Like a Family: Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, et.al.


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Copyright 1994 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.
Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, written by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, LuAnn Jones, and Christopher B. Daly, provides a detailed account of the shift from a traditional rural environment to a modern industrial environment in the southern United States. Their inquiry is based primarily in oral history, utilizing the personal and involved accounts of members of the community to add detail to the traditional narrative of the industrialization of the South. The ethnographic tack of Hall, et.al., emphasizes the importance of the southern workers in establishing their own lifestyle and sense of community, placing the common experience of the people at the center of the book (and in the title). The elements of unity and divisiveness, including gender, race, and religion, are described in light of the "family" motif. The importance of work and geography, both in a sense of local areas and the notion of the South, are highlighted as factors of similitude, which begin as community builders and later function as areas of division.

Like a Family studies these issues longitudinally, using World War I as a center point for a study that ranges from the 1870's to the 1930's. In this way, Hall, et.al, illustrate the vehicles of change in the southern community through time, making the argument that the change stemmed from external factors and self-definition. The most important of these is the work experience, which both caused a reidentification of the self for the southern worker and shaped the impact of other aspects of life in the community. The sense of autonomy and freedom than manifested itself in a sort of rural pragmatism was curtailed, limiting to the extent to which "the cash nexus had a human face" (12). For the rural southerner, the process of industrialization forced a radical reconstruction of the community.

In the process of reconstruction, roles dealing with gender, race, and religion were redefined while the need for community remained. The economic difficulties which once led women to expand domestic duties to sporadic productive work became more common after industrialization, forcing them to assume more extensive roles as wage earners in the family. The loss of dignity and autonomy was compounded as "most mill-working men were forced to live up their traditional sources of identity" (154) as women took on a greater role outside the domestic sphere, creating "conflict...along gender lines" (152). Race in the antebellum South was usually expressed in terms of black and white, paralleling the dual split of gender. However, with monetary reality limiting the disparity between Anglos and African-Americans, issues of ethnicity, in many cases, became subsidiary to the concerns of class. Religion acted to consolidate the southern mill workers, as "churchgoing millhands were predominantly evangelical Protestants" (175) integrating spiritual beliefs into the totality of their lives and helped to instill "a powerful sense of community" (178) among southerners. Religion further served to underscore the opposition between mill owners and workers, banning radical sects from their communities, fearing the sense of empowerment religion brought to the lives of the working class.

Ultimately, the harsh economic realities of the lives of the mill workers and their perceptions of increasingly hostile working conditions often led them to a strong dislike of the owners. The sense of "family," then, was not a paternalistic, top-down model stemming from the bonds formed from the work experience. The mill work served only as an element, albeit a key element, for similarity among the people of a community who, more importantly, shared a way of life and common beliefs. The "family" of Like a Family is the group of people, bound by a multitude of factors, forced into a new type of living by industrialization, who redefine themselves in their new environment, preserving many of the characteristics they see as valuable, eschewing those which are no longer tenable, acting as primary creators of the society of the South from the mid-1800's to the early- to mid-1900's.

With a methodological focus on oral history, Like a Family provides great insight into the importance of self-definition. Rather than describing the changing nature of the southern community as a function of macrophenomena, the importance of the intellectual autonomy of the mill workers is stressed. The book is extremely effective along these lines, preserving a sense of integrity for the people studied without being an overtly political work. While economy is a crucial factor in the book, it does not appear to be deterministic, making the book a more complex type of study. The book's complexity, however, is limited, to some extent, in its deemphasis on factors promoting conflict in the group as a whole. Individual cases of marital and familial disruption are numerous and well-depicted, but the impact of those disruptions on the larger community is not fully clear, perhaps reflecting more on the nature of oral history than on the construction of the argument in the book.

Like a Family is a valuable and interesting study of the workers of early southern industry and fits well into a general study of the history of the United States. Though the extent to which personal interviews are used can be somewhat exhausting at times, the methodology of the book allows for a new perspective into the history of the South, as well as the process of industrialization. The importance of ideology, technology, and economy are all well-served on an involving, personal level, showing the complexity of the relationships between the individual, the community, and society. Like a Family is an extensive and convincing treatment of southern industrialism and community, valuable both historiographically and as a compelling narrative.