W.J. CASH: A Life By Bruce Clayton Louisiana State University Press 236 pp. $24.95

FIFTY years ago, on Feb. 10, 1941, the firm of Alfred A. Knopf published 2,500 copies of a book it had all but given up hope of ever seeing in print. When at last The Mind of the South was between covers, the patient but by then wearied Knopf listened to its author's grand plans for a novel to follow. He listened with the encouraging interest that was his nature, but in his own mind Alfred Knopf knew W.J. Cash would never write another book.

Cash, Knopf knew, had said all he had to say in the sprawling manuscript that had to be dragged out of him. There are writers who have in them a single, soul-consuming book, and whose names live ever after in the shadow of that book. Such a writer was W.J. Cash, and such a book was The Mind of the South. It had been Cash's obsession for more than 10 years and finally, in February of 1941, it not only was in print but was also receiving admiring reviews.

Elation, though, was short-lived. Almost immediately it gave way to familiar, debilitating depression, and within six months Wilbur Joseph Cash had hanged himself with his necktie in a Mexico City hotel room.

Half a century later, the book to which he literally gave his life remains as both text and testament. In the huge and popular Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published two years ago, only William Faulkner and Thomas Jefferson are cited more often than W.J. Cash. "I would venture to guess," C. Vann Woodward wrote some 20 years ago, "that no other book on Southern history rivals Cash's in influence among laymen and few among professional historians."

Woodward was among those who had given the book generous notice (though with reservations) when it was published, but he came to have second thoughts. The South's history, he wrote in 1969, was never so continuous as Cash imagined. Nor was the South so uniform an idea in Southerners' minds. Cash, for that matter, denied in his book that Southerners even had minds. Borrowing from Henry Adams, he said they only had temperaments; the Southerner did not think, he only felt. That being so, Cash's title was puzzling indeed.

What is more, Woodward argued, Cash's South was only the hill-country and milltown South of the Carolinas, with grudging reference to the Virginia Tidewater. A map of it, Woodward wrote, would be a caricature of cartography, like the Saul Steinberg map of the United States in The New Yorker: "The subregion of the Appalachian foothills stretching from Gaffney, S.C., Cash's birthplace, through Charlotte, N.C., his home as an adult, and tapering northeast to the Potomac would loom larger than all the rest, and North Carolina would easily qualify as the New York of the great South."

Bruce Clayton has undertaken not only to challenge Woodward but also -- and more important, I think -- to give Cash a human dimension. In both respects, he succeeds more than anyone has thus far -- if not entirely, enough that W.J. Cash is posthumously in his debt.

Clayton is sympathetic yet critical, a balance difficult to strike and especially so in Cash's case. In his 41 years W.J. Cash kept no diary and wrote few letters, and those he wrote were brief and to the point. He seldom traveled beyond North Carolina. He had some newspaper cronies from the Charlotte News where he worked, but few close friends. From adolescence on he went around with his nose in a book or his mind off into some thought, oblivious of the world around him. He was a lonely bachelor in Presbyterian and prohibitionist Charlotte, a city he had satirized in H.L. Mencken's American Mercury as "one continuous blue-law." Not until six months before his death did he marry, and by the evidence Mary Cash brought him what intimacy and joy he ever knew.

And yet he killed himself. It is a complicated story, but a compelling one. Bruce Clayton, who is professor of American history at Allegheny College, renders Cash as most knew him: a scrawny and unathletic child who grew into a squinty-eyed man forever tumbling cigarette ash onto his shirt, chronically depressed and fatigued, easily slighted, shy and inexperienced with women, companion to the bottle, immensely talented and wholly absorbed by one subject: The South.

All this is familiar, but Clayton goes beyond the much-recounted anecdotes to portray a man who knew his region far better than he knew himself. Cash was an intellectual who wanted instead, or at least also, to be a novelist. He wanted to portray the South not as Faulkner had, or Thomas Wolfe, or Erskine Caldwell, but as he himself knew it. "Did Cash have the artist's sensibility to story and character," Clayton asks, "the novelist's willingness and skill to let a story evolve through the actions of the characters?" Only if he rewired his mind. "He was fascinated with ideas. He came alive in conversation only when someone advanced an interesting idea, but even his friends admitted that he was a notoriously poor storyteller . . . He was a grand generalizer. That was his strength, his genius." BUT the South still possessed him. He had to explain it yet more fully -- in fiction. Thus, in June 1941, he set off with his wife for Mexico City, a Guggenheim Fellowship in hand that would allow him a year's relief from his editorial-writing duties at the Charlotte News. From the start everything went wrong -- he was worn out from traveling, anxious about a commencement address at the University of Texas and anxious about Nazis hiding in Mexico, sick with diarrhea, guilt-ridden about any number of things. And more depression set in.

It was not depression, Clayton contends, that drove Cash to take his life. More likely his suicide was the consequence of acute hyperthyroidism, an endocrine disorder he had been treated for years earlier and which can lead -- as it apparently did in Cash's case -- to hallucinations and paranoia. "At the end," Clayton writes, "he was alone, tormented, out of his head, frightened -- to death."

Death did not deprive W.J. Cash of writing the novel he never would have finished anyway, but it assuredly deprived him, Clayton says, "of knowing he had penned a classic in historic literature." The early sales of Cash's book disappointed Alfred Knopf, who doubtless throught all the patience expended on Cash's slow-coming manuscript had not been worth it. But neither publisher nor author could have foreseen its afterlife in paperback. In the 50 years since its publication, The Mind of the South has never been out of print. It remains today as something of a period piece, like William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee, but its lyric cadences still haunt the mind:

"There are days when the booming of the wind in the pines is like the audible rushing of time -- when the sad knowledge of the grave stirs in the subconsciousness and bends the spirit to melancholy; days when the questions that have no answers must insinuate themselves into the minds of the least analytical of men . . . days saturnine and bilious and full of heavy foreboding . . . days when this land which, in its dominant mood wraps its children in soft illusion, strips them naked before terror."

If anyone truly knew W.J. Cash, they hardly saw more deeply into the man than Bruce Clayton has. Some of Woodward's criticisms, I think, survive Clayton's argument. But here surely, as Woodward granted, "was a man writing his heart out about the subject that was dearest to him." For all that he tried to distance himself from a region he both hated and loved, W.J. Cash was more a Southerner than he ever knew. Michael Skube, book editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1989.