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.
In the first place, this is a book about the “mind” (temperament, sentiment, character, myth) of the Southern whites—not the blacks. This is not to suggest that Cash is blind to the importance of the Negro in Southern history. Far from it. On the contrary, the Negro is of central concern. One of the longest entries in the index of his book is on the Negro. Furthermore, Cash is outspoken about the wrongs, injustices, discriminations, exploitations, and brutalities suffered by Negroes. No one has written with more indignation about lynching. No one is more alert to the impact the blacks had upon the white family structure, sexual attitudes, religious practices, white violence, politics, and myth. “Negro entered into White man,” he writes, “as profoundly as White man entered into Negro—subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude.” The Negro, in fact, is amply treated in so far as he is an influence, a cause, an effect, a victim, a phobia, a myth of white behavior, institutions, and history. But we are told very little about the Negro’s own “mind,” temperament, emotions, myths, and attitudes.
We learn that the Negro is “one of the world’s greatest romantics and one of the world’s greatest hedonists”—that he has a great weakness for rhetoric, and that all these traits had their impact on white behavior; but it is primarily for their influence that they are noted, not their intrinsic significance or origins. We are really never taken behind the black mask as we are behind the white. That would have required a great deal more attention to the institution of slavery and the slaves themselves than the few pages devoted to the subject. The neglect of slavery as an institution and slave mentality is almost as striking as the neglect of the blacks as a component part of the “mind” of the South.
If Cash plays favorites among races and institutions, he also has his preferences among periods. He does say in so many words that “The two hundred years since Jamestown must not be forgotten” (page five), but the fact is he does forget them very quickly and brushes over them hastily. One would have thought that the historian of the mind, mind of any description, would have had more interest in origins, especially in the first two centuries. But by page nine we are down to Eli Whitney, and by page twelve the cotton boom is in full stride. This is really a book about the century of Southern history from the 1830s through the 1930s, and considerably more than half of it is devoted to the twentieth century. Most of the few pages that are begrudged the colonial period are given over to belaboring the defunct Cavalier myth. He does admit that a genuine aristocracy arose in this “narrow world,” this “relatively negligible fraction,” of tidewater Virginia and bits of South Carolina and Louisiana.
As we shall see, Cash had a peculiar attitude about Virginia, and it was essential to his thesis to belittle the significance of aristocracy. He concedes that small numbers of aristocrats settled widely over the South, but dismisses their importance on the ground that “the total number of families…who were rationally to be reckoned as proper aristocrats came to less than five hundred—and maybe not more than half that figure.” It would seem that influence and models were more important than numbers to a historian of the mind. “But this Virginia,” he writes, “was not the great South.” And again, “Prior to the close of the Revolutionary period the great South, as such, has little history.”
What was this “great South” of Cash’s history? Granted the tidewater was physically a small part, did the “great South” not include the Bluegrass country, the Delta, the Gulf Coast, the Everglades, the Ozarks, the whole great trans-Mississippi South? If so, there is little indication of the fact in his history and in the attention he gives these vast subregions. Natives of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas will not find their states in the index of the Mind, nor will natives of many other states save North Carolina.
Nor will they find much reference to their states in the text. A map of Cash’s Great South drawn to scale according to his span of attention and interest would be a strange specimen of cartography. The subregion of the Appalachian foothills stretching from Gaffney, South Carolina, Cash’s birthplace, through Charlotte, North Carolina, his home as an adult, and tapering northeast to the Potomac would loom larger than all the rest, and North Carolina would easily qualify as the New York of the Great South. “Southern Industry” for Cash is the cotton mills, and “Southern labor” the lint-heads who work for them. When Cash writes in his lyrical apostrophe to nature in the South of “the booming of the wind in the pines,” we know that those pines were rooted in the red soil of the Carolina hill country.
A great deal of historical relativism is at work here, the relativism of time and place, of class and race, of period and environment. Cash’s Mind was an outgrowth of the Great Depression, the “Great Blight,” he calls it. The hardbitten Thirties were a time of reckoning, the moment of truth for pretenses of all sorts. Myths went into bankruptcy as often as banks. Cash’s hill country was as hard hit as any part of the South, but it had fewer grandiose pretenses. It had never been a land of great plantations, many slaves, or much in the way of aristocracy and fancy living. In the harsh depression climate of the Thirties this subregion of plain folk and small-town industries came belatedly to flower. Thomas Wolfe of Asheville was its poet, Paul Green of Chapel Hill its playwright, James Agee of Knoxville its reporter; and Jack Cash of Charlotte its historian. They felt it was at last their turn to speak for the South, the South as they knew it. They had put up long enough with the pretensions and poses of remote and high-living parts and their so-called aristocrats. It was time for an unbiased history of the South from the hillbilly point of view.
Chapel Hill was headquarters of the renaissance, and Cash identified with its down-to-earth school of sociologists and the “ancient feud” of the Tar Heels with the “Mountains of Conceit” on either side, as well as the new feud with the Nashville Agrarians to the west. Virginia, Cash thought, had had an “artificializing influence.” The yeoman farmers were “probably the best people the South has ever produced in any numbers, and its chief hope today.” Even the poor whites were “definitely superior, in respect of manner, to their peers in the rest of the country.” Posing the question, “What then is our Southern tradition?” he replied: “The best way to answer that I believe is to remember who we were and are…. The answer to that is that we were plain people in general in our origins.”
Recalling our concession of an author’s right to choose his subject and the rule that restrains us from criticizing him for not writing on something else, we will call all the preceding discourse “non-criticism.” We will call it an effort to discover what Cash is writing about. If any note of criticism has inadvertently crept into this description, it is to be deplored as an infringement of the “rule.” But now that we have discovered what he is not writing about, we may proceed to criticize what he is writing about.
Cash is writing about many themes—romanticism and hedonism, individualism and social irresponsibility, complacency and sentimentality, the ethic of leisure, the disposition to violence, the weakness for rhetoric, and “the savage ideal.” There is substance and validity in all of these themes. I have no desire to deny the variety and rich texture of his thought, nor shall I consider these themes individually. I think it is fair to say, however, that he has skillfully woven all these individual themes into the two fundamental theses of his book. These are the thesis of unity and the thesis of continuity—the fundamental unity of the Southern mind and people, a spiritually solid South, and the continuity of Southern history, at least since the Revolution. On the soundness of these two theses I believe the integrity of his book depends.
In his opening sentence Cash proclaims the existence of “a profound conviction,” which he obviously shares, that the South is not only “sharply differentiated from the rest of the American nation,” but that it exhibits “within itself a remarkable homogeneity.” He quickly concedes that there is “an enormous diversity” as well, but this is overshadowed by the unity of “one South”:
That is to say, it is easy to trace throughout the region…a fairly definite mental pattern—a complex of established relationships and habits of thought, sentiments, prejudices, standards and values, and associations of ideas, which, if not common strictly to every group of white people in the South, is still common in one appreciable measure or another, and some part or another, to all but relatively negligible ones.
It seems perfectly plausible to claim for Cash the distinction of anticipating the “consensus school” of American historians by more than a decade. All the tenets and postulates of consensus historiography later applied to the interpretation of American history were applied long before and more fully by Cash to the interpretation of Southern history. The Negro is not so much excluded from the consensus as ignored. Cash specifically says his generalizations of unity concern “white people in the South,” but when the Negro is mentioned it is to emphasize how his traits reinforced and resembled those of whites. Any tendency to conflict, whether of class or economic interest or political doctrine or religious dogma, is played down or dismissed as trivial and unimportant compared with the overall consensus. Writing of the “common white” he says: “Add up his blindness to his real interests, his lack of class feeling and of social and economic forces, and you arrive, with the precision of a formula in mathematics, at the solid South.” This formula explains “how farmer and white-trash were welded into an extraordinary and positive unity of passion and positive unity of purpose with the planter,” and how, “when the guns spoke at Sumter, the masses sprang to arms, with the famous hunting yell soaring in their throats….”
One consequence of the emphasis on consensus is the neglect of dissent in the South. One category of dissent swept aside is antislavery sentiment, not only that of Virginians of the Revolutionary generation and the debates of 1831-1832, but that which persisted thereafter in the abolitionist efforts in Tennessee in 1834 and Kentucky in 1849. Neglected also are Southerners who became antislavery leaders, such as James G. Birney and his young friends, William T. Allen of Alabama and James A. Thome of Kentucky, the Grimke sisters of Charleston, David R. Goodloe of North Carolina, Cassius M. Clay, John G. Fee, John Rankin, Samuel Crothers, and the Dickey brothers, William and James, of Kentucky, as well as Moncure Daniel Conway and John C. Underwood of Virginia. It is true that many of these antislavery leaders left the South, but the sentiment they represented was strong enough to support the view of Kenneth Stampp that “The contention of planter politicians that the South had achieved social and political unity appears…to have been the sheerest of wishful thinking.”
Further evidence of the wishful thinking of the politicians and fallacy of Cash’s thesis of consensus lies in the great body of Southern Unionist dissenters during Secession and Civil War. During the war they furnished some 200,000 troops to the Union Army, and afterward more than 22,000 of them, scattered fairly evenly among the Confederate states, risked the hostility of neighbors and the stiff costs of courts to file claims for more than $60,000,000 for supplies furnished the Union Army. Another body of Southerners that confutes the consensus are the native Republicans, whites as well as blacks. Most of the former were of the common folk, but they included former planters, slaveholders, and businessmen of wealth.2 The post-Reconstruction dissenters, independent farmer-labor and green-back parties such as the Readjusters who took over Virginia from the Redeemers, are apparently unobserved. The white consensus on race policy is exaggerated, and significant differences over this subject between conservatives, liberals, radicals, and fanatics go unmentioned. Cash’s effort to fit the Populist upheaval into the consensus had best be passed over in charitable silence.
On the fluent rhetoric of Proto-Dorian unity the “mind” of the South is thus pictured as sliding undisturbed over the divisive crises of Secession, Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Redemption, and Populism, emerging as undivided and unshaken as ever. And so also with subsequent upheavals such as the Socialist movement, the Hobsbawm-type “primitive rebels” in Texas and Oklahoma, and the peace movement that broke out in several states during the First World War.
The second major thesis, that of the continuity of Southern history, is really an extension of the thesis of unity to the dimension of time. Not only were the Southern people in Cash’s view undivided, but their history from first to last has been undivided by significant breaks and has flowed with essentially unbroken continuity from its sources to the present. Unbroken continuity has been persuasively suggested as a characteristic that accounts for the uniqueness of American national history. With the oldest constitution of any nation, with political parties, executive office, legislative bodies, and judiciary, along with basic institutions and traditions dating continuously from eighteenth-century origins, the United States does indeed enjoy a history of uniquely unbroken continuity.
The history of the South, on the other hand, has always seemed to me characterized by discontinuity, and I have suggested this as one trait that helps account for the distinctiveness of the South and its history. The major monuments of broken continuity are slavery and secession, independence and defeat, emancipation and reconstruction, redemption and reunion. Southerners, unlike other Americans, repeatedly felt the solid ground of continuity give way under their feet. An old order of slave society, solidly supported by constitution, state, church, and the authority of law and learning and cherished by the people, collapsed, perished, and disappeared. So did the short-lived experiment in national independence. So also the short-lived experiment in Radical Reconstruction. The succeeding order of Redeemers, New South, and white supremacy lasted longer, but it too seems destined for the dump heap of history.
Perhaps it was because Cash wrote toward the end of the longest and most stable of these successive orders, the one that lasted from 1877 to the 1950s, that he acquired his conviction of stability and unchanging continuity. At any rate he was fully persuaded that “the mind of the section…is continuous with the past,” and that the South has “always marched away, as to this day it continues to do, from the present toward the past.” Just as he guardedly conceded diversity in advancing the thesis of unity, so he admits the existence of change in maintaining the thesis of continuity, change from which even the elusive but adamantine Southern “mind” did not come off scot free.”
But it was the sort of change the French have in mind in saying, “plusça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Tidewater tobacco, up-country cotton, rampaging frontier, flush times in Alabama and Mississippi, slavery, secession, defeat, abolition, Reconstruction, New South, industrial revolution—toujours la même chose! Even the Yankee victory that “had smashed the Southern world” was “almost entirely illusory,” since “it had left the essential Southern mind and will…entirely unshaken. Rather…it had operated enormously to fortify and confirm that mind and will.” As for Reconstruction, again, la même chose: “And so far from having reconstructed the Southern mind in the large and in its essential character, it was still this Yankee’s fate to have strengthened it almost beyond reckoning, and to have made it one of the most solidly established, one of the least reconstructible ever developed.”
The continuity upon which Cash is most insistent is the one he sees between the Old South and the New South. He early announces his intention of “disabusing our minds of two correlated legends—those of the Old and New South.” He promises in the Rankean manner to tell us “exactly what the Old South was really like.” He concedes that there was a New South as well. “Nevertheless,” plus ça change, “the extent of the change and of the break between the Old South that was and the New South of our time has been vastly exaggerated.”
The common denominator, the homogenizing agent, is his “basic Southerner” or “the man at the center.” He is described as “an exceedingly simple fellow,” most likely a hillbilly from the backcountry, but fundamentally he is a petit bourgeois always on the make, yet ever bemused by his vision of becoming, imitating, or at least serving the planter aristocrat. Cash’s crude Irish parvenu is pictured as the prototype of the planter aristocrat. Cash is confused about these aristocrats, mainly I think because he is confused about the nature and history of aristocracy. He admires their “beautiful courtesy and dignity and gesturing grace,” but deplores their “grotesque exaggeration” and their “pomposity” and suspects that the genuine article should have been genteel. He grudgingly acknowledges their existence, but denies the legitimacy of their pretenses—all save those of a few negligible Virginians. He seems to be saying that they were all bourgeois, that therefore the Old South was bourgeois too, and therefore essentially indistinguishable from the New South. New and Old alike were spellbound by the spurious myth of aristocracy. This and the paradoxical fact that those parvenu aristocrats actually took charge, were a real ruling class, and the continuity of their rule spelled the continuity of the New South with the Old.
The masses came out of the ordeal of Civil War with “a deep affection for these captains, a profound trust in them,” a belief in the right “of the master class to ordain and command.” And according to Cash the old rulers continued to ordain and command right on through the collapse of the old order and the building of the new. He detects no change of guard at Redemption. So long as the industrialists and financiers who stepped into the shoes of the old rulers gave the proto-Dorian password and adopted the old uniforms and gestures, he salutes them as the genuine article. In fact he finds they were rather an improvement, for they represent “a striking extension of the so-called paternalism of the Old South: its passage in some fashion toward becoming a genuine paternalism.”
Cash enthusiastically embraces the thesis of Broadus Mitchell’s “celebrated monograph” that the cotton mill campaign was “a mighty folk movement,” a philanthropic crusade of inspired paternalists. The textile mill captains were “such men as belonged more or less distinctively within the limits of the old ruling class, the progeny of the plantation.” Indeed they were responsible for “the bringing over of the plantation into industry,” the company town. Even “the worst labor sweaters” were “full of the ancient Southern love for the splendid gesture,” fulfilling “an essential part of the Southern paternalistic tradition that it was an essential duty of the upper classes to look after the moral welfare of these people….”
To the cotton mills the neo-paternalists add the public schools for the common whites and thus “mightily reaffirm the Proto-Dorian bond.” The common poverty acted as a leveller (back to the Unity thesis) and brought “a very great increase in the social solidarity of the South,” a “marked mitigation of the haughtiness” of the old captains, now “less boldly patronizing,” and “a suppression of class feeling that went beyond anything that even the Old South had known….” The common white felt “the hand on the shoulder…the jests, the rallying, the stories…the confiding reminders of the Proto-Dorian bond of white men….” That, according to Cash, was what did in the Populist revolt and the strikes of the lint-head mill hands as well. For from the heart of the masses came “a wide, diffuse gratefulness pouring out upon the cotton-mill baron; upon the old captains, upon all the captains and preachers of Progress; upon the ruling class as a whole for having embraced the doctrine and brought these things about….”
Of course Cash professes not to be taken in by Progress as were the red-necks and the lint-heads. He realizes that Progress and Success had their prices and he sets them down scrupulously in the debit column of his ledger. “Few people can ever have been confronted with a crueler dilemma” than the old planter turned supply merchant to his former huntin’ and fishin’ companion as share-cropper:
The old monotonous pellagra-and-rickets-breeding diet had at least been abundant? Strip it rigidly to fatback, molasses and cornbread, dole it out with an ever stingier hand…blind your eyes to peaked faces, seal up your ears to hungry whines….
And that sun-bonnet, straw-hat proletariat of the paternalistic mill villages? By the turn of the century they had become
a pretty distinct physical type…. A dead white skin, a sunken chest, and stooping shoulders…. Chinless faces, microcephalic foreheads, rabbit teeth, goggling dead-fish eyes, rickety limbs, and stunted bodies…. The women were characteristically stringy-haired and limp of breast at twenty, and shrunken hags at thirty or forty.
Something admittedly was happening to the captains, too, what with “men of generally coarser kind coming steadily to the front,” and in “All the elaborate built-up pattern of leisure and hedonistic drift; all the slow, cool, gracious and graceful gesturing of movement,” there was a sad falling off, a decay of the ideal. “And along with it, the vague largeness of outlook which was so essentially a part of the same aristocratic complex; the magnanimity….”
Admitting all that, “But when the whole of this debit score of Progress is taken into account, we still inevitably come back to the fact that its total effect was as I have said.” Plus ça change! “Here in a word, was triumph for the Southern will…an enormous renewal of confidence in the general Southern way.” In Henry Grady’s rhetoric, “Progress stood quite accurately for a sort of new charge at Gettysburg….”
To be sure, Southern Babbitts eventually appeared, but even they were “Tartarin, not Tartuffe…simpler, more naive, less analytical than their compatriots in Babbittry at the North…. They go about making money…as boys go about stealing apples…in the high-hearted sense of being embarked upon capital sport….” Yet, like the planter turned supply merchant or captain of industry, “they looked at you with level and proud gaze. The hallmark of their breed was identical with that of the masters of the Old South—a tremendous complacency.”
And Rotary, “sign-manual of the Yankee spirit”? Granting “an unfortunate decline in the dignity of the Southern manner,” it was but “the grafting of Yankee backslapping upon the normal Souther geniality.…. I am myself,” Cash wrote, “indeed perpetually astonished to recall that Rotary was not invented in the South.” And does one detect “strange notes—Yankee notes—in all this talk about the biggest factory, about bank clearings and car loadings and millions”? Strange? Not for Jack Cash. “But does anybody,” he actually asked, “fail to hear once more the native accent of William L. Yancey and Barnwell Rhett, to glimpse again the waving plume of, say, Wade Hampton…?”
How could he? How could any Southerner? How could any historian? He sometimes reminds one of those who scribble facetious graffiti on Roman ruins. He betrays a want of feeling for the seriousness of human strivings, for the tragic theme in history. Looking back from mid-twentieth century over the absurd skyscrapers and wrecked-car bone piles set in the redclay hills, how could he seriously say that the South believed it “was succeeding in creating a world which, if it was not made altogether in the image of that old world, half-remembered and half-dreamed, shimmering there forever behind the fateful smoke of Sumter’s guns, was yet sufficiently of a piece with it in essentials to be acceptable.”
A great slave society, by far the largest and richest of those that had existed in the New World since the sixteenth century, had grown up and miraculously flourished in the heart of a thoroughly bourgeois and partly puritanical republic. It had renounced its bourgeois origins and elaborated and painfully rationalized its institutional, legal, metaphysical, and religious defenses. It had produced leaders of skill, ingenuity, and strength who invested their honor and their lives, and not merely part of their capital, in that society. When the inevitable crisis came, they, unlike the others, chose to fight. It proved to be the death struggle of a society, which went down in ruins. And yet here is a historian who tells us that nothing essential changed. The ancient “mind,” temperament, the aristocratic spirit, parvenu though he called it—call it what you will, panache perhaps—was perfectly preserved in a mythic amber. And so the present is continuous with the past, the ancient manifest in the new order, in Grady, Babbitt, Rotary, whatever, c’est la même chose.
I am afraid that Cash was taken in by the very myth he sought to explode—by the fancy-dress charade the New South put on by dressing up in the cast-off finery of the old order, the cult of the Lost Cause, the Plantation Legend and the rest. The new actors threw themselves into the old roles with spirit and conviction and put on what was for some a convincing performance. But Cash himself, even though he took the Snopeses for the Sartorises, plainly saw how they betrayed to the core and essence every tenet of the old code. “And yet,” he can write,
And yet—as regards the Southern mind, which is our theme, how essentially superficial and unrevolutionary remain the obvious changes; how certainly do these obvious changes take place within the ancient framework, and even sometimes contribute to the positive strengthening of the ancient pattern.
Look close at this scene as it stands in 1914. There is an atmosphere here, an air, shining from every word and deed. And the key to this atmosphere…is that familiar word without which it would be impossible to tell the story of the Old South, that familiar word “extravagant”….[Then, after a reference to the new sky-scrapers in the clay hills:]
Softly; do you not hear behind that the gallop of Jeb Stuart’s cavalrymen?
The answer is “no”! Not one ghostly echo of a gallop. And neither did Jack Cash. He only thought he did when he was bemused.
After some years in the profession, one has seen reputations rise and fall. The books of Ulrich Phillips and later Frank Owsley began to collect dust on the shelves, and one thinks of Beard and Parrington. In America, historians, like politicians, are out as soon as they are down. There is no comfortable back bench, no House of Lords for them. It is a wasteful and rather brutal practice, unworthy of what Cash would agree are our best Southern traditions. I hope this will not happen to Cash. The man really had something to say, which is more than most, and he said it with passion and conviction, and with style. Essentially what he had to say is something every historian eventually finds himself trying to say (always risking exaggeration) at some stage about every great historical subject. And that is that in spite of the revolution—any revolution—the English remain English, the French remain French, the Russians remain Russian, the Chinese remain Chinese—call them Elizabethans or Cromwellians, Royalists or Jacobeans, Czarists or Bolsheviks, Mandarins or Maoists.
That was really what Cash, at his best, was saying about Southerners, and he said it better than anybody else ever has—only he overdid the thing. But in that he was merely illustrating once more that ancient Southern trait which he summed up in one word, “extravagant.” And, for that matter, his critic, poured in the same mold, may have unintentionally added another illustration of the same trait. If so, Jack Cash would have been the first to understand and not the last to forgive. Peace to his troubled spirit.
December 4, 1969