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The Mind of the South

A particularly passionate circle of regionalists formed in the South in the 1920s. The group of "Southern Agrarians" had its origins among students and faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. This group of academics, often called "The Fugitives" after their little magazine of the same name, wished to regain and maintain contact with distinctive southern traditions as the forces of the "New South", nationwide industrialization and mass culture threatened to sweep them away.

First published in 1930, the essays in the manifesto "I'll Take My Stand - The South and the Agrarian Tradition" constitute one of the outstanding cultural documents in the history of the South. In it, twelve southerners-Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, Henry Blue Kline, Lyle H. Lanier, Stark Young, Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Herman Clarence Nixon, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Crowe Ransom, John Donald Wade, and Robert Penn Warren - defended individualism against the trend of baseless conformity in an increasingly mechanized and dehumanized society.

"All the articles bear in the same sense upon the book's title-subject: all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial. ... Nobody now proposes for the South, or far any other community in this country, an independent political destiny. That idea is thought to have been finished in 1805. But how far shall the South surrender its moral, social, and economic autonomy to the victorious principle of Union? That question remains open. The South is a minority section that has hitherto been jealous of its minority right to live its own kind of life. The South scarcely hopes to determine the other sections, but it does propose to determine itself, within the utmost limits of legal action.

"The younger Southerners, who are being converted frequently to the industrial gospel, must come back to the support of the Southern tradition. They must be persuaded to look very critically at the advantages of becoming a "new South" which will be only an undistinguished replica of the usual industrial community.

"The capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome. The apologists of industrialism do not like to meet this charge directly; so they often take refuge in saying that they are devoted simply to science! They are really devoted to the applied sciences and to practical production. Therefore it is necessary to employ a certain skepticism even at the expense of the Cult of Science... "The philosophy of applied science is generally quite sure that the saving of labor is a pure gain, and that the more of it the better. This is to assume that labor is an evil, that only the end of labor or the material product is good. On this assumption labor becomes mercenary and servile, and it is no wonder if many forms of modern labor are accepted without resentment though they are evidently brutalizing. The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned, and is practiced solely for its rewards.

" ... the true Sovietists or Communists - if the term may be used here in the European sense - are the Industrialists themselves. They would have the government set up an economic super-organization, which in turn would become the government. We therefore look upon the Communist menace as a menace indeed, but not as a Red one; because it is simply according to the blind drift of our industrial development to expect in America at last much the same economic system as that imposed by violence upon Russia in 1917. "Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian, which does not stand in particular need of definition. An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use at all for industries, for professional vocations, for scholars and artists, and for the life of cities. Technically, perhaps, an agrarian society is one in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige-a form of labor that is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and that becomes the model to which the other forms approach as well as they may."

Robert Penn Warren's first published essay was "The Briar Patch," his contribution to I'll Take My Stand. Warren himself later repudiated "The Briar Patch" as a more or less traditional defense of Southern segregation. Warren wrote that the only way to avoid racial violence with increased industrialization in the South is in the recognition that "the fates of the 'poor white' and the negro are linked in a single tether. The well-being and adjustment of one depends on that of the other." Warren argued that there was more opportunity for contact between the races in a rural setting, and this contact allows for the development of personal relations that transcend race.

In 1941 Alfred A. Knopf published a volume by a North Carolina newspaperman, entitled "The Mind of the South" by Wilbur Joseph Cash [within months of his book’s publication, he committed suicide]. Cash deposed as follows: "Softly, do you not hear behind that the gallop of Jeb Stuart’s cavalrymen? Do you not recognize it for the native gesture of an incurably romantic people, enamoured before all else of the magnificent and the spectacular?" To Cash, the South “is a tree with many age rings, with its limbs and trunk bent and twisted by all the winds of the years, but with its tap root in the Old South.”

"From 1820 to 1860 is but forty years—a little more than the span of a single generation. The whole period from the invention of the cotton gin to the outbreak of the Civil War is less than seventy years—the lifetime of a single man. Yet it was wholly within the longer of these periods, and mainly within the shorter, that the development and growth of the great south took place. Men who, as children, had heard the war whoop of the Cherokee in the Carolina backwoods lived to hear the gins at Vicksburg. And thousands of other men who had looked upon Alabama when it was still a wilderness and upon Mississippi whn it was still a stubborn jungle, lived to fight—and to fight well, too—in the ranks of Confederate armies."

From its earliest days, Cash wrote, southern evangelicalism was tied up with sin and subordination, and with “a personal God, a God for the individualist, a God whose representatives were not silken priests but preachers risen from the people themselves.” One of the most significant reasons why Cash thinks the South has developed so differently from the North is that he sees it as kept in a series of frontier stages—pre-Civil War frontier, post-Civil War destruction and Reconstruction which returned the South to a frontier status. The poor whites were used as mill fodder, just as they were used as cannon fodder during the Civil War. With this continuing frontier status, the South kept values more in keeping with frontier communities: fierce independence, romanticism, and violence. Cash identified “the savage ideal” in Southern culture, an ingrained white male truculence.

Cash identified the enormously hedonistic quality of the Southern people. Self-satisfied, complacent, they will not be diverted from their unwillingness to look critically at what they are. Throughout their history, anyone who attempted to point outthe extent to which they were used and manipulated for the benefit of those in power was unable to get anywhere. Conversely, those who flattered their self-esteem and confirmed them in their prejudices were able to manipulate them to vote and act contrary to their own economic and political interests. In the late 19th century efforts of populist reformers were frustrated by the spectre of black domination, evoked to keep white voters from bolting the Democratic Party, a pattern seen both before and since. The plantation/factory system meant that poor whites, needing a scapegoat for their poverty, were encouraged to view blacks as their enemy.

Cash’s interpretation of the southern mind held contradictory or paradoxical views. The South both embraced progressive movements yet it was reluctant to change. A tendency toward both hedonism and Puritanism is found throughout the South. Religiously, even the Methodists in the South were steeped in a stern Calvinism, yet there was also an undercut of free-will theology. The southern conservative mythology focuses on the individual, yet at the same time demands conformity from everyone.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:05 ZULU