Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History

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The industrial expansion of the twentieth century brought with it a profound shift away from traditional agricultural modes and practices in the American South. The forces of economic modernity -- specialization, mechanization, and improved efficiency -- swept through southern farm communities, leaving significant upheaval in their wake. In an attempt to comprehend the complexities of the present and prepare for the uncertainties of the future, many southern farmers searched for order and meaning in their memories of the past. In Southern Farmers and Their Stories, Melissa Walker explores the ways in which a diverse array of farmers remember and recount the past. The book tells the story of the modernization of the South in the voices of those most affected by the decline of traditional ways of life and work. Walker analyzes the recurring patterns in their narratives of change and loss, filling in gaps left by more conventional political and economic histories of southern agriculture. Southern Farmers and Their Stories also highlights the tensions inherent in the relationship between history and memory. Walker employs the concept of "communities of memory" to describe the shared sense of the past among southern farmers. History and memory converge and shape one another in communities of memory through an ongoing process in which shared meanings emerge through an elaborate alchemy of recollection and interpretation. In her careful analysis of more than five hundred oral history narratives, Walker allows silenced voices to be heard and forgotten versions of the past to be reconsidered. Southern Farmers and Their Stories preserves the shared memories and meanings of southern agricultural communities not merely for their own sake but for the potential benefit of a region, a nation, and a world that has much to learn from the lessons of previous generations of agricultural providers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Brings together 475 interviews with 531 people, outlining what she calls 'communities of memory' in southern culture." -- Harvard Book Review

"This is a wonderful book that allows us to read about rural people making sense of their earlier lives in their own rich words. At at the same time, we get Walker's thoughtful, provocative analysis of those words and their meanings for understanding social transformation in the modernizing South and the confounding relationship between memory and history." -- Michele Gillespie, Wake Forest University

"With exceptional care and intelligence, Melissa Walker weaves the words and life stories of black and white, well-to-do and hardscrabble farmers into one of the most humane and compelling accounts in print of the profound transformations in southern rural life during the twentieth century." -- W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory

"Named one of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles in its January 2008 issue." -- Choice

""Walker's new work extends the grass-roots record of the depopulation of the southern countryside. Walker, like practitioners before her, presents a mostly declensionist rural/agricultural narrative, enriching her story with the words of her 531 subjects."" -- Jack Temple Kirby, American Historical Review

"Melissa Walker's purposes go beyond historical documentation to include the shaping of shared memories and the interplay of past and present in those memories. She has achieved her purposes, nowhere more dramatically than in evoking memories from the era when postwar prosperity and optimism gave way to stagflation and malaise in the countryside." -- Robert C. McMath, Labor History

"Southern Farmers and Their Stories is an important contribution to the history of the twentieth-century rural south in terms of methodology and interpretation." -- Ginette Aley, Journal of Southern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813193175
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 11/5/2009
  • Series: New Directions in Southern History
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 0.76 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Melissa Walker, associate professor of history at Converse College, is the author and editor of several books, including All We Knew Was to Farm: Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919--1941, which won the Willie Lee Rose Prize from the Southern Association for Women Historians.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Three southern farmers tell their stories 37
Ch. 2 Rural southerners and the community of memory 77
Ch. 3 Memory and the nature of transformation 117
Ch. 4 Memory and the meaning of change 139
Ch. 5 The present shapes stories about the past 177
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