Thursday, June 09, 2005

Fractured Fairytales 

The Lost Cause will rise again or The Great Revival of Southern Attitudes.

Quick post. I haven't been posting much myself because I'm pretty much in the same muddy situation RDF is in at this point. It's just that time of year and tomorrow I will be thrashing about in the sun erecting Agribon/AG19 floating party tents over my eggplants and Ancho/Poblano chile peppers. Because everyone loves eggplants gone wild! And ancho peppers love a hot sweaty party tent! And... ya know. Just thought I'd share that sexy agricultural catering tip with ya. Especially if you're trying to grow eggplants north of the Mason Dixon line.

Among other things. But, aside from all that I'd just like to throw this post up as quickly as possible...

Anyway, what follows are excerpts from W.J. Cash's original American Mercury essay published October 1929 (HL Mencken editor). Tom's post below: Why not now?, as well as kelley b's regionally topical comment to Tom's post reminded me of it. And in part as a respone to Tom's question below: "So why the disconnect between historical reality and what I had to slog through every day at the reading?" And in part as a response to the historical tendency of too many American's to disappear under the amber waves of sop-bath historical narrative and self aggrandizing patriotic foam.

THE MIND OF THE SOUTH ~ BY W. J. CASH - The American Mercury October, 1929.

ONE hears much in these days of the New South. The land of the storied rebel becomes industrialized; it casts up a new aristocracy of money-bags which in turn spawns a new noblesse; scoriac ferments spout and thunder toward an upheaval and overturn of all the old social, political, and intellectual values and an outgushing of divine fire in the arts—these are the things one hears about. There is a new South, to be sure. It is a chicken-pox of factories on the Watch-Us-Grow maps; it is a kaleidoscopic chromo of stacks and chimneys on the club-car window as the train rolls southward from Washington to New Orleans.

But I question that it is much more. For the mind of that heroic region, I opine, is still basically and essentially the mind of the Old South. It is a mind, that is to say, of the soil rather than of the mills—a mind, indeed, which, as yet, is almost wholly unadjusted to the new industry.

Its salient characteristic is a magnificent incapacity for the real, a Brobdingnagian talent for the fantastic. The very legend of the Old South, for example, is warp and woof of the Southern mind. The "plantation" which prevailed outside the tidewater and delta regions was actually no more than a farm; its owner was, properly, neither a planter nor an aristocrat, but a backwoods farmer; yet the pretension to aristocracy was universal. Every farmhouse became a Big House, every farm a baronial estate, every master of scant red acres and a few mangy blacks a feudal lord. The haughty pride of these one-gallus squires of the uplands was scarcely matched by that of the F. F. V’s of the estuary of the James. Their pride and their legend, handed down to their descendants, are today the basis of all social life in the South.

Such romancing was a natural outgrowth of the old Southern life. Harsh contact with toil was almost wholly lacking, as well for the poor whites as for the grand dukes. The growing of cotton involves only two or three months of labor a year, so even the slaves spent most of their lives on their backsides, as their progeny do to this day. The paternal care accorded the blacks and the white trash insured them against want. Leisure conspired with the languorous climate to the spinning of dreams. Unpleasant realities were singularly rare, and those which existed, as, for example, slavery, lent themselves to pleasant glorification. Thus fact gave way to amiable fiction.

It is not without a certain aptness, then, that the Southerner’s chosen drink is called moonshine. Everywhere he turns away from reality to a gaudy world of his own making. He declines to conceive of himself as the mad king’s "poor, bare, forked animal"; in his own eyes, he is eternally a noble and heroic fellow. He has always displayed a passion for going to war. He pants after Causes and ravening monsters— witness his perpetual sweat about the nigger. (No matter whether the black boy is or is not a menace, he serves admirably as a dragon for the Southerner to belabor with all the showiness of a paladin out of a novel by Dr. Thomas Dixon. The lyncher, in his own sight, is a Roland or an Oliver, magnificently hurling down the glove in behalf of embattled Chastity.)

Even Rotary flourishes primarily as a Cause, as another opportunity for the Southerner to puff and prance and be a noble hotspur. His political heroes are, typically, florid magnificoes, with great manes and clownish ways—the Bleases and the Heflins. (It is said sometimes, I know, that they are exalted only by the rascals and the dolts, but, on a basis of observation, I make bold to believe that, while all decent Southerners vote against them, most do so with secret regret and only for the same reason that they condemn lynching, to wit: that they are self-conscious before the frown of the world, that they are patriots to the South.)


How this characteristic reacts with industrialism is strikingly shown by the case of the cotton-mill strikes in the Carolinas. Of the dozen-odd strikes which flared up a few months ago, not one now remains. All failed. New ones, to be sure, are springing up as a result of the unionization campaign which Thomas F. McMahon, president of the United Textile Workers of America, is waging in the region. But the U. T. W. A. failed in similar campaigns in 1920 and in 1923 and, in the light of recent history, I see no reason to believe that the present drive is likely to be any more successful.

Yet the peons of the mills unquestionably have genuine grievances, in the absolute. Wages rarely top $20. The average is from $11 to $14, with the minimum as low as $6. The ten-hour or eleven-hour day reigns. It is true that, as most of the mills own their own villages, houses are furnished the workers at nominal rentals. But, save in the cases of Cramerton, N. C., the Cone villages at Greensboro, and a few other such model communities, the houses afforded are hardly more than pig-sties. The squalid, the ugly, and the drab are the hallmarks of the Southern mill town. Emaciated men and women and stunted children are everywhere in evidence.

But the Southerner sees and understands nothing of this. Force his attention to the facts and he will, to be sure, appear for the nonce to take cognizance of them, will even be troubled, for he is not inhumane. But seek to remind him tomorrow of the things you have shown him today and you will discover no evidence that he recalls them at all; his talk will be entirely of the Cone villages and Cramerton and he will assume in all discussions of the merits of the case that these model kraals are typical of the estate of the mill-billy. The whole cast of his mind inhibits retention and contemplation of the hard facts, and he honestly believes that Cramerton is typical, that the top wage is the average wage. That is to say, he can honestly see only the pleasant thing. That is why, quite apart from antinomian considerations, the Southern newspapers almost unanimously denounced the accurate stories of the strikes printed by the New York World and the Baltimore Sun as baseless fabrications, inspired purely by sectional malice.


Moreover, the mind of the Southerner is an intensely individualistic mind. There again, it strikes back to the Old South, to the soil. The South is the historic champion of States’ Rights. It holds Locke’s "indefeasibility of private rights" as axiomatic. Its economic philosophy is that of Adam Smith, recognizing no limitations on the pursuit of self-interest by the individual, and counting unbridled private enterprise as not only the natural order but also the source of all public good. Laissez-faire is its watchword.

The Southerner is without inkling of the fact that, admirably adapted as such a philosophy was to the simple, agricultural society of the Jeffersonian era, it is inadequate for dealing with the industrial problems of today. He has never heard of the doctrine of the social function of industry and would not understand it if he had. He cannot see that industrialism inevitably consolidates power into the hands of a steadily decreasing few, and enables them, if unchecked, to grab the lion’s share of the product of other men’s labor; he cannot see that the worker in a machine age is not an individual at all but an atom among atoms—that he is no longer, and cannot possibly be, a free agent. Under the Southern view, even a cotton-mill is an individual. If a peon cares to work for the wage it chooses to pay, very well; if he doesn’t, let him exercise a freeman’s privilege and quit. But for him to combine with his fellows and seek to tie up the operation of the mill until his wages are raised—that, as the South sees it, is exactly as if a lone farm-hand, displeased with his pay, took post with a shotgun to bar his employer from tilling his fields.

The lint-head of the mills, indeed, is the best individualist of them all, and for this there is excellent reason. Often enough he owns a farm, his ancestral portion in the hills— rocks, pinebrush, and abrupt slopes, but still a farm, well adapted to moonshining. If he is landless, there are hundreds of proprietors eager to secure him as a tenant, an estate in which he will not have to work more than three months out of twelve. As a result, there is a constant flow back and forth between the soil and the mills. Thus the Southern peon is not, in fact, and as an individual, as irrevocably bound to the wheel of industry as his Northern brother, since he may always escape to churldom. The equally valid fact that, because only a handful can escape at any given time, the mass of his fellows are held irretrievably in bondage is lost upon him. He is always, in his own eyes, a man apart. He exhibits the grasping jealousy for petty personal advantage, the refusal to yield one jot or tittle for the common good, characteristic of the peasant. If, by a miracle, he is ambitious, his aspirations run, not to improving his own status by improving that of the class to which, in reality, he is bound, but to gaudy visions of himself as a member of the master class, as superintendent or even president of the mills. His fellows may be damned.


Whichever party best combines causes and monsters and clinches its claim to the banner of God will win. Party labels may or may not be changed. In any case, I believe, the mind of the South will remain the same. [excerpts above - WJ Cash / The American Mercury, October, 1929]

Sound familiar? Twelve years later Cash would publish TMS (based on the original AM contribution) in book form (Alfred F. Knoft, 1941 - 429 pages). Cash deals extensively with the South's capacity for fabulous romanticized historical narrative, but, I think, the characteristics and examples Cash gives in 1929 and later in 1941 can safely be applied to a great extent even today.

The Mind of the South will rise again.

The Mind of the South is still in print and you can get your hooks on a copy via the usual outlets. I reccomend reading the book as opposed to just the original essay since Cash articulates his points to a far greater degree in the book than in the original essay. Cash also takes his swings at the greedy northeastern moneybags who exploit the South for its self deluded cheap labor plantation economics. So pick up a copy from your local bookstore, or wherever you buy books,... etc... etc...

The Mind of the South

More on WJ Cash (including the original TMS 1929 American Mercury manuscript) here: WJ Cash.org


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