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Title:Black Folk /White Bondage: Race, *Class and the Literature of Sharecropping, 1925--1942
Author(s):Lessig, Matthew Wade
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Parker, Robert Dale
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Black Studies
Abstract:This dissertation examines sharecropping in American literature and culture from the First World War to the Second as a site of shifting fields of race and class. While the Southern literary "renaissance" is frequently credited with debunking post-Civil War "plantation literature's" romanticizations of the antebellum South, it produced its own mystified versions of more recent Southern history. I argue for a link between those mystifications and the contemporary crisis in Southern agriculture, the increasingly activist tenant class, a progressive (or, for many Southerners, intrusive) New Deal reformism, and a Depression-traumatized national culture fascinated with images of both Southern rural suffering ("white bondage") and literary grotesquery. I see Depression-era Southern writing as a literature of conflict rather than consensus, countering the Agrarian/New Critics' canonical prescriptions while unearthing the cultural debates on which they cut their critical teeth. Recovering this contested discourse allows us to remap the Southern Renaissance and its relation to other American modernisms, rescuing the South from its often self-imposed reputation as modernism's reactionary country cousin or from the role of mere reservoir for the New Negro movement's explorations of folk authenticity. The plight of the sharecropper was a national scandal throughout the 1930s, helping define the nation's attitudes toward the South and toward its own stalled engagement with industrial capitalism. The Depression established the sharecropper in the national imagination as a contested figure of racial hybridity, class tension, class delineation, and regional conflict, a figure whose homely appeals to America's ideal of the family homestead competed with his stark display of America's history of racial oppression and class conflict. While often cast in terms of failure and despair, the sharecropper also served as a figure of things to come, as the rough subaltern beast slouching toward the nation's urban centers and its racial future. William Attaway's ambivalent migrants, Erskine Caldwell's lackluster Lesters, Sterling Brown's heroic union martyr, Stribling's messianic "white negro," and Faulkner's uncannily mobile Snopeses suggest the varied cultural work that the sharecropper performed in Depression America. Emerging from the ruins of an agrarian past and drawing on popular nostalgia for that past, the sharecropper could be cast as a new man who inspired jeremiads on racial purity and paeans to racial amalgamation, who bore the blame for crass materialism and the cross for class-conscious revolution.
Issue Date:2002
Description:276 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002.
Other Identifier(s):(MiAaPQ)AAI3070365
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-09-25
Date Deposited:2002

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