Book: 'Bill Clinton: An American Journey'

Had cotton been financially profitable or had they been able to obtain credit to switch to other forms of farming, the life of small Arkansas sharecroppers might have held out the prospect of economic progress after the ruinous years of civil war. However, without access to banking credit, small farmers in Arkansas had come to rely on cotton as their sole cash crop in order to survive-and the decline in the price of cotton in the latter part of the nineteenth century had resulted in white penury on a gigantic scale. "The debt-ridden, one-crop economy consigned the majority of Arkansans to subsistence on an annual income well below what would have been reckoned the poverty level in the growing American cities," one historian summarized.

It was in rural poverty in Bodcaw, then, that young James Eldridge Cassady worked as a half orphan-and at age twenty-three, having changed the spelling of his name to Cassidy, he got married on January 3, 1922, to Valerie Edith Grisham, the nineteen-year-old proverbial girl next door, whose family was also "eking out a living raising cotton" on her family's "hardscrabble farm."

Opting for Change

"Edie" Grisham was a short, handsome, feisty girl who was somewhat better schooled than Eldridge, having reached eleventh grade. The following year, on June 6, 1923, Edie gave birth to a child, indeed their only child, a daughter whom they named Virginia-Virginia Dell Cassidy.

Poverty in rural Arkansas made for a difficult domestic life. Virginia later characterized her mother as a woman subject to uncontrollable rage-an anger that welled from somewhere deep inside her. Edie had been dealt, Virginia reflected, a cruel hand: born in south Arkansas in rural poverty, growing up on the land, and marrying on the land. In those days, Edie had no option-a person's life mirrored the relentless pattern of nature and the seasons.

With Virginia's birth, Edie did, however, opt for change. She insisted at the end of 1923 that she, her husband, and the infant leave the land and move twelve miles away, to the local market town of Hope.

Hope had a population thirty times larger than Bodcaw, having expanded around a major cotton-market station on the Cairo & Fulton Railroad, effectively displacing the old Hempstead County town of Washington. Her childhood, Virginia later recalled, was punctuated with the whistles and bells of heavy locomotives, since her home was always by a railroad track. The segregated town's main roads had only recently been paved for whites, in 1920, and boasted several expensive residences on "Cotton Row"-but the Cassidys were far from wealthy. They were "country poor," as the town historian Mary Nell Turner put it, and lucky to find employment at the bottom of the proverbial white ladder.

One town resident later recalled that it was "a rough, busy, dirty, smelly town-in the damp, still air of evening every privy contributed its quota of perfume-but you couldn't help but love it." Eldridge eventually found work in the Ivory Handle Company factory-which would ruin his health, thanks to its boiling furnaces, dyes, and tanning chemicals. It did, however, permit him in time to purchase his own four-room house on Foster Street, on a mortgage.

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