The photo’s caption reads, “The Home of a Middle Class Farmer, Choccolocco Valley, East of Anniston, Alabama. This valley lies between the quartzitic Choccolocco Mountain and the Piedmont.”
That’s why I bought the book.
At $3, Parkins’ The South: Its Economic-Geographic Development was a steal this week at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County. There’s one listed on eBay for nearly $30. On Amazon.com, there’s a “collectible” edition selling for $99.95. Also available are a $45 used version and several cheaper paperbacks.
Mine’s a hardcover, green in color, first published in 1938. Its cover carries a not-so-faint symbol — think “X” without any stars — that mimics the Confederate battle flag. Parkins, born in New York state and educated in Michigan and Chicago, wasn’t a native Southerner. But he taught geography at the University of Missouri and in Nashville at the George Peabody College for Teachers, so he hardly was a stranger to the region and its peculiar ways. As one biographer wrote, Parkins was “one of the most American of American geographers.”
No need, then, to pillory his work.
Especially for the South, time is an elixir that causes equal doses of turmoil and social alterations. Some things rarely change: summer heat, racial dynamics, low taxes, political demagogues, good football. But others do, thankfully so.
Perusing Parkins’ book, I’ve had to keep reminding myself that (1.) the author was a geologist, not a social scientist or historian; (2.) he was born during Reconstruction and wrote this book in the 1930s; and (3.) he had no way of knowing the coming tidal wave of change that would rock the South in the immediate decades after his death and the end of World War II.
Still, Parkins’ work is peppered with paragraphs that still resonate today.
He wrote, “And what of the South? Does this section of the United States … possess the requisite natural conditions for an advanced economic development and an advanced cultural pattern?”
Don’t answer that. Yet.
He wrote, “The past always casts its spell to a greater or lesser degree upon the present, and in no other section of the United States is this quite so true as in that group of states we have long since come to call the South.”
He wrote, somewhat ominously, “The advancing South demands farmers with that intelligence which enables them to adjust themselves to new situations. Conservatism means death sooner or later.”
He wrote, “It is undoubtedly true that the South is conservative. Conservatism is born in an atmosphere of unchanging economic conditions characteristic of an old agricultural regime … There has never been an influx of hordes of discordant nationalities to break up the continuity of family ties or to introduce new ideas and ideals in politics, theology and society.”
And, he continued, “The stamp set upon society in the South in the early eighteenth century has come on down to our day but slightly changed. But it is changing.”
That’s a lot to digest.
I can relate to his stance on the “continuity of family ties.” In my relations, my generation was the first in more than 125 years to escape from the familiar ground of north Mississippi and west Tennessee. Family members, both sides, were born, raised, educated (a little), married, had kids, worked, retired, died and buried in the same soil as their earlier kin. Years changed but locations and attitudes (largely) didn’t, which aren’t automatic sins.
To his credit, Parkins admits that the South’s worst historic trait — the entrenched racial segregation that enveloped its whole world — was, in his view, crumbling in the 1930s. “A new day, a new spirit, a new economic order, a new vision of the relation of man to nature, is sweeping the South,” he wrote. Without that view, I’d recommend tossing his book in the trash.
Several generations have passed since Parkins first published The South, yet it’s worth adopting his inquisitive stance, even if we don’t like what we learn.
Is today’s South truly committed to the progressive ideals of quality public education? If so, why do results say otherwise?
Is today’s South willing to uplift and assist the high number of its residents in poverty? Does the South not see that poverty brings down entire regions, not just those in despair?
Is today’s South so entrenched to one-party politics that it’s willing to stunt its own growth and soil its reputation?
On and on we could go. Suffice it to say that the South, our home, has taken millions of forward steps since Parkins’ day. It is gorgeous, warm, laden with unrealized opportunity. But what will the next generation write of us?
Let’s hope it’s a chronicle of progress and egalitarianism, not sorry stagnation.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.