Keys to the Archive: A Gathering of Old Men

Transformation of a Commodity Crop

Commercial sugarcane production began in Louisiana at the end of the eighteenth century when Étienne de Boré, who later became the first mayor of New Orleans, established a system for granulating sugar. His mill proved the viability of sugar production, driving a transformation of agricultural practices in South Louisiana as other plantations converted their fields to grow cane and planters built new plantations along the Mississippi River. By the mid-nineteenth century, one quarter of the world’s cane-sugar came from Louisiana. That explosion in sugarcane farming depended on a growing population of enslaved laborers. One observer, writing in 1861, explained that the work of harvesting sugar was “intensely trying” and required enslaved people to “work in gangs night and day” to render the sugar before it spoiled. Given the difficulty and dangers of working with boiling cane juice, “it may be conceded that nothing but ‘involuntary servitude’ could go through the toil and suffering required to produce sugar” (Russell 259). The Civil War and emancipation threatened to erode the foundation of cheap labor that made sugarcane farming so lucrative.

Without hundreds-of-thousands of enslaved people to work the fields, Louisiana plantation owners organized a system of farm tenancy that enabled them to continue profiting from their land and the labor of others. Farm tenancy can take many forms, but during Reconstruction, landowners generally leased a portion of their plantation to a farmer in exchange for a share of the farmer’s crops. Because formerly enslaved people rarely had any money or tools of their own, plantation owners also provided basic necessities for a greater share of the crops or for a set price. That situation created opportunities for exploitation and the continuation of indentured labor. Plantation owners often manipulated share agreements to their advantage, paid day laborers in non-legal tender known as scrip, and sold or traded goods at inflated prices. Such practices existed on the Riverlake Plantation where Gaines spent his childhood. A photo essay he published in 1978 included a picture of the Riverlake store, “owned by the plantation, where we bought everything” (“Home” 53). As Matthew Reonas explains, “few bargains awaited the customer at such places.” The asymmetry of sharecropping arrangements often made it impossible for farmers to save money to buy their own land and even led to their perpetual debt.

Modern agricultural technologies have made the work of producing sugar less labor intensive. The mechanization of planting, harvesting, and milling processes makes it possible for just a few workers to manage many acres of sugarcane, reducing the need for sharecroppers. According to American Sugar League general manager Jim Simon, “In the 1960s, a Louisiana sugarcane farmer could only manage a 400-acre farm. Today, that same sugarcane farmer can effectively cultivate a 2,000-acre and bigger farm.” By the late 1970s and early 1980s, when A Gathering of Old Men takes place, tractors had replaced mule-drawn carts as the standard tool for transporting cane from the field. The novel represents that transformation of agricultural practices by placing Beau Boutan’s tractor at the margin of the story’s main action. In the opening pages, Snookum notes seeing the tractor in front of Mathu’s house. “The motor was running, I could hear it, I could see the smoke,” Snookum says, “but Charlie wasn’t on the tractor. He had two big loads of cane hitched to the back of the tractor, but he wasn’t on the tractor” (5). The motor continues to run until Sheriff Mapes shows up and tells Deputy Griffin, “Go turn off that thing” (65). The tractor acts as a synecdoche for the mechanized farming methods that displaced Black farmers, thus symbolizing the social changes that have decimated the sharecropping community and exacerbated racial inequities.

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