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Reclaiming the American Farmer

The Reinvention of a Regional Mythology in Twentieth-Century Southern Writing

Southern Literary Studies

200 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / None

Literature - American

  Hardcover / 9780807131299 / May 2006

In this stimulating study, Mary Weaks-Baxter views the Southern Renaissance, 1900–1960, from a fresh perspective. Many writers in the South began consciously to create new myths for the region at the start of the twentieth century, and these myths, Weaks-Baxter argues, reframed southern history and culture. Instead of being rooted in the plantation culture that had provided inspiration for nineteenth-century southern writers, the new literature was inspired by "southern folk," the common people who farmed the earth and whose values derived from Jeffersonian agrarianism and democracy. By glorifying the yeoman farmer—a figure not only central to southern life but revered throughout the country—southern writers confirmed the essential Americanness of southern literature and the southernness of American history, creating a viable myth that offered the promise of renewal and purpose.

To illustrate how the myth crossed racial, gender, and economic boundaries as well as geographic lines, Weaks-Baxter examines the work of diverse writers, including Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Olive Dargan, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Jesse Stuart, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Harriette Arnow, William Faulkner, and the Nashville Agrarians. Their portrayals of the lives of common men and women provided hope for all Americans as they were confronted with industrialization and the Great Depression. Weaks-Baxter shows how this agrarian fable led to a new Southern Renaissance in the late twentieth century, influencing the work of contemporary southern writers such as Madison Smartt Bell, Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, Dori Sanders, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

With lively arguments and keen insights, Reclaiming the American Farmer will change the terms of discussion about the Southern Renaissance and southern literature in general as it demonstrates how mythologies can unify southerners as well as divide them. 

Mary Weaks-Baxter is Hazel Koch Professor of English at Rockford College in Illinois. She is coeditor of The History of Southern Women's Literature and Southern Women's Writing: Colonial to Contemporary.

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