Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Just finished reading - The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash

In 1940 W.J. Cash summarized his views on the South and Southerners in his book The Mind of the South. "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, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism - these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today."

I wonder how Cash would view the South of 2009? Would he draw much different conclusions? It could be strongly argued that a whole lot has changed since 1940 when The Mind of the South was published. But, how much has stayed the same?

I first heard about The Mind of the South in graduate school and I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to finally read this thought provoking book. W.J. Cash was born in Gaffney, South Carolina in 1900. He graduated from Wake Forest and had short teaching careers at Georgetown College in Kentucky, and at small town high school in North Carolina, but his real interest was in journalism. Cash worked at a few newspapers in North Carolina, and even won a prized Guggenheim Fellowship, but mental demons and drinking did him in; he committed suicide in 1941 in Mexico City.

The copy of The Mind of the South that I have (1991) has an excellent introduction written by renowned Southern historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Brown goes a long way in explaining Cash and what he was attempting to do in writing The Mind of the South. The book would have been much less understandable without this mini-biography and explanation.

The Mind of the South is not your typical Southern historical work. There are no footnotes. There are not primary source references. Cash writes in what to me seems to be a unique stream of consciousness style that combines the elements of a good education in Southern history, family history stories, and his own personal experiences. Cash covers Southern history chronologically from early settlement in Virginia, the Old South, and on up to the late 1930s. Throughout the book he covers topics such as romanticism, slavery, Reconstruction, the Populist movement, racism, religiosity, and the Great Depression. Cash also devotes a significant portion of the last section in examination of textile mill workers, labor relations, and class conflicts in the 20th century.

The Mind of the South is an pleasurable and easy read although it cover 400 + pages. It is certainly a classic in Southern literature and I recommend it to anyone interested in Southern ways and values as seen from a native Southerner.

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