In October of 1997, I attended the Southern Historical Association’s convention in Atlanta because I wanted to hear Paul Conkin’s presidential address, “Hot, Humid, and Sad.” What I heard was largely a history of the South in which climate and geography shaped a complex skein of human choices. Mostly a dense and almost perversely analytical examination of the subject, Conkin began and ended this public lecture with reflections of himself as a reluctant Southerner. But the opening remarks only hinted at the rich emotional and existential currents flowing through this erudite historical account. The beautiful agony of the region and the man—the Southern sadness about which he lectured—struck suddenly and without warning in his all-too-brief conclusion.The burden of history, Conkin noted, weighs heavy on Southerners. Each group bears it differently and they all wear their distinct stigmas. Worse yet, they must all suffer from patronizing non-Southerners. The story he tells is tragic, and Conkin wonders how many generations must suffer for this past—a past they cannot alter but that necessarily shapes the slowly changing horizon of the present. And in one paragraph, near the end, he reveals himself with a most powerful and disarming candor and innocence.
The sadness has a personal dimension. I have traveled a long way from home—from a small cabin in east Tennessee, from the year-round discipline of tobacco culture, from depression poverty, poor schools, and evangelical churches. I am one of the Appalachian refugees. My own self-concept, the deepest images I have about who I am, have never kept up with my geographical and cultural moves. I have always felt awkward, out of place, undeserving, even overpaid. My being here tonight, in this honored role, before this audience, is beyond my comprehension, fraught with self-doubt and tinges of guilt.
Without knowing the reputation of this man among these scholars—intellectually ruthless, obsessively devoted to precision and semantic rigor, and scrupulously, dangerously honest in every word he writes and utters—it is hard to understand how this paragraph sent emotional ripples through the audience. One of Conkin’s colleagues, sitting on my row, wept softly. Some incomprehensible emotion tethered two very different men, one black and one white, who share a common southern heritage. For those who are not sensitive to this species of modern homelessness, this little scene was impossibly opaque.
Paul had been my mentor and I knew him very well as I sat in the audience. We had lunch most days and enjoyed the most delicious arguments regularly. But it was only at this moment that I realized the existential depths found in Paul’s scholarship. Passages tucked away in the most recondite of his books suddenly vibrated with almost spiritual meanings. However far-reaching his subject, Paul’s scholarly journey was also a personal and a philosophical one—into the historical nature of humans, into the bramble of personal identity, place, and meaning, into the moral obligations of self in communities.
Shortly after Paul’s lecture, I discovered that he had several essays and lectures, written over the course of several decades, several unpublished, in which the themes related to place, to historical burdens, to the almost imponderable challenges of finding a real home in this age. Paul agreed to allow me and Wilfred McClay to edit a volume of these essay and I wrote a forward in which I explored briefly Paul’s life and career as a “Cosmopolitan Provincial.” Paul entitled the book A Requiem for the American Village.
Among the many gems in this slim book is a very short lecture entitled “Good-bye.” Written just prior to delivering the concluding remarks at a local history conference, it veers close to nostalgia in a place or two, but is organized around one claim: “When we are away for a long time….we cannot go home again, not fully.” He tells the story of his relationship with his father after Paul had become a well-established historian and author. When Paul went back to his hometown, thick with relatives too numerous to keep up with, he wanted to be Paul Conkin, esteemed scholar, but to all the folk there he was “Harry’s boy.” Even as an adult, Paul would listen to his father provide detailed accounts of the clan, the connections of blood and culture that bound them together. Harry knew the real Paul, he thought, because he knew the boy who became the man. But things had changed. Paul’s horizon included the one Harry placed him in, but it had become so much larger. The son could understand the father’s world, even though he was no longer part of it. The son was lonely when he was back “home” because his father and the hometown folk could never know the changed Paul—and he could not will himself to be the Paul he used to be.
And so Paul lamented that “I cannot go home.” That was 1978. In his newest book, published in 2008, Paul writes: “In what may be, because of age or health, my last book, I decided to go back to my beginnings, to the inescapable landscapes of youth, to go home again.” The book, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture Since 1929, is a strange history of American farming. The product of both research and personal memory, the book moves between trademark Conkin description and analysis (each paragraph a honed gem of both information and analysis) and more particular analysis drawn from his experiences on the farm. Whether this is good history or not should be a question for reviewers who do not know Paul so well as I, but it produces unusual perspectives.
Conkin begins the story in 1929, the year of his birth, though he supplies broad but precise summaries of agriculture going back to Colonial beginnings. While it is a bit eccentric to choose a year like 1929, Conkin noted that he was born into farm life that was about to become extinct, though no one at the time knew it. Farming in 1930 was closer to farm life of 1830 than 1960, so great was the unexpected and unplanned transformation that became the greatest American industrial revolution…down on the farm. By beginning his narrative in 1929 and by drawing on his experiences as a youth on the farm, Conkin can give personal and scholarly voice to a way of life now lost. If Paul intends for this book to be his ticket home, it is to a home only possible through imagination and memory. In this very restricted sense, the story is therefore sad because it is about a cultural extinction.
The sadness of this story, however, is not something that Paul can admit easily, nor can he allow, consciously, any romanticism in his story. As a historian one can only pay proper respect for one’s subject by telling the truth. In the introduction, Paul signals his intention of avoiding romanticizing when he tells of a student who “referred to the decline of agriculture in America. What could she mean by this statement?” He knew. He understood both how it is that a sort of popular misunderstanding produced that question and how a certain truth lay behind that question. He knew, but this isn’t the story he wanted to tell on his way home.
The great transformation of American agriculture was made possible by an evolving pattern of farm policies, beginning with Hoover; by sustained education and research; and by dramatic developments in farm technology. These were national characteristics and the face of farming in every part of the United States changed, but because Conkin focuses so much on his personal experiences, the book gives only negligible attention to California, Texas, the Midwest, or anywhere outside the South. In some respects, the excellent historical account that traces complex policy changes, the development of combines and tractors, and the various national factors, serve to provide the necessary context to provide an accurate portrait of Southern farming.
However unexpected, government policies to stabilize prices and to control or limit production made small, reasonably self-sufficient farms economically unviable. Greater specialization and efficiency made keeping one’s own hens, for example, a more expensive way of getting eggs than buying them from the store. Cheap food destroyed subsistence farming in America. Production control regulations hurt the marginal farmers who could not afford to take even a small part of their land out of production. The trends were not clear until after World War II, but inevitably, the losers sold out to the winners, concentrating farmland and government incentives in the hands of fewer farms. This agricultural revolution not only dramatically lowered food prices (probably lower costs than any major society in history), but it led to a mass exodus of people from the farms.
The almost miraculous spike in farm productivity should inspire awe even now—few societies have produced anything like it. Productivity is wealth, and, in this case, a kind of increase of wealth that helped some of the most vulnerable people and disproportionally assisted the poorest region of the nation, the South. No one could honestly deny that this was progress, and a blessing—but it was a mixed blessing.
Conkin’s two concluding chapters reflected the mixed nature of this blessing, and something of the mixed emotions of the author. He asks if there is any reasonable alternative to existing agricultural system. And here the story is very old as Paul traces strong current of agricultural reform efforts going back one hundred and fifty years. Some lamented that farmers were too independent and lonely and that a more communal and sociable form of agriculture would serve them better. Others have sought to develop land and tax policies that prevent large concentrations of land. Today, reformers focus more on sustainable agriculture and employ, all too often, a standardized and caricatured image of industrial agriculture—too many of these criticisms are “colored by nostalgia or misplaced idealism.”
Organic farming, Conkin notes, exists only because of the financial backing of affluent consumers. Morever, the advocates of organic farming are often unaware of their dependence on technological improvements and scientific advances, many subsidized by governments. No small farmer of his youth could have been met the certification requirements for organic farming. Even today, for those who go organic, they cannot be profitable selling free-range chickens or organic tomatoes except that there is a bobo marketplace where people will buy these products well above market prices.
Moreover, the critique of industrial agriculture is often part of a more systemic examination of a presumed “sick” modern culture. Conkin notes the brilliant reactionary Wendell Berry who, as poet and owner of a small farm in Kentucky, “knows, from firsthand experience, the dark side of farming, but he chooses to idealize it at its rare best.” Paul’s tone is very hard to determine in this section. Clearly he is frustrated by Berry’s idealization and therefore inaccurate presentation of a way of life. There is a sin in this—it is not the problem of the ignorant who speak of that which they know not. It is the problem of the well-informed who purposely misrepresent facts as part of a cultural crusade.
And yet it is not clear that Paul’s heart is far from Wendell Berry—the analytical historian and the farmer poet have the same cultural roots. The historian forecasts the worldwide need to feed 9 billion mouths before 2050 and this cold reality forces him to place the emphasis in a different place. Global sustainability—which extends to all earthly resources—is the most pressing question for Conkin and one he addressed in his previous book, The State of The Earth: Environmental Challenges on the Road to 2100. Nonetheless, connections between Conkin and the likes of Berry are many. Consider these words as Paul worked toward his ambiguous conclusion: “Consumers of food should be willing to pay (subsidize?) farmers to reduce air and water pollution, control erosion, preserver soil quality, treat livestock humanely, and pay higher wages and improved benefits to farm laborers. If this sounds like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8, so be it.” Well, so be it, but only if one overlooks some of the realities that Paul himself suggests are limiting factors.
At the end of Paul’s historical journey, where is he? Paul began the book by announcing that he was going home, but he ended with a distant and disquieting rumination about policy alternatives. This book, so filled with personal memories and with indulgent explorations of a youth now gone, ends with a distressingly distant author. Did he ever find his way home? Is home found only in memory—memory of people now gone and places now transformed?
I admit that I wanted Paul to return to the subject of home and identity, to conclude this book by reassessing his claim of 1978 in which he said that one can never go home again, completely. Still, Paul raises issues that he doesn’t explore adequately. When in the 1990s he declared himself a “reluctant” southerner he meant that growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee that the label “southerner,” with its connections to the Confederacy and all that comes with that part of America’s past, doesn’t fit well his particular cultural home. Yet by region and by general acknowledgement, he and his clan belong in the broad sweep of Southern history. Paul also meant something else—something much more profound and universal.
In one respect the past is inescapable. Choices made by forgotten folk shape the world we encounter, the culture we inhabit and that inhabits us. Our distinctive personalities bear the marks of a cultural inheritance that we will never fully fathom. And yet, distinctive persons we are. The inescapability of our past does not make us pawns in some historically determined story since we handle our past, we confront and challenge or embrace and sustain our cultural inheritance. Paul had no choice about being a southerner, but he could choose his reaction to the heritage he inherited. A reluctant southerner is one who refuses to be defined simply by this inheritance but who knows that he cannot escape the purchase of the past on his ongoing present and his evolving self. No matter where he goes, and what he does, he will always be a southerner.
Paul leaves me reflecting on some of the most basic structures of human life. I can state them as propositions:
- We can never escape our history, but we might aspire to overcome it.
- Home is desperately important to us.
- Home is often tied to our functions in life or the roles we play in society, but for most of us it is also inexplicably tethered to place.
- Outside of our youth—and maybe not even then—we can never be truly at home as our ever-changing selves belong to an ever-changing world, making a comfortable fit between the two brief, and possibly accidental.