At the end of his classic “The Mind of the South” (1941), W.J. Cash painted his “basic picture of the South.” He began: “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 continued:
“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 to act 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.”
‘The New Mind of the South’ by Tracy Thompson (
Cash, of course, was writing about the white South, white Southern males most particularly, and indeed as Tracy Thompson notes in “The New Mind of the South,” the word “Southerners” is usually taken to mean whites. Though African Americans figure in “The Mind of the South,” they are there more as objects of white attitudes, prejudices and violence than as Southerners in their own right.
Thompson, though she makes only a single reference to Cash (an inexcusable omission in a book that aims to analyze the Southern character and uses as its title a very minor tweak on Cash’s own), tries hard to rectify this but with only limited success. It is true that in some respects Cash’s book is dated, but in its way it is passionate and profound, the ultimate debunking of the myth of the aristocratic Old South and the Lost Cause myth attendant to it. By contrast, Thompson’s book is competent journalism at best, with occasional lapses into forced chumminess, but nowhere does it come even close to the richness of the original.
Thompson is a native of Georgia whose journalistic career began at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and continued at The Washington Post (she and I never met), which she left in 1996 with the birth of her first child. She now lives in the Maryland suburbs but obviously keeps a close and mostly affectionate eye on the region where her family has lived for “at least six generations.” She has roamed through much of the region in hopes of discovering what the South has become nearly three-quarters of a century after Cash, and she has read and/or talked to most of the usual sociologists, historians et al. who are today’s academic stars, Dixie division.
The question that has haunted thoughtful Southerners for years was stated most dramatically (and famously) by William Faulkner in the closing words of “Absalom, Absalom!” Quentin Compson has just finished telling the incredible and (in the deepest sense of the word) terrible story of Thomas Sutpen and the rise and fall of his dynasty in a long conversation with his roommate at Harvard, a Canadian named Shreve McCannon, when Shreve says: “Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?” Then, “ ‘I dont hate it,’ Quentin said quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I dont hate it,’ he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”