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"The Mind of the South"
February 1, 2014 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Earlier in the week, Slate posted an article on the massive Atlanta traffic jam. The article quoted a book about the Southern character that stated it was "Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal." Yet the same book also stated the South had the less admirable qualities of "suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too-narrow sense of social responsibility." The book was 1941's "The Mind of the South" and its author was W. J. Cash.

Wilbur Jerome Cash was born on May 2nd, 1900 in Gaffney, South Carolina. After attending Wake Forest College, he became a journalist and freelance writer who focused on political and social issues. In 1929, he published a piece in the American Mercury titled "The Mind of the South", which caught the attention of Blanche Knopf (wife of publisher Alfred Knopf). She encouraged him to lengthen the original article into a book, and he agreed. Though he had his shares of ups and downs in the decade that followed, he never gave up working on the book and by 1940, it was completed.

Knopf published it in February of 1941. Three months later, Cash left with his new bride for Mexico City to start work on his first novel. On June 30th, after being ill and fatigued for several weeks, he began to talk of being pursued by Nazi agents (he had previously written a number of negative articles about Adolf Hitler). The following day he went missing and was eventually found that night in the Reforma Hotel hanging dead from his necktie. Though there was no note left at the scene, Mexico City police ruled his death a suicide and quickly had his remains cremated.

"The Mind of the South" was well recieved throughout the country at the time it was published and remains a well-respected book on the Southern character. Of Cash, Time magazine stated that, "Anything written about the South henceforth must start where he leaves off." The book can be found through the usual online vendors, however the original 1929 article is available online for your viewing pleasure.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (35 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
i think this is pretty dated - the mindset of the religious seems accurate - but it isn't just a southern thing - the mindset of the workers is similar these days in my observation, but my observation has been in the north, not the south - also, i think a LOT more people take a bath (or shower) more than once a week and their houses are more like sterile pods than pigsties these days
posted by pyramid termite at 8:54 AM on February 1


The clusterfuck that is Atlanta at this point is no longer a Southern clusterfuck.

The suburbs are full of migrants from the rest of the country who moved there because their idea of the way to live is to live in a clusterfuck like Atlanta.
posted by ocschwar at 8:56 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


"suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought," + "and a too-narrow sense of social responsibility."

Rather, a perfect description for -. Tee hee.

But it's twoplusgood to bash Southernors since they are poor, conservative.
posted by saber_taylor at 9:06 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


You know you love our airport and our Coke (and secretly love our Chik-Fil-A ^_^). And we have WHALESHARKS in a humongous fishtank for all to enjoy!
posted by zscore at 9:21 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


The Slate article was surprisingly good.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:26 AM on February 1


The whale sharks (plural! More than one!) really are one of the best things about Atlanta. Amazing.
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:26 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Yeah, as much as I'm always up for a round of "What's The Matter With The South", this sort of broad People In Blah Region Are Like Blah sort of analysis is extremely dated.

This comes out of the same thought process as all the anthropologists who tried to blame Naziism on German potty training practices during WW2.

(Also, in reaction to the recent events in Atlanta, I would say The Mind Of The South's problem isn't that it's reactionary, it's that it loves sprawl.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:29 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Sprawl is reactionary.
posted by notyou at 9:45 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


As a southerner who has read the book, allow me to say: it is unflattering but often insightful.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:45 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Pretty racist, as I suppose should be expected for the time.

I snickered at the article's rendering of the abominable "n" word as "rigger."


As to the rest of it, maybe a bit of truth to it, but exaggerated. However as a child I did indeed bathe in those metal washtubs that the rest of the time served for laundry and such. But NOT just on Saturday night.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:09 AM on February 1


Sprawl is reactionary.

It wasn't when Atlantans were radically altering their landscape to create it a generation ago.

Shitty car centric impossible is not the default for human cities. The decision to depart from how all humans have organized their space is actually the opposite of reactionary.

I mean I hate sprawl don't get me wrong, but the evolution of cities like Atlanta is in a lot of ways a direct contradiction to the stereotype of southerners as hidebound traditionalist provincials.
posted by Sara C. at 10:11 AM on February 1


It wasn't when Atlantans were radically altering their landscape to create it a generation ago.

What? It was very precisely reactionary when Atlantans were creating it. White flight *built* sprawl.
posted by asterix at 10:21 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]


No, I get that. I'm talking about the actual act of completely destroying local heritage for the sake of white flight. I'm not talking about political stances.

*literal facepalm*
posted by Sara C. at 10:23 AM on February 1


Yeah, as much as I'm always up for a round of "What's The Matter With The South", this sort of broad People In Blah Region Are Like Blah sort of analysis is extremely dated.

I'm more and more convinced that what's the matter with the South isn't much different from the de facto segregation of the northern cities I grew up in. Attempts at reform by urban populations where blacks are a majority or plurality get blockaded, minimized, or sabotaged by white flight suburban NIMBYism. It's more of a difference in degree, not kind in my experience.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:24 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


It was interesting to read this. The Mind of the South is a really influential book about the South that I've never read.

It's interesting, given the time period, that, while he repeats stereotypes and throws around slurs with literary flair (mill-billy, peon, lint-head, mountain lout), he's substituting social explanations for the stereotypes in place of the then-popular theory that Southern white people were genetically inferior due to a combination of Celtic heritage, in-breading and "degeneracy" advocated by contemporary US eugenicists.
posted by nangar at 10:25 AM on February 1


I'm talking about the actual act of completely destroying local heritage for the sake of white flight. I'm not talking about political stances.

I don't understand what this means. Can you expand on it?
posted by asterix at 10:27 AM on February 1


Restructuring cities into previously unknown lifestyles revolving around novel systems of transportation can support reactionary ends, but is by definition not reactionary. Car culture was an experiment that happened to be compatible with racism, it facilitated one kind of reactionary ideology by progressive means.
posted by idiopath at 10:55 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


Thank you, idiopath, for saying that better than I could.

Though I have been thinking on it, and it's interesting to think of Atlanta being stuck in multi-day weatherfucked traffic jams mostly because racism.
posted by Sara C. at 10:58 AM on February 1


I also think "radical social change because REACTIONARY BULLSHIT" is kind of a quintessentially Southern thing.
posted by Sara C. at 11:00 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


> The Mind of the South is a really influential book about the South that I've never read.

It's an excellent book and well worth reading if you're not one of the bien-pensant crew who smugly assume that they can dismiss anything written before the age of political correctness as automatically fit only for the dustbin of history.
posted by languagehat at 11:06 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]


The thing that struck me from the article was the description of the rapid rail system looking like a crooked plus sign, which is absolutely true. Mrs Mosley and I took a weekend trip there about seven years ago. When we got there and I saw the rail map, the literal first word out of my mouth was, "Seriously?".
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 11:21 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


It's an excellent book and well worth reading if you're not one of the bien-pensant crew who smugly assume that they can dismiss anything written before the age of political correctness as automatically fit only for the dustbin of history.

Yep. I'll read it. The dustbin of history has really interesting stuff in it, and it can help us understand the present. When you get past the "clodhopper" bull-crap, he at least seems have some insights about how aristocratic Southerners thought at the time.
posted by nangar at 11:59 AM on February 1


Back in 1996, when I first started dating the Appalachian-American man who is now my husband, he insisted that I read Cash's book, along with Albion's Seed. "If you want to understand me," he said, "you'd better." Read 'em; agreed with 'em; am now living down South and grateful for the heads-up.
posted by GrammarMoses at 12:20 PM on February 1 [7 favorites]


I'm from the south, and as far as I can tell, have never had much of a mind.

I'd go back south, but I am so far north I am almost in southern Canada, which seems to be a better south than my old south.

(I own a copy of The Mind of the South. But since it is not a bible or a menu, it's not something I would read. I think it's on the shelf next to Singing the Master, a wonderful exploration of those halcyon days of people ownership that many of my old honky buds would like to bring back and to some degree, have in the form of the hidden Latino slaves who work the flatlands agricultural fields we all depend of for cigarettes and the odd head of lettuce.)

I do get some measure of glee from considering Atlanta being traffic bound due to weather I would not even recognize as a measurable event here in Vermont. I so suck. No, really.
posted by FauxScot at 12:57 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Restructuring cities into previously unknown lifestyles revolving around novel systems of transportation can support reactionary ends, but is by definition not reactionary. Car culture was an experiment that happened to be compatible with racism, it facilitated one kind of reactionary ideology by progressive means.

It's also more than moot at this point. Massachusetts has benefited by Atlanta attracting so many Mass-born yuppie man-children to move there. And they apply the same contempt they have for anyone in the lower tax brackets, be they black residents of Atlanta proper or rednecks in what remains of rural northern Georgia.
posted by ocschwar at 1:55 PM on February 1


When the highest paid public employee of your state is a football coach, don't be surprised when 2 inches of snow paralyzes your whole society.
posted by Renoroc at 2:47 PM on February 1 [11 favorites]


When the highest paid public employee of your state is a football coach, don't be surprised when 2 inches of snow paralyzes your whole society.


Wow. It's true! Some sobering data just in time for the Super Bowl.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 3:41 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Back in 1996, when I first started dating the Appalachian-American man who is now my husband, he insisted that I read Cash's book, along with Albion's Seed.

Interesting you should say that. David Hackett Fischer wrote on Cash, comparing him to James McBride Dabbs ("Who Speaks for the South?)". The essay is available in W. J. Cash and the Minds of the South

posted by IndigoJones at 5:09 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


One thing I heard recently interesting about the start of the war - there were definitely many real Abolitionists, but on the whole you wouldn't necessarily expect Northerners to put their lives on the line for the freedom of Black people. It would seem that the Southerners were pretty close to enslaving White people as well, or at least Northerners perceived this as a threat. "Capital shall own labor."

It was a great error in history that the Reconstruction was halted before the South was made to properly understand they had lost, and the country has suffered ever since. Arguably, with the Southern Strategy etc., we've granted the Confederacy a partial victory, including the DEA/CCA New Slaves.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:36 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


When you get past the "clodhopper" bull-crap, he at least seems have some insights about how aristocratic Southerners thought at the time.

I have to comment on this: I am from almost the same place as Mr. Cash. I was born a few miles from his home. It is a forgotten fold in the Appalachian foothills, and beautiful in many ways; but his portrait of the people is, by and large, accurate. Sometimes it's overly pejorative, but many of his insights are correct—not just about aristocrats, but about the whole society (yes, even today).

Southerners often consider themselves "better than they are," to borrow my grandmother's phrasing. They will leave their job that is little more than menial, and go and work on their farm where they have a few cows; this breed will then pretend to be aristocratic and Above It All. These folks will bemoan how "they" (i.e. black people) suck at the government teat, while their own children and grandchildren collect foodstamps and welfare; they will look down on you for not attending church while you attend university and their children waste their lives away doing pills.

I'm not sure what gives rise to this: at its heart, most of the people I've known who are like this are firmly convinced that they are America. That they're patriotic, strong men, while "city boys" and nerds are cowards, or somehow disloyal.

Essentially, this is the root of Republicanism. Anything that you see on Fox News is born as a caricature of this type of social environment; anything loony that Ann Coulter says, many of these people hold as Gospel. (Without the periodic backsliding and ecstatic paroxysms that punctuate their love for the actual Gospel: to their inflated self-value and hate, they are always faithful.)

Mr. Cash went slightly mad towards the end, but I can understand it, being from the same place. There is a sense that, in some way, when you actually use your mind to think (and think differently than the people from the area), you no longer belong: no one is as damned as Judas, after all; and thus the sense of unmooring can be powerful and difficult to shake.

I am just glad that I had the Internet during my formative years, or I would've followed him.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:58 PM on February 1 [7 favorites]


"Essentially, this [the alleged conservatism of the South] is the root of Republicanism." Actually, it was the root of the Democratic Party as well for the century between Civil War and the mid 1960s.

Cash's book, especially the first half, is essential to an understanding of the South. He wasn't right on everything, but he was very right on some things. Plus he's a superior writer.
Aptheker always said Cash was wrong in calling the big slaveowners 'aristocrats' -- their FFV airs notwithstanding, they were 2 or 3 generations off the boat, and their main property was in human beings, not land. (FFV=First Families of Virginia).
But Cash gives one of the best accounts of what actually happened in the 19th century -- of who came South, from where, and when, and why, and the kind of society they built. He explains many things better than any historian -- among them the role of climate, kinship across class lines, and the strengths, and weaknesses, of white solidarity.
It's a good read. You won't regret it.
posted by LonnieK at 7:26 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


And I must add one thing about the supposed 'conservatism' of the South. Does that theory account for the majority of people in the South (if you count blacks) who favored the Union during the Civil War? Or those who stood up for civil rights a century later?
posted by LonnieK at 7:33 PM on February 1


And I must add one thing about the supposed 'conservatism' of the South. Does that theory account for the majority of people in the South (if you count blacks) who favored the Union during the Civil War?

Keep in mind that the Civil War was 150 years ago.

The vast majority of Southern states are "red" states. Most of them (North Carolina and Virginia excepted) are not "purple" in any way.

I grew up in a conservative southern state. Yes, people there are actually politically and socially conservative.

This isn't up for debate in really any southern state except for Texas.
posted by Sara C. at 7:45 PM on February 1


Now that Cobb and Gwinnett have undone most of their exclusionary zoning ordinances, white flight is happening all over again. We'll see if Cherokee, Forsyth, and Hall counties make the same mistakes.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:01 PM on February 1


Aptheker always said Cash was wrong in calling the big slaveowners 'aristocrats' -- their FFV airs notwithstanding, they were 2 or 3 generations off the boat, and their main property was in human beings, not land. (FFV=First Families of Virginia).

I disagree with this. Aristocrats have no particular, inherent distinction. The thing that separated aristocrats from the rest of people in feudal societies was ownership. They owned land and, in some jurisdictions, people; that's what made them aristocrats. By this de facto measure, even the meanest upland farmer was an "aristocrat," in that he might own a hundred acres and have tenant farmers who were, in fact if not in law, serfs on his land. These days, that doesn't happen, but the separation between poor-as-dirt people whose families used to be "aristocrats" and poor-as-dirt people whose families used to be tenant farmers is real.

"Essentially, this [the alleged conservatism of the South] is the root of Republicanism." Actually, it was the root of the Democratic Party as well for the century between Civil War and the mid 1960s.

And I must add one thing about the supposed 'conservatism' of the South. Does that theory account for the majority of people in the South (if you count blacks) who favored the Union during the Civil War? Or those who stood up for civil rights a century later?

The South is conservative today. Political parties have evolved, but it is and has been a conservative place. There is a deep division between the urban and the rural, here. Some urban areas of the south are fast-growing: think of NoVA, the Hampton Roads metro, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Atlanta. Many of these places are heavily populated with transplants from "up north," have a large minority population, or are college towns (or surrounded by college towns). All of these tend to increase the "liberalness" of a place in the South, and are leading to the "purple" reputation of North Carolina and Virginia—but it's an illusion, to some degree. None of the ten counties surrounding Cash's birthplace (and mine) voted for Romney by less than a 60-40% margin, and that's pretty typical of the areas that in-migration have bypassed.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:40 AM on February 2


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