and a caved-in ceiling, no running water, an outhouse in the back. The entire family slept on pallets in the one room. The woman was scheduled to deliver her sixth child any day.
The supervisor told Granny to go to the house, check out the health of the wife and children, then take the man aside and instruct him in the mechanics of birth control. She refused, not because she balked at such an outrageous invasion of privacy, but because she believed that sex was something too obscene to discuss with anyone, much less a strange man. The supervisor told her she could either do what he said or find another job. She quit, moved in with us, and never worked again.
Granny died at the age of 89. For a few years, she was the quintessential social worker and deserves a bronze statue in some park or public building erected by the CCC or WPA. In her small, proud way, she helped to defeat the Agrarians, whom she never heard of and would never have understood.
If you need statistical evidence to prove the Agrarians lost their battle with Granny, the figures are certainly available. Between 1929 and 1933, one third of all American farmers, drowning in debt, lost their farms. Hundreds of thousands of farm-owning families were evicted. In 1930—the year I’ll Take My Stand was published—an estimated 30,455,350 Americans were farmers, 21 percent of the work force. By 1990, the estimated number of farmers was 2,987,552, a mere 2.6 percent of the work force. Recently, the largest owner of American farmland was Prudential Life. You can be sure most of those just-under-three-million farmers work for Prudential, ADM, and other agribusinesses.
For years now, economists of all stripes, voices triumphant, have been telling us that the same kind of people who farmed for a living 80 years ago are better off today working for Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—that they make more money, have stock portfolios, live in homes with swimming pools and Jacuzzis, own SUVs, watch TV on 50-inch screens, wear designer clothes, and vacation in Cancun.
Such arguments are less convincing today than they were 18 months ago. Suddenly, the banks—the same banks that foreclosed on hundreds of thousands of farms in the 1930’s—are themselves going bankrupt. Over three million home foreclosures were filed in 2008, a record. Automobile manufacturers are closing plants all over the country. Huge chain stores like Circuit City and Goody’s are going out of business. In 2008, 2.6 million people lost their jobs. And the downward spiral of the stock market has all but wiped out the life savings of millions of retirees.
And here comes the federal government bounding to the rescue, a crooked smile on its face, determined to make all private things public—as always, omniscient and insatiable. Does this scenario sound familiar? Is the modern industrial society breaking down in the face of unintended consequences? Will Granny soon be running the Bank of America?
Meanwhile, a few people I know are buying unimproved land outside the city. Some have planted corn, tomatoes, field peas, cucumbers, and squash. No one to my knowledge has yet planted a money crop like cotton. But they talk about it. They’re watching to see what the Roosevelt-wannabe in the White House is going to do next.
This article was pulled from the July 2009 issue of Chronicles.