W.J. Cash Reconsidered

Time has dealt gently and critics generously with W. J. Cash and his book, The Mind of the South. 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 …

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