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W.J. Cash Reconsidered

Time has dealt gently and critics generously with W. J. Cash and his book, The Mind of the South.1 A non-academic and a non-professional historian, he has been spared the rivalries and exempted from the standards of the schools and the professionals. His license as a free lance helped him earn a charmed immunity. Scholars often quote him unjealously and flatteringly with a freedom they normally begrudge their fellow academicians. His early and tragic death by suicide following so closely on the publication of his book probably discouraged rigorous reappraisals. There were only two hostile reviews and the author of one of them, Donald Davidson, publicly lamented that the news of Cash’s death came too late to enable him to cancel publication of the review.

There are, of course, more positive and deserving reasons for the reputation the book has enjoyed. No reader of any perception can fail to sense the passionate involvement of the author in his subject, nor fail to be torn by the love-hate intensity of his feeling for the South. His studied lightness and occasional flippancy do not conceal a dedicated concern, a personal anguish. Here, obviously, was a man writing his heart out about the subject that was dearest to him. If he failed, it was surely not for want of trying or caring. And few would go so far as to pronounce a flat verdict of failure upon a work of such grace and originality, such haunting cadences and gifts of phrase making. They stick in the memory, those phrases—the “Proto-Dorians,” the “hell-of-a-fellow complex,” the “savage ideal,” the “lily-pure maid of Astalot” and “the ranks of the Confederacy rolling into battle in the misty conviction that it was wholly for her that they fought.” We are all grateful for these phrases, and our common stock of insights and perceptions is surely richer for some of his contributions.

With these assets, the book has made its way steadily upward in prestige during the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. The loyalties of several generations of college students, grateful for temporary relief from textbook prose and pedantry, have been enlisted. Southerners have had to concede from the start the authenticity of Cash’s credentials as a member of the club. Non-Southerners have been reassured by his offhand dismissal of regional pieties, myths, and romances, as well as his confirmation of some of their worst suspicions. His Mind was considered by some the perfect foil for the contemporaneous novel, Gone With the Wind. Liberals have been won over and gratified by Cash’s uncompromising attacks on lynching and other varieties of inhumanity, injustice, oppression, and brutality, by his criticism of the ruling class his friendliness to labor, and his benevolent tolerance of the Negro. Toward the South as a whole he strained to achieve balance and fairness. In eloquent passages that concluded his book, he held up two images:

Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible in its action—such was the South at its best. And such at its best it remains today….

And then by contrast:

Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapability for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought…attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice….

And such remained the South’s characteristic vices.

The painless simplifications, the memorable formulas, the striking symbols, and the felicitous phraseology of the book have fixed it firmly in the esteem of journalists and popular writers. Their unstinted praise would gratify the vanity of any writer. The book is quoted, paraphrased, and plagiarized so regularly as to have practically entered the public domain. Nor have journalists been its only champions. Social scientists, especially sociologists, seem to have a special affinity for the book. Some historians, even historians of the South, have praised and recommended The Mind of the South. The original reviews in the learned journals were generally favorable, and the numerous references to Cash in Writing Southern History are invariably respectful or laudatory. Those historians who have had reservations and serious criticisms have thus far kept their counsel. They therefore share responsibility for permitting a book that has virtually escaped serious professional criticism to become established in the remarkable prestige this work enjoys. (As one of the original reviewers, I assume my share of the responsibility.) It would be impossible to prove, but I would venture to guess that no other book on Southern history rivals Cash’s in influence among laymen and few among professional historians.

Of all the Southern historians of his generation, or indeed of recent generations, W.J. Cash is the only one so far to have become the subject of a formal biography, a very sympathetic one by Professor Joseph L. Morrison. With the subtitle, “Southern Prophet,” this work does not undertake a critical analysis of Cash’s book. It simply passes on approvingly what the author would seem justified in assuming to be the general consensus, even in academic ranks, that Cash’s Mind represents “original historical writing of the highest order.” It would now seem about time for a critical reappraisal of that consensus and of the book that inspired it.

One of the rules of criticism, more respected in the breach than in the observance, is that a writer should not be criticized for what he did not undertake to do. I shall do my best to observe the rule, but Cash does not make this easy by presenting us with a work entitled The Mind of the South based on the hypothesis that the South has no mind. If his assumption is valid he could not very well be expected to undertake a history of something that did not exist, and the critic is therefore doubly restrained from criticizing him for his neglect. He is perfectly serious about his hypothesis. He cites more than once and with his endorsement Henry Adams’s patronizing quip from the Education that “Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament.” Approving that dubious perception that Adams based on the few Virginians he knew as fellow students at Harvard, Cash goes on to elaborate:

From the first to last, and whether he was a Virginian or a nouveau, he [the Southerner] did not (typically speaking) think; he felt; and discharging his feelings immediately, he developed no need or desire for intellectual culture in its own right—none, at least, powerful enough to drive him past his taboos to its actual achievement.

Certainly it would be unjust to criticize the author for not undertaking an intellectual history of the South. But if he were convinced that the Southerner has a “temperament” but no “mind,” that he “felt” but did not “think,” he might have more accurately entitled his book, “The Temperament of the South,” “The Feelings of the South,” or more literally, “The Mindlessness of the South.” One might dismiss this as quibbling and quote the old chestnut of a metaphysical wit, “No mind, never matter.” But it does, I am afraid, matter. This book was published just two years after the appearance of Perry Miller’s precedent-shattering book, The New England Mind. It is true that Cash used his title earlier for an essay in the American Mercury. But Miller’s formidable example might seem to have discouraged Menckenian buffoonery with such words. And of course Vernon Louis Parrington, without the depth and sophistication of Miller, had originated “The Mind of the South” as a title two years before Cash adopted it for his essay. It was not, then, as if Cash were wholly unaware of the responsibilities such a title entailed.

It is one thing, however, to take such liberties and quite another to justify unloading the responsibilities entailed by denying their existence. Not only does Cash maintain that the Southerner had no mind, but also that “he developed no need or desire for intellectual culture,” and in fact achieved none. One is thus presumably prepared for the omission of reference to Southern minds in a book on the Southern mind. Jefferson is mentioned three times, but only in passing and only symbolically, Calhoun twice and Madison once in the same fashion, John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke not at all.

Nor is there any mention whatever of William Byrd, John Marshall, George Fitzhugh, Edmund Ruffin, Hugh Swinton Legré, or Alexander H. Stephens—and a long list of comparable worthies. Perhaps Cash was simply not interested in such minds—and again his freedom to write about what he wishes is conceded, and likewise the rule against criticizing him for doing so. But he goes further to contend that the South has no intellectual achievement, or none worth mentioning, or that such minds as it produced were “the exceptions that prove the rule”—as if all intellectual achievement were not exceptional. The reason offered is that such achievement “never reached any notable development save in towns, and usually in great towns.” Presumably contrary evidence from Jefferson to Faulkner are also “exceptions that prove the rule.”

But further than that, he even contends that Southerners had “no need or desire” for such endeavors. This in the face of one of the most urgent needs and agonizing desires of any society in the western world. There were the crying needs for reconciling their bourgeois origins with their anti-bourgeois professions and institutions, their liberal birthright with their reactionary yearnings, their revolutionary premises with their conservative conclusions, their Enlightenment optimism with their romantic pessimism, John Locke and Adam Smith with Robert Filmer and Walter Scott, egalitarianism with slavery and patriarchy, doctrinaire constitutionalism and love of union with nullification and secessionism.

Compared with the issues separating Cotton Mather from Ralph Waldo Emerson, those dividing Thomas Jefferson and George Fitzhugh must be measured in light years. Louis Hartz has called it the “Reactionary Enlightenment” and pronounced it “one of the great and creative episodes in the history of American thought,” or more extravagantly, “the great imaginative moment in American political thought, the moment when America almost got out of itself….” This may well be an exaggerated estimate. Certainly Mr. Cash has no obligation to agree, and the critic has no right to attack him for writing about something else. But the critic does have the right and the obligation to protest the blindness and insensitivity which can deny the very existence of obvious problems of the mind, urgently felt needs for solutions, and agonized and fantastically ingenious if unsuccessful strivings to solve them. For this blindness and insensitivity, this indifference or obtuseness, I submit, Cash stands indicted.

It may be contended that Cash was really addressing himself to more abstruse and difficult problems than those of the mind—namely the ethos of a people, the prevalent tone of sentiment, the essential temperament that distinguishes their style of life, the rhythm of their responses, the very character of their history. These are indeed difficult problems, and they are valid subjects for historical investigation—whether they may properly be called “mind” or not. Assuming these problems to be his real subject, what can we say of his history of the South? Is it comprehensive and balanced? Does it give due attention to all classes, aspects, areas, and periods? The answer on all counts is clearly “no.” The author, in fact, is highly selective in the attention he gives to various classes, areas, and periods, neglecting some, emphasizing others. Again, granting the author the freedom to write about what he wants to, we should still be warned of what he is slighting or omitting, since he gives no notice himself, and his title is not very helpful.

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    Knopf (1960), 429 pp., $6.95; Vintage (1960), 448 pp., $1.95 (paper).

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