‘The New Mind of the South’ by Tracy Thompson

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.”

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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!

The mixture of pride and shame with which Southerners such as Faulkner and Cash have viewed the South has scarcely vanished as the region has undergone remarkable change since World War II. Thompson conveys some sense of that pride (in this case prideful self-delusion) in her conversations with members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and its certifiably ridiculous “young person’s auxiliary called the Children of the Confederacy,” who to this day cling to the preposterous belief that “the South had not fought to preserve slavery, and that this false accusation was an effort to smear the reputation of the South’s gallant leaders.” UDC lobbyists and other Lost Cause proponents have had extraordinary influence on the cowardly textbook industry, which has caved in to their demands that the antebellum and Civil War periods be presented to high school students in the most favorable light, i.e., that “slavery was a benign institution” and that “the Civil War was fought over the issue of states’ rights.”

As Thompson says, there has long been a “Southern genius for living in an imagined past where racial tension was nonexistent, strangers would stop to help you if you had a flat tire, white people were sweet to black people and black people loved them right back, and everyone went to church on Sunday.” This “lack of historical awareness” is one of the basic characteristics Thompson attributes to Southerners, along with three others: “Southerners are conservative people,” they are notable for “sheer adaptability,” and they have “a certain lack of self-awareness.” All this is legitimate enough and in its essentials echoes much to be found in Cash, but the problem is that these essentially are characteristics of Southern-born and -raised whites, whereas in fact the South now is inhabited by large numbers of (a) people who have immigrated there from other parts of the country, (b) African Americans, who are returning to the South in great numbers, and (c) Latinos and others, Asians most particularly, who have come there from other countries.

Thompson is quick to acknowledge this but doesn’t seem to grasp that it is now just about impossible to generalize about Southerners and the South, because even though the traits mentioned above can still be found in many places and people, they can’t be found in all. That doesn’t keep her from trying. She says that “the South is finally disentangling itself from the Confederacy,” that “being a twentieth-century Southerner means coming to a better appreciation of the tensions created by. . . our dual identities as Americans and as Southerners,” that the South “exemplifies the progress that has been made on race, and the distance there still is to go,” and that it retains its old “sense of community” but far more inclusively than in the past.

True enough, but what it says to me is that the South is becoming not more Southern but more American. Yes, many of its old folkways live on, the good ones and the bad ones, and the Southern accent persists doughtily (and bravely) in this age of homogenization, and it’s still a whole lot hotter down there than in the iron New England dark, but these carry ever less weight as external influences — mainly all those outsiders who have moved in — leave the South no choice except to change. She’s quite right that in some respects Atlanta is “a very Southern city . . . in its inferiority complex, in its defensive need to be validated as a ‘world-class’ city, Southern in its reflexive need to sugarcoat racial realities, Southern in its resilience and adaptability in the face of calamity” — but in most other respects it’s pretty much indistinguishable from Houston or Kansas City.

My own Southern connections are scarcely as deep as Thompson’s, yet for about a quarter-century I was an adopted Southerner and happy to be one, as well as an ardent reader and booster of Southern literature. But it’s people like me — people who came to the South from elsewhere, who adopted some of its customs and byways but who also carried in their carpetbags their own beliefs and economic practices — who have had much to do with making the South a quite different place. It’s as much a definable region now as it ever was, but it’s much less a state of mind.

yardleyj@washpost.com

THE NEW MIND OF THE SOUTH

By Tracy Thompson

Simon & Schuster. 263 pp. $26

 
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