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Genesis of the Southern Cracker
Published by Editor on May 7, 2012
by W.J. Cash (pictured)
FOR years it has been the fashion with historians to explain the white cracker of the South as simply the product of degenerate blood-strains from Europe — the progeny of the convict-servants and redemptioners of Old Virginia. But the theory defies logic and the known facts.
Actually, the source of the cracker is identical with that of at least 90% of all other Southern whites. He stems, mainly that is, straight from the common Scotch-Irish, English, and German stock which from about 1740 on was slowly filling up the huge Southern wilderness lying between the thin sliver of coastal civilization built on tobacco, rice, and indigo. And in that backwoods of the eighteenth century, he was so little set apart from his neighbors that he married very much whom he pleased, became by 1800 related to nearly everybody within a radius of thirty miles about him, and so today boasts exactly the same names as the most pretentious Southern families.
What differentiated him, what created the type, was the invention of the cotton gin and the spread of the plantation to the back country. The plantation was inordinately greedy of land; the acreage adjudged suitable for the growing of cotton was limited; the number of possible units was small. And in the fierce competition thus engendered (a competition complicated by wildcat finance), these prizes fell swiftly and mainly to the strongest among the population; the weaker elements were driven back to the rejected lands and the estate of either the yeoman farmer or — on swamp and sand lands and in the pine barrens and red hills — of the poor-white. Nor were they only driven back. Because of the peculiar static quality of the Southern order, they were locked up and closed in — completely barred from any economic and social advance as a body.
The life to which the cracker was thus condemned was one of constant impoverishment. The plantation and his own waste had presently destroyed the forest. The hunter who had formerly foraged for the larder while his women hoed the corn now spent most of his time on his back, disdaining to do work which habit had fixed as effeminate, and consoling himself for the poorness of the shooting with a jug of what he himself had named “busthead.” His diet sank to a routine of cornpone, hog, and turnip greens. Nutritional disease, hookworm, malaria, indolence — all these joined hands to accentuate the lankiness, the boniness of head and feature, which the backwoods had already stamped upon him; conspired with the blistering sun of the land to give him the marked swarthiness or the odd colorlessness of skin and hair which distinguishes him.
But more important still was the fact that the plantation contrived, not deliberately, not consciously, yet with a great effectiveness, to see that he developed no ponderable resentment against his fate. Thus, if it had robbed him, the plantation had nevertheless nearly everywhere left him some sort of land, and, having no use for his labor, it nowhere directly exploited him. His independence was untouched. Thus again, if it had blocked him off from advance en masse, it had not closed the door on him as an individual. Always it was possible for the strong, sturdy lads, who still thrust up from the old root-stock, to make their way out and on. Thus once more, if it had introduced distinctions among white men, the plantation had also introduced that other all-dwarfing distinction between the white man and the black — at the very moment of the poor-white’s degradation, it had elevated him to a tremendous superiority that, come what might, he could never publicly lose. And finally, the coming of the plantation had definitely created the celebrated Southern manner — a genial, expansive, hand-on-shoulder manner which would be ideally calculated to draw the sting from the rising contempt for the cracker.
The upshot was certain. The cracker almost completely abandoned economic and social focus, failed wholly to develop class feeling, and, in the great leisure that was his, gave himself up cheerfully to elaborating the old backwoods pattern of amusement and distinction — became in his fashion a remarkable romantic and hedonist.
To fiddle, to dance all night, to down a pint of raw whiskey at a gulp, to bite off the nose or gouge out the eye of a favorite enemy, to father a brood of bastards to fight harder and love harder than the next man, to be known eventually far and wide as a hell of a fellow — such would be the pattern he would frame for himself. And if this left him a little uneasy, if it bred in him a sense of sin, well, there was escape in orgiastic religion.
But after the Civil War — in which he fought manfully to keep things just as they were — the cracker’s world was to be rudely upset. For the South, bled white and needing money imperatively, was to turn with increasing passion to the pursuit of that fata morgana, cotton. From 1870 to 1880 it doubled the production; in the next decade it tripled it. And that, mind, primarily by falling back on the lands which had once been held as of no account for the staple — the lands of the yeoman and the poor-white.
Growing cotton on such lands, however, required fertilizers. And to provide fertilizers there arose the credit-merchant, who normally demands 40% (sometimes 80%) interest for his services, an exaction before which the poor-white was hopelessly lost. Literally by the thousand he attempted to grow cotton, failed, and was sold out. Nor was he alone. Hundreds of those who had been yeoman farmers met the same fortune.
So there grew up in the South the white cropper and the white tenant — the head and font of the poor-white in our time. And this, of course, might naturally have been expected to restore economic and social focus and to beget class consciousness in him. For here, plainly, was an end to his freedom from direct exploitation and to his independence.
It was not to be, however. At the moment when so much of his heritage was crumpling, the remainder of that heritage was being greatly enhanced in value. Everywhere the South was engrossed in its great fight for white supremacy, everywhere preservation of superiority to the Negro was becoming the first thing. And in the poor-white, who had no other superiority to lose, this feeling was most intense of all. Hence, when he found himself falling to the status of cropper and tenant, what held his gaze to the exclusion of everything else was the spectacle of the grinning face of the ex-slave rising into his own.
Conceivably, of course, this fixation itself might have issued into hatred for the plantation order, in revolt against the whole social arrangement. But the cracker was habituated to thinking of his masters not as antagonists, but friends. And now these masters, seeing that there would not be room on the plantation for both the blacks and all this increasing crowd of whites, terrified at the imminent prospect of a life-and-death conflict between the two groups, a conflict that might easily upset the entire Southern fabric — now at last these masters were concerned with what was happening to the poor-white and were moving heaven and earth to find at least a partial sanctuary for him. Out of that, as much as anything else, came the Southern cotton mill.
Thus, the cracker, seeing hands everywhere reaching down to bear him up, seized them eagerly, grappled back with the pathetic passion of his heritage, and gave himself over fully to the purpose, not of making his own way up but of keeping the black man down. And there to this day he still stands, helplessly caught in his obsession.
Through the years, his status has swung steadily downward. Industry, if it saved him racially, has elsewhere merely heaped evil on evil. With its consort, commercialism, it has piled the banker on the credit-merchant and begot the cracker an army of new masters. Widening opportunity for a moment in the beginning, it has now all but closed it up. Spawning towns and shifting the center of social gravity, it has introduced and made well-nigh universal the vicious wrong of absentee landlordism. And in rolling up relatively immense wealth at the top, it has infinitely broadened the social gulf.
All of which means eventually that the cracker has been increasingly despised. Only the politicians treat him to the old easy manner now. For the rest, the treatment meted out to him daily assimilates itself more and more closely to that meted out to the black man.
Does he fail wholly to see this? Of course he doesn’t. It has been eating into him for years, making him bitter and sullen. But there is nothing he can do about it. For at the end of every possible road lies this implacable fact: to succeed in revolt he must join forces with the Negro. And rather than do that, he prefers to starve and to rot.
Accordingly, the cracker goes on steadily tumbling down the slope into degeneracy, waxing ever more shiftless, and perforce discharging his energies, in so far as they are not squeezed out of him, in the old channels — in striving at once to console and to amuse himself, to achieve dignity and value, by playing the hell of a fellow. In dancing and fiddling when his ministers will let him, in fantastic religion, in hard drinking and hard fighting and hard loving, but above all in violence — above all, in violence toward the Negro. And perforce, too, the ennui, the bitterness, the viciousness, bred in him by the always-narrowing conditions of his life, pour over to the elaboration of this pattern, to making him at his worst a dangerous neurotic, a hair-trigger killer, a man-burner, a pig quite capable of incest — in brief, everything that William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell have made him out to be, and perhaps something more.
The American Mercury, May 1935
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