A Daring Life: a Biography of Eudora Welty by Carolyn J. Brown

I took photo of Eudora Welty at National Portr...

I took a photo of Eudora Welty at National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. U.S. government collection, public domain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is advertised as a work “for all ages,” but I believe the target audience would be on the younger side of young adult. 4 stars based on that audience (2 stars for an adult reader). In that context, it is a great introduction to the life of one of our great Southern writers. It has a plethora of photographs which really add to the text.As one who hasn’t seen the younger side of young adult for decades, I would not necessarily recommend it to someone who has already read a biography of Welty. Brown relies heavily on the work of Suzanne Marrs and for most adult readers, it would do just as well to go to that source.

The book is due in early August of 2012 and I received my copy free from the publisher.

To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton

Inside the Walmart (still branded as Wal-Mart)...

Inside Walmart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The spectacular rise and astounding success of retail giant Wal-Mart has puzzled business observers for decades. How did someone who seems like nothing so much as a ‘hick from the sticks’ shepherd a single five and dime store in rural Arkansas, the heart of the anti-corporatist stronghold that had “fought against  large corporations and for increased government safeguards,” into the largest corporation in the world?[1] Author Bethany Moreton frames the story as “the Wal-Mart paradox.” According to her, Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, turned what for many would seem like insurmountable obstacles into defining advantages. By tapping directly into the social fabric of the rural communities in which his stores were located, Walton was able to dominate retail competition and force that same outlook out into the larger world as well.

Moreton tells the history of Sam Walton and Wal-Mart from Walton’s very earliest days as an entrepreneur in the Ozark Mountains. That area in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas is isolated, insular, and ideologically conservative. An area that had held onto a lifestyle of family farms far longer than most, it was also an area that opposed big business most stridently.[2] As Moreton stated, it was an area that “suffered at the hands of Northern railroads, Eastern banks, and industrial monopolies that demonstrable extracted wealth in a semicolonial relationship with the hinterlands.”[3] However, Walton was able to turn that mindset to his advantage by presenting his company as local.

Walton’s business plan called for only local investors, at first family members. Later, he offered his store managers the opportunity to become investors, which allowed him to avoid the ire of those most opposed to industrial monopolies. Walton could present his stores as locally owned and operated which gave him a distinct advantage over other mass retailers, such as Target and K-Mart which also opened their first stores in 1962.[4] Once the first stores had shown a pattern of success, Walton added economic efficiencies to the mix.

Walton carefully planned the expansion of his company. New stores opened concentrically from the distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas. His goal was that no store be more than a day’s drive from the center. Additionally, as the company spread, it moved outward one community at a time. This allowed for word of mouth to spread to the neighboring communities, thus ameliorating the need for advertising expenditures.[5] Walton’s greatest entrepreneurial genius may have been demonstrated through his melding of a “populist corporate image” with an “evolving Christian culture.”[6]

The stores were also structured on the traditional family units that had been prevalent on the farms, with the men at the head of the family and the women in a subservient role.[7] This led to a management cadre that was almost exclusively male, and an entry level workforce that was almost as exclusively female. As Moreton described it, Walton took advantage of harsh economic times and used the fundamentalist bent of his community to his advantage in hiring and promoting workers. As Wal-Mart started adding stores, the Ozark communities in which they were being built were losing many family farms. Those women who were newly seeking employment outside the homestead for the first time were happy to receive the minimum wages jobs.

Additionally, Walton and the Wal-Mart managers have positioned their stores as the wholesome alternative to “big city” retailers, by really pushing “the whole family values thing.”[8] Though eschewing such labels well into the 1990s, the company has wholeheartedly embraced this identity from that point forward.[9] This may have been after conservative Christian leader Ralph Reed stated that “if you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the church pulpit. If you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in a Wal-Mart.”[10] By positioning the company in this way, Wal-Mart has been able to take advantage of the growing “Southernization” of America and expand the brand across the country and the globe.[11]

[1] Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 8.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Ibid, 21.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 37, 122.

[7] Ibid, 55.

[8] Ibid, 91.

[9] Ibid, 89.

[10] Ibid, 1, 89-90.

[11] Ibid. 38.

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue

With this work, Thomas J. Sugrue presented a new interpretation of the decline and fall of the American industrial city using Detroit as a case study. While previous historians have pointed to the riots of 1967 as the fulcrum upon which Detroit’s (and by extension other northern industrial cities’) fortunes turned, Sugrue pushed that point back by two decades.[1] Instead he contends that the seeds for the city’s substantial decline were actually sown in the immediate aftermath of World War II. There was massive wartime relocation of southern African American, as well as Appalachian whites, seeking factory jobs in defense industries. The loss of those jobs once defense orders waned, coupled with rampant racism and inadequate housing, all played a part in the decline.

Sugrue argued that by placing housing and employment within the context of race, one can plainly see the cause and timing of Detroit’s decline. He makes the case that the postwar economic boom enjoyed by many communities was not universal, and was in fact, unevenly distributed across the country. For Detroit specifically, Sugrue pointed out that even in the best of times, those jobs that were available, were by and large, lower-paying jobs without the security of union contracts to guarantee long-term employment. Many of the employees still could not afford to purchase the cars coming off the assembly lines of the plants in which they toiled. And while home ownership certainly grew rapidly immediately after the war, it still remained an unattainable goal for many.[2]

Sugrue also showed that the loss of jobs hurt African Americans disproportionately.[3] One could argue that a life in Appalachia had served as no greater preparation for industrial work, and yet Sugrue argued that those white migrants held onto jobs, or at least had an easier time replacing them if they were lost. He also examined hiring practices of individual firms and industries to make his point of de facto hiring discrimination.[4] He successfully argued that it was not the role of decentralization, which moved the jobs away from African Americans sequestered in the inner city ghettos, but instead ordinary, everyday racism.

Housing was another issue which contributed to the city’s economic failure. As Sugrue pointed out, not only did African Americans migrants from the South pour into Detroit, but their white counterparts from Appalachia did so as well.  The housing crisis that resulted from the thousands of new residents did not affect both groups equally. This should eliminate Wilson’s argument that class was the deciding factor; Sugrue showed plainly that it was race instead.[5] He argued that the overwhelmingly negative white response to the prospect of African American neighbors was due in large part to white fear: whites feared unknown African Americans and they also feared the impact of desegregation on home prices.[6] White neighborhood associations saw segregation as the key to peace on the home front; in fact, Sugrue noted that “Many cited the Jim Crow South as a model for successful race relations.”[7]

Sugrue’s carefully researched work does show that many of the factors that are responsible for the decline of industrial cities have been in place far longer than most would posit. By using data from the United States census and other government reports, as well as privately gathered surveys, the author clearly upholds his thesis in regard to Detroit. Where he may be on shakier ground is his assertion that Detroit serves as a model for other industrial cities of the North and Midwest that have suffered similar declines.[8] Without similar data, gathered just as painstakingly as that present in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, one would be hard pressed to apply this model universally. Sugrue himself described the work as “a social and political history of inequality in a twentieth-century city,” and it is best left to that limit.[9]

[1] See for example, William J. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[2] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit: With a New Preface by the Author (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 213.

[3] See Tables 5.2 and 5.3, Sugrue, 144, 147.

[4] Sugrue, 93-95.

[5] See particularly Sugrue, 153-258.

[6] Sugrue, 214-15.

[7] Sugrue, 216.

[8] Sugrue, 3-4.

[9] My emphasis, Sugrue, 14.