Southern Exposure

The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945

by Daniel Joseph Singal
University of North Carolina Press, 453 pp., $12.00 (paper)

The transition from Victorian to modernist culture was, of course, not peculiar to the South, but it did take on some striking peculiarities in that region. Elsewhere in most of Western society the battle was fought and won before it was fairly begun down South. There it did not really get started until after the First World War and was all but finished, at least among intellectuals, by the time of the Second. It was therefore both delayed and foreshortened, more intense and more poignant, and it incidentally coincided with a literary renaissance of some note.

The explanation of the delay offered by David Joseph Singal in The War Within is the solid merging of Victorianism with what he calls “the Cavalier myth.” This ideological fusion was formidable and durable enough to block the arrival of what he loosely terms modernism for so long that in order to catch up, southerners had to recapitulate in two decades the half-century experience of their Northern brothers. It was more than a recapitulation, for nowhere else was race so explosive an issue, and the Victorian dichotomy between “civilization” and “savagery” was a basic defense of white supremacy. Not only was “the clash of cultures fiercest in the South,” according to Singal, but it was largely self-contained, enacted on a smaller stage with fewer characters, and stood out in “sharper relief,” thus “rendering the struggle for Modernism still more dramatic and conspicuous.”

The inner war is presented in a series of biographical studies grouped in rough chronological order, with an emphasis on writers in the fields of history, literature, and sociology. A few choices seem a bit arbitrary and some juxtapositions a bit odd, and the author admits that “other figures could easily have been substituted for those I chose.” The more outstanding ones, however, do get into the picture. A living southerner of an age that might be generously characterized as “ripe maturity” could have met and known to some extent nearly all this cast of characters. As one who in fact did, I am able to testify that their portraits are generally recognizable and often quite lifelike.

First among the portraits and first in rank as historian of the South is Ulrich B. Phillips, a Georgian by birth and college education and eventually a professor at Yale. Described here as a “post-Victorian,” Phillips indeed turned the Cavalier myth upside down in his American Negro Slavery (1918) by picturing the planter as capitalist forerunner and perfect model for the New South captain of industry. But between the old and the new order he saw no break—only perfect continuity of the Victorian ideal. In fact the New South could best realize its goals by imitating the antebellum plantation, especially its efficiency and its paternalism, thereby perpetuating “the graciousness and charm of the antebellum civilization.” While he thought slavery outmoded, “a clog on material progress,” he became in his later years something of a southern chauvinist and a defender of white supremacy and segregation …

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