Cold Sassy Tree: Essay Q&A

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  1. Why was the Civil War so hard for Southerners to forget?

In The American Civil War (1861–1865), eleven Southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America. Led by Jefferson Davis, they fought against the United States (the Union), which was supported by all the free states and the five border slave states (such as Maryland, Miss Love’s home state). Georgia was one of the seven Deep South cotton states who seceded first. Georgia paid a heavy price during the war. Several battles were fought on its soil. It sent 100,000 troops to war. The Confederates had munitions factories in Georgia and the worst prison, Andersonville, a death camp for Union soldiers. In 1864 the Union under General Sherman invaded Georgia, burned Atlanta to the ground and marched to the sea cutting a swath of destruction sixty miles wide across the state. The war devastated Georgia and the state’s economy. Georgia was the last Southern state to re-enter the Union in 1870.
Reconstruction (1867-76) added to the bitterness. Federal troops were stationed in the South, making the South feel occupied by a foreign enemy. The troops enforced new laws allowing blacks to vote and hold office. There was an influx of “carpetbaggers” or Northern opportunists and politicians flocking to the South to take advantage of the chaos. “Scalawags” referred to Southern whites who cooperated with the hated Yankees. The newly freed and enfranchised blacks were briefly elected to office before they were driven out by white supremacists. Georgia had to rebuild its farming and labor system.
The town of Cold Sassy in the novel has Civil War veterans like Grandpa Blakeslee who was only fourteen, Will’s age, when he picked up a gun and fought beside his daddy. Even forty years later, the town is just emerging economically and culturally from defeat. People still bring in chickens to Grandpa’s store to trade for supplies (Chpt. 4). Cold Sassy is about to be renamed Progressive City as it moves into the twentieth century, but the scars of the past are still recent enough that Love Simpson can be hated as a Yankee. Will mentions that the study of history in Cold Sassy “never got much past the invasion of the Yankee carpetbaggers before school let out” (Chpt. 10, p. 61). The life of upper-class Georgians before, during, and after the Civil War is vividly portrayed in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind in which she explains the psychological trauma of suddenly losing a whole way of life.

  1. What were the cotton factories like?

Cotton production played a significant role in Georgia both before and after the Civil War. The factories that grew up were based on English models. The mills were small at first and used slave labor, producing coarse grain sacks. By 1850, the labor force consisted mostly of rural whites. During the Civil War the mills produced supplies for Confederate troops. With the men in the army, the workforce became mostly female. By 1864 Sherman’s troops had burned many of the mills. Cotton production re-emerged after the war as the basis of a new industrial economy in the south. During Reconstruction, towns competed for mills to be located there. Northerners often invested in southern mills because labor was cheaper in the south. Villages like Mill Town grew up around the mills with rented company housing. All the family members would work at the mill, including children. Because of the poverty in the south, the mill towns drew many families, like Lightfoot McLendon’s family from the Blue Ridge Mountains. In time the mill towns became slums. Will describes the “close-together little shotgun houses—three rooms in a row” (Chpt. 11, p. 69). The new mills produced cotton sheeting, shirting fabrics, and twine, rope, and carpets. Grandpa Blakeslee profits from this new economy with his nearby cotton warehouse.
The unhealthy conditions of the cotton mills are hinted at in the book. The air in the cotton mills had to be kept hot and humid to prevent the thread from breaking. The air in the mill was thick with cotton dust, which would settle all over the worker (hence the name applied to Hosie Roach, “linthead”) and was breathed in, causing byssinosis, a lung disease. Eye inflammation, deafness from the loud machines, tuberculosis, and cancer were common. Long hours and little food, exercise, or proper clothing (Hosie Roach has bleeding bare feet, even in winter) meant mill workers did not last long. Lightfoot’s father dies of TB and pneumonia. Lightfoot is forced into taking his place because the aunt cannot afford for her to go to school. Will mentions the forcing of children to work in the factory, and notices how Lightfoot begins to look unhealthy after working there. The prejudice of upper-class whites against poor white people is reflected in Will Tweedy’s shame at having a crush on Lightfoot.

  1. Why were tenant farmers like Uncle Camp’s family scorned?

When slavery was abolished, the institutions of sharecropping and tenant farming supplied new cheap labor in the South. Sharecroppers were poor people who agreed to work on someone else’s farm. They could only contribute labor and had no legal claim to the land or crops. A sharecropper might receive half the crop in return for working, from which a landowner deducted rent and any credit, with interest, for supplies. Tenant farmers were slightly better off. They often supplied not only labor, but their own tools and supplies. They usually received two-thirds or three-quarters of the harvest, less deductions for living expenses.
Farm tenancy was present before the war but became a major reorganization of the agricultural economy after 1865. It provided jobs for poor black and white agricultural workers. Sharecropping was meant to benefit both the southern landowners who had lost their money in the war and could not pay their workers, and the freed slaves or poor whites who couldn’t afford land to farm. This system defined the agricultural system in rural Georgia for the next one hundred years. Farmers were generally poor, and so Will’s announcement that he wants to farm is not accepted by Grandpa Blakeslee. Will says he is going to Agricultural College. He likes to gamble, and “farmin’ is one big dice game” (p. 165).
There were evils with sharecropping and tenancy that made critics call it a new kind of slavery in the South. Peonage was the practice of the landowning creditors forcing debtors to work for them. If the sharecropper or tenant farmer couldn’t pay back the landowner what had been given on credit, he was made to work off the debt in a never-ending cycle of poverty. The landowners often cheated their illiterate workers in the account books. About half of the tenant farmers were black; the rest were poor whites. The poor whites were treated almost as badly as the blacks, and this explains why it was so shocking to the Blakeslee family that their daughter Loma wanted to marry Campbell Williams, the son of a tenant farmer. He was treated by everyone in Cold Sassy as though he was stupid and sub-human.

  1. What was the position of African Americans in the South after the Civil War?

The European colonization of the Americas required cheap labor to develop the land. Enslavement of Africans in the American colonies grew steadily from the early 17th century until by 1860 there were about 4 million slaves in the United States. Though blacks had been emancipated by President Lincoln in 1863, it took another century for them to win their civil rights with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Segregation became the rule in the South with its Jim Crow “separate but equal” laws, making it impossible for blacks to mingle with whites in any public place. In Cold Sassy, there is a separate black church. When Grandpa states in his letter that only Big Loomis, a black preacher, may give his burial service, he is doing something outrageous, as shocking as his marriage to a Yankee woman.
Segregation is hinted at when Love Simpson tries to explain to Will Tweedy why the Tweedy’s cook, Queenie, drinks out of a jar instead of a glass. Will thinks she does this because she wants to, but Love informs him Queenie does it because she knows she cannot use the same dishes that white folks use. The legacy of slavery is also still present in Big Loomis’s name, Loomis Toy. Toy is Granny’s family name, and Big Loomis was probably the descendent of the Toy family’s slaves.
The minstrel shows were a form of popular musical and comedy entertainment after the Civil War, lampooning African Americans as stupid and superstitious. At first the parts were played by whites in blackface, but later, by blacks themselves, with stock characters like Jim Crow, Jim Dandy, and Mr. Bones. They sang and danced and made jokes. Big Loomis and Old Uncle Lem (Chapter 33) perform this kind of entertainment for whites to make money for their church.

  1. What is the significance of the discussion of religion in the novel?

Next to class or racial prejudice, religious prejudice is a major factor in Cold Sassy. Though most of the citizens are Protestant and go to church, they are quite aware of the distinction among sects. Four churches are mentioned: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and the Negro Church.
The Baptist Church, founded in England, promoted adult baptism and the view that God's saving grace is for everyone and not just predestined individuals. The Southern Baptist Convention separated from the Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, holding that God meant the races to be separate. In Cold Sassy Tree, Southern Baptists are the majority, with the Blakeslees and Toy family and most of the wealthier citizens as members. They are scandalized by Mary Willis’s defection to the Presbyterian church when she marries Hoyt Tweedy. The Baptist deacons try seventeen-year-old Mary Willis for heresy and refuse her communion. Presbyterianism is considered a more Evangelical and lower-class religion. The Tweedys are farmers and less prosperous than the Blakeslee Baptists.
Will does not like growing up as a Presbyterian. They are too strict, holding to Calvinist theology with a strong belief in sin and that everything has already been worked out through predestination. Will finds predestination a silly explanation for how he lived through the train accident. He doesn’t like that his father Hoyt worries about sin all the time, works too hard, and won’t let his son have fun. He is not allowed to go fishing on Sunday. Grandpa Tweedy constantly makes Will recite his catechism. On the other hand, Hoyt is a little more tolerant than the Baptists towards others; Presbyterians feel that good works contribute to salvation.
The Methodist Church is where Love Simpson plays piano. Church means a lot to her, and she is very upset when the Methodists bar her from attending because of her improper marriage and behavior (kissing McAlister and singing and dancing on Sunday). Methodists are supposed to do kind acts. Miss Love is shown to be a good Methodist who believes in Scripture and in God, while Effie Belle and the others are judgmental hypocrites.
The Negro church is represented by Loomis Toy. Loomis is nervous when Grandpa makes him preach in the parlor to Miss Love, because he knows the black and white churches should be separate, and he is afraid of getting into trouble. Will admits he would rather hear Loomis preach than the Presbyterian minister. Loomis is very entertaining and big-hearted and tells jokes.
Grandfather’s religion is contrasted to all of these churches, because his religion is not conventional or doctrinal. He believes in love and forgiveness as the central and simple message of Christ. Most importantly, he seems able to experience the actual presence of God, as he mentions on his deathbed. Grandpa tells Love that he once tried preaching but people didn’t want to hear his liberal religious ideas. He decided not to share his ideas of God with folks “with rock minds” (Chpt. 48, p. 360).
 

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