Friday, June 29, 2012

W. J. Cash--The Mind of the South (1941)

Even in retrospect, Cash’s text still remains a rather cogent masterpiece in describing the history and emergence of the “mind of the South” as he saw it in 1941.  Keeping in mind the caveats noted in the 1991 introduction by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, especially that of his audience—which was generally an audience of like-minded, white, middle class-to-affluence southern men—Cash sketches out the evolution of the current state of the South, at least from his vantage point.  Cash’s definition of the South is based on the Civil War: “roughly delimited by the boundaries of the former Confederate States of America, but shading over into some of the border states, notably Kentucky also” (xlviii).  One of the most significant reasons why Cash thinks the South has developed so differently from the North is that he sees it as kept in a series of frontier stages—pre-Civil War frontier, post-Civil War destruction and Reconstruction which returned the South to a frontier status, and then finally a burgeoning industrialization period (under the leadership of Henry Grady and those who shared his vision of a South who will beat the North at their own game), which when compared to the North continued to keep the South in a kind of frontier status (especially the poor whites, who were used as mill fodder, just as they were used as cannon fodder during the Civil War).
This continuing frontier status allowed the South to keep values more in keeping with frontier communities: fierce independence, romanticism, and violence.  This self-reinforcing values combine with what Cash identifies as gyneolatry.  After making an argument that the South has long been viewed as a quarantined area of sexual deviance (an argument which Gary Richards quite convincingly makes in his 2007 Lovers and Beloveds: Sexual Otherness in Southern Fiction), he then explains that the southern white woman grew to represent the South itself, and any attacks against her were understood to be attacks on the very traditions of the South itself: “the Yankee must be answered by proclaiming from the housetops that Southern Virtue, so far from being inferior, was superior, not only to the North’s but to any on earth, and adducing Southern Womanhood in proof” (86).  His discussion of the threat of sexual violence in the South is unsatisfying: in contrast to the white southern woman (which he does not even identify as “white,” assuming that the descriptor of “Southern woman” as sufficient (84)), and even more so in his discussion of black female sexuality: “Nor…must we overlook the specific role played by the Negro woman.  Torn from her tribal restraints and taught an easy complaisance for commercial reasons, she was to be had for the taking….For she was natural, and could give herself up to passion in a way impossible to wives inhibited by Puritanical training”(84).  I find “taught an easy complaisance for commercial reasons” a troubling euphemism for “raped.”
While his discussion of the contemporary race relations seems a bit naïve (or at least overly optimistic) for 1941, one of the most significant aspects of his discussion of racism and lynching in the 20th century South is his insistence that it is not simply the province of the lower classes.  Rather, Cash important observes that “the major share of the responsibility in all those areas where the practice [of lynching] has remained common rests squarely on the shoulders of the master classes” (303).  He makes similar assertions about the KKK, claiming that they were made up primarily of lower class and poorer whites, though “its blood…came from the upper orders” (336).
Additionally, his discussion of the threat of sexual violence against white women by black men is equally troubling.  While he admits that “It is true that the actual danger of the southern white woman’s being violated by the Negro has always been comparatively small,” he maintains that “if the actual danger was small, it was nevertheless the most natural thing in the world for the South to see it as very great, to believe in it, fully and in all honesty, as a menace requiring the most desperate measures if it was to be held of,” because of the fear and terror of white women, the “neurotic old maids and wives, hysterical young girls”(115).  Cash scapegoats pretty much everyone for the southern rape complex—everyone, that is, except white men, of whom  there is plenty of documentation of perpetrating actual rapes (though as most of these are against slave women, I’m dubious if Cash would have characterized them as rape).
Cash claims both that the South has had a hierarchical class system, and yet is a much more democratic system than the North; the backbends of logic he undertakes to support this is rather ludicrous.  First he gives a rather essentialist depiction of class, locating class status as a biological (perhaps even genetic) characteristic: when describing the lazy type of the white trash southerner, he describes it as manifesting in a “distinctive, physical character—a striking lankness of frame and slackness of muscle in association with a shambling gait, a boniness and mis-shapeliness of head and feature, a peculiar sallow swartness, or alternatively a not less peculiar  and not less sallow faded-out colorlessness of skin and hair” (24).  Despite his subsequent claim that it is impossible for even the best southern stock to have been diluted with inferior blood, and the fact that quality southern folk still abound disprove the validity of such a genetic basis for character, his argument rings rather false to me.  Rather, the analogy that he makes in his “Of Time and Frontiers” section regarding how a family of brothers can, within a few generations, result with widely disparate social conditions—to the point that relatives with the same name will no longer be aware of their own kinship—seems a weak example of social Darwinism (albeit one which is echoed in Gone with the Wind) (27).
It is in the post-bellum South that Cash claims the real myth of the aristocratic Old South took hold (124).  Such mythology was reified by characteristics of the South which Cash throughout his text identifies as its primary values, across the entire South: sentimentality, politics, and love of rhetoric characteristics which were present in the antebellum period, but which only grew stronger under the torture of Reconstruction (126).  Importantly, though, one of the most important aspects of the South’s struggle under Reconstruction was its tragic dependence on cotton as its key crop: not only did such a one-crop strategy deplete land already unsuitable for the crop, depleting the land of its fecundity, but it also meant that the “yeomen and poor whites” who were “converted to cotton culture…no longer produced provender enough at home to take care of themselves and their animals form crop to crop, and must, therefore, somehow manage to secure it from outside” (147).  Further, once the South began to pursue technological progress, Cash importantly points out that the mill system was at heart another plantation: “the Southern mill factory almost invariably was…a plantation, essentially indistinguishable in organization from the familiar plantation of the cotton fields” (200)—because “Progress depended upon the cheapness of labor was a new and powerful block upon any possible advance en masse for the lower classes in the South” (203).  The South’s pursuit of progress encouraged a return to individualistic thinking, and the plantation/factory system meant that poor whites, needing a scapegoat for their poverty, were encouraged to view blacks as their enemy.  Loyalty, instead, grew to the twinned giants of Progress and Religion, which were considered the be-all saviors. 
Interesting to my own work is Cash’s brief description of another “type”: the “Yankee schoolma’am who, in such numbers, moved down upon the unfortunate South in the train of the army of occupation, to “educate” the black man for his new place in the sun and to furnish an example of the Christian love and philanthropy to the benighted native whites.  Generally horsefaced, bespectacled, and spare of frame, she was, of course, no proper intellectual but at best a comic character, at worst a dangerous fool, playing with explosive forces which she did not understand….if she not was not an intellectual, the South, with its vague standards in these manners, accepted her as such.  It saw her, indeed, as a living epitome of the Yankee mind, identified her essentially with Northern universities, read in the evils springing abundantly from her meddlesome stupidity categorical proof that Northern ‘theory’ was in toto altogether mad” (137).  Though he makes a brief aside to blame the northern journalist as well, it is clear that he lays the majority of the blame on meddling northern women.
He then discusses the seeming paradox that the South during Reconstruction, as it became more religious and anti-intellectual, began to for the first time develop a real literature of its own.  However, he explains the paradox that much of the literature, with the exception of Sidney Lanier, was quite propaganda-esque in nature, in its nostalgia for the Old South, noting Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, and George Washington Cable (the Grandissimes in particular) as examples.  I’m a bit confused by this last characterization—while Cash notes that the The Grandissimes is “so predominately a piece of sentimental glorification that it goes mainly unread nowadays, yet had so many flashes of untrammeled insight, so many sudden lapses into realism, that his countrymen actually denounced it as libel” (143).  Certainly, The Grandissimes relies heavily on sentimentalism, but I don’t see how the story of Bras Coupé (or of Honoré Grandissime, f.m.c.) can be considered “sentimental glorification.”
Interestingly, he points to Ellen Glasgow as the first example of a writer in the South who was “approach[ing] the materials of her world almost exclusively from the viewpoint of an artist” (144).  He then gives her as an example, along with James Joyce, of authors to which educated southerners turned in the 1920s instead of traditional southern authors such as Thomas Nelson Page (325).  In his discussion of the flowering of southern literature in the 1920s and 1930s, he points to Barren Ground (1925) as “the first real novel, as opposed to romances, the South had brought forth” (374).  He considers Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner together with Thomas Wolfe, deeming Caldwell and Faulkner “romantics of the appalling” (378).  The success of these generations of authors in creating a truly southern literature, according to Cash, was their ability to stand “intellectually at least, pretty decisively outside the region,” no longer writing about the South as “Never-Never Land” (379).  In his analysis of the rise of the Vanderbilt Agrarians in the wake of Mencken’s “Sahara of the Bozart,” he says that, “These men were mouthpieces of the fundamental, f sometimes only subterranean, will of the South to hold to the old way: the spiritual heirs of Thomas Nelson Page.  And their first joint declaration, I’ll Take My Stand, was, like their earlier prose works, essentially a determined reassertion of the validity of the legend of the Old South” (380).

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