Tell About the South

By Benjamin Schwarz

23 January 2000 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

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“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” So demands the Canadian Shreve McCanon of his roommate, Mississippian Quentin Compson, in William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” Readers’ urge to know about the South and writers’ compulsion to explain it have engendered a vast subfield of American letters over the past century and a half. Even leaving aside the Southern novelists, poets and story writers, not three years have passed since the 1850s without a major work seeking to explore, explain, justify or condemn a region which historian David Potter has called “a kind of sphinx on the American land.”

Andrew K. Frank’s “The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American South,” which in its five chronologically arranged chapters covers the history of the region from before Jamestown to Johnny Cash, is an admirable addition to a host of recent books on the South aimed at the general reader. Frank, who teaches history at Cal State L.A., has managed in his maps, illustrations and text to elucidate concisely and imaginatively the complex social, economic, religious, military, literary and racial history of the region and to offer his own thoughts on the persistence of and changes in Southern character and identity at the dawn of the 21st century.

These issues can really be addressed only historically and geographically. In the last several years, a number of geographers have illuminated specific subjects of Southern history (most notably Charles Aiken in “The Cotton Plantation South”) and, of course, many writers and scholars have examined the region historically, but no geographers or historians have recently attempted an approach as broad and synthetic as Frank’s. In fact, for the general reader who wants a short yet comprehensive introduction to the region, there’s no better guide than “The Historical Atlas.”

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Defining the South is a thorny endeavor, even for Southerners. The two 20th century classics of Southern self-definition are “The Mind of the South” by Wilbur Joseph Cash and “I’ll Take My Stand,” a collection of essays by “Twelve Southerners,” including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and Stark Young, collectively known as the Agrarians. These books are 58 and 70 years old, respectively, and everything written on the South since their publication is something of a footnote to them. Like virtually every other writer on the region in the last half century, Frank is implicitly addressing two propositions: Does Cash’s statement that the South is “not quite a nation in a nation, but the next best thing to it” remain true? And do the qualities of the Southern character that the Agrarians identified, summed up nicely by literary critic Fred Hobson as “a sense of time and place, a religious temper, a suspicion of material progress, a tradition of manners, a fury against abstraction,” also remain? With all the changes that have engulfed the South in the last half century, that these questions themselves endure is testament to the tenacity of the idea–if not the reality–of Southern distinctiveness.

The first problem with the idea of a separate and distinct South is, simply, which South does one mean? Famously, the “mind” that Cash brilliantly analyzed was not so much that of the South as a whole as it was that of his Carolina Piedmont. And even within the manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand,” it’s unclear which antithetical version of the South the book was defending: the low country with its planter-dominated hierarchical and almost European vision that half the book’s authors celebrated or the upland, simple, democratic (for whites) South of the plain folks that the other half embraced.

Frank’s notion of the South is, perforce, broad: It encompasses the Virginia Tidewater and the South Carolina low country of the 1650s; the Mississippi Delta of the 1850s; the Appalachia of the 1920s and the Atlanta of the 1990s. And it contains Kentucky, birthplace of Jefferson Davis (and Abraham Lincoln) and a state that was not in the Confederacy, as well as Florida, which was a Confederate state but which visitors to its largest city wouldn’t consider remotely Southern. Obviously, the temporal, physical, economic, demographic, cultural and political distances separating these places are enormous.

Moreover, one of Southerners’ distinguishing features has supposedly been their sense of rootedness and community. But as Frank’s maps reveal (and as Cash argued), the South was a frontier society for longer than any other section of the country: Few Southern families tilled the same plot of ground for more than two or three generations. Finally, even granting that the South was once a place apart from the rest of America, today’s Dixie is, as Frank points out, by many measures fully “Americanized.” How can we still talk of a South and a Southern culture? And even if we can, could it be more than a relic?

But the South does remain a distinctive and recognizable unit, albeit in attenuated form, despite geographical and cultural differences within the region. As Reynolds Price has argued, “I can travel from Durham, North Carolina, to Jackson, Mississippi, which is a distance of 800 miles, and find that people are still speaking almost exactly the same dialect that I have grown up with and known all my life, whereas I can go from Durham, North Carolina, to Philadelphia, a distance of 400 miles, and find them speaking an utterly different dialect . . . so it’s not so much a matter of geographical distance as it is of a prevailing tradition over a large part of the country.”

Further, even when Southerners moved from place to place, those places were always populated by Southerners. The Mississippi Delta, for example, is considered “the most Southern place on Earth,” although its history as a Southern place is relatively recent. It was settled in the last generation before the Civil War almost exclusively by blacks and whites from other places in the South–the descendants of the original settlers of the South Atlantic seaboard. In the South today, despite the influx of outsiders to places like Atlanta and Charlotte, about 70% of the current population still descends from its original inhabitants. Because its share of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries was so small, the South has far more residents with a long history in this country than any other region.

Southerners having been Southerners for so long largely accounts for the cliched perception of their special sense of memory, family and tradition. Much of this has recently tended toward trite ancestor worship. But it can also be detected in the remarkably unself-conscious attitude that, in Faulkner’s famous phrase, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” That black and white Southerners, as Price writes, can “conduct mutually intelligible, agreeing dialogues with their resurrected great-grandparents and . . . for all that, do not see themselves as isolated islands of the past, but as typical of the world around them,” has given the best Southern writers and thinkers an ease with tradition, permitting them to engage it, rather than treat it with what T.S. Eliot called “a blind or timid adherence” that would lead inevitably to its ossification.

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Attempts to define the South and relate the Southern experience still too often commit the same error Tate made in a 1935 essay. Describing the distinguishing features of Southern culture, he sought to explain how these developed even though “the South was settled by the same European strains as originally settled in the North.” In fact, as Frank’s demographic maps show, the populations of the North and South were extremely different, in that blacks were a majority in colonial South Carolina and comprised about 43% of the population of Jefferson’s Virginia.

In a 1993 survey at the University of Virginia, black Southerners were even more likely than white Southerners to take pride in their Southern background. This shouldn’t be surprising; Martin Luther King Jr., after all, always spoke of himself as a “Southerner” and wrote of “our beloved Southland.” Perceptive students of the South have long noted that, if an intense attachment to the land, a sense of place and family, an insistence on hospitality and manners, a strong folk culture and an adherence to evangelical Christianity characterize the Southerners, then “there is no one more quintessentially Southern,” as C. Vann Woodward maintained, “than the Southern Negro.”

Without doubt the most fundamental element of the South’s temperament and culture is that blacks and whites have lived there together for so long. Of all of Cash’s insights into the Southern ethos, none is as penetrating, nor, unfortunately, as underdeveloped as his argument–scandalous for the time it was written–that “the relationship between the two groups was . . . nothing less than organic. Negro entered into white man as profoundly as white man entered into Negro–subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude.” Nearly every distinctive aspect of Southern life–from accent and food to music and the storytelling tradition to the style and spirit of Southern Protestantism, to the very word “Dixie”–developed from the interchange of the two races. Even Southerners’ courtesy and manners, qualities that, as historian Edward Ayers asserts, are “perhaps the most tangible evidence of a Southern upbringing,” are, scholars agree, the product of the fusion of black and white attitudes.

Thus it’s regrettable that at times Frank isn’t as sensitive as he should be to the biracial nature of Southern history. Although he highlights the experience of black Southerners, he too rigidly separates that experience from the Southern experience in general. For instance, in a lengthy section on sharecropping and the crop lien system of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Frank defines the subject exclusively in racial terms. He hence ignores the crucial fact that in this period, the number of landless white tenants and sharecroppers increased hugely, which in turn means that he neglects to discuss the economic and political forces of the “New South” arrayed against an independent yeomanry of any color. Because he fails to appreciate properly the nature and implications of the transformation of Southern agriculture, it’s less surprising that Frank further neglects to mention the political movement to which that transformation gave rise–Populism, the largest and most powerful movement that ever attempted the structural transformation of the American political economy (this entire historical episode is especially well-illuminated by maps, as Ayers has shown in his “The Promise of the New South”).

Frank also fails to see the “great migration,” the subject of another lengthy section of his book, as the culmination of an agricultural and economic transformation that affected poor Southerners of both races in similar ways. This means that, conforming to the popular image, he defines the “great migration” as a black phenomenon. In fact, the majority of participants in that process–the desperate trek out of the Southern Cotton Belt to the north and west, the largest population shift in American history–were rural Southern whites. Frank is surely right that the “great migration changed the racial landscape of the entire nation,” but he ignores the equally wide social ramifications of the massive spread of Southern culture and folkways throughout the country, to the south side of Chicago, and also to Ypsilanti, Mich.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and California’s Central Valley.

A final flaw in Frank’s otherwise penetrating book is his treatment of evangelical Christianity. Southerners–black and white–remain the most religious regional group in the country and evangelicalism remains the great continuity and commonality in Southern culture. Although Frank rightly stresses the religiosity of the region, his emphasis often falls in the wrong place. In, for instance, his lengthy treatment of the Scopes Monkey Trial (and his concomitant enthusiasm for what he calls “progressive reformers”), Frank far too crudely characterizes the opponents of Darwinism as closed-minded and ignorant literalists. Missing is any explanation that Southern evangelicals (as well as Northern fundamentalists) were deeply troubled by the implications for morality and society of what they saw as Darwinism’s philosophy of materialism and brutal competition. And although Frank correctly underscores the crucial transformation of the South from a land that adhered to a rather tepid Anglicanism into the “Bible Belt,” he places that transformation too early–in the great awakenings of the mid-18th century (which convulsed New England to a far greater degree than the South), rather than in the Great Revival of the early 1800s.

More important, the most significant religious development in the South in the last century–the spread of Pentecostalism–goes unnoted in his account. This process would seem ideally suited for explication in an atlas, as Pentecostalism’s complex development could be traced from the holiness movement in Tennessee and North Carolina in the 1890s, to holiness ministers in Texas and Kansas in the early 1900s, to the actual genesis of Pentecostalism at the great Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906, to a biracial Pentecostal revival in a converted tobacco warehouse in North Carolina later that year that transformed the southeast.

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Still, few books so concisely and easily convey to the general reader the anguished, ambiguous essence of the Southern experience. As Frank’s maps and text reveal the rash of lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the region’s continuing, astonishingly high rates of homicide alongside the achievements of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Zora Neale Hurston, it becomes clear that the South’s best cannot be separated from its worst. Indeed, in case after case throughout Southern history, the admirable and the loathsome have been rooted in the same soil. Antebellum Southern intellectuals delivered perhaps the most sophisticated critique of America’s commercial values and social relations ever produced, but they did so in the course of defending slavery. For more than three centuries,blacks and whites in the South were bound together in an organic community, but one rooted in brutal economic exploitation that guaranteed their estrangement. Such opponents of segregation as Robert Penn Warren and James Mcbride Dabbs sought to preserve the admirable qualities of traditional Southern life against the spread of market values, even though the spread of market values would have destroyed the Jim Crow system. The South is famous for its courtesy, but the highly refined concept of honor that largely produced its manners has also helped to make the region the most violent in the country; as the old saying goes, a Southerner is gracious and friendly until he is mad enough to kill. For 400 years the South has been riddled with such contradictions and paradoxes, and this may ultimately account for the seemingly endless attempts to explain it.

As it submits increasingly to what Woodward deploringly termed “the national steamroller,” the region’s many admirable and its few remaining reprehensible qualities will be ironed out. With the apparent global triumph of corporate capitalism and its concomitant, a nihilistic radical individualism, the world and the country, even the South, are hardly likely to heed the noble and anachronistic aspects of the Southern tradition, defined by Stark Young as those belonging to a “civilization whose ideal is social existence, rather than production, competition and barter.” Although contradiction and paradox are by no means peculiar to the Southern experience, the South has exhibited them in unusually bold relief. Its own tragic experience of the ambivalence at the heart of history and in the heart of man may be the only valuable heritage the South can bequeath.

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