Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Mind of the South: A Book Review

I've had this review ready for a week. I know this is not a book that many of you will have read, but if any of you have read it, I'd like to know you take on my interpretation of Cash's book. For the rest of you, bare with me or just say something silly. I'll try to post some more stories or pictures in a day or two.

W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (1941, reprint New York: Vintage Books, 1991)

In the introduction to the 50th Anniversary reprint of this book, Bertram Wyatt-Brown compares Cash’s writing to that of a southern lawyer addressing the jury. If that’s the case, I’m sure most of the jury would vote to hang his defendant on sheer principle. This is a long and wordy book. It often repeats itself. Furthermore, it doesn’t come to any great conclusion. At the end, I found myself wondering if the author just ran out of steam. It appears he’s still in the middle of the story, which is true, for the changes in the South that Cash described in 1940 would continued at even a more rapid rate during the Second World War and throughout the Civil Rights movement. Although I am critical of Cash’s tendency to wax on and on, he is an engaging writer and I’m glad to have plowed through his work.

Cash divides the south into three “frontiers” (pre-Civil War, reconstruction and its aftermath, and the era of industrialization). Wyatt-Brown suggests in his introduction that Cash draws upon Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis for the American West. Although Turner is best known for the thesis, Cash applies economic theory to the thesis (much like another disciple of Turner, Walter Prescott Webb, does in his classic, The Great Frontier). Like Webb, Cash sees the frontier as an opportunity for economic expansion. In seeing three distinct frontiers in the South, Cash see’s three opportunities for economic improvements. However, through each of these stages, certain “distinctive” Southern features remain and are reinforced.

In the first part of the book, where Cash reviews the pre-Civil War south, he goes to great extend to debunk the southern plantation myths that the planters of the old south were English Cavaliers, often linked to royalty. That may have been the case for a handful of plantations in Virginia, but most planters were ordinary men who took risk, got lucky and rose up through the ranks. Cash shows distain for the antebellum south, pointing out that despite all the mythology about how good it was; the South was backwards. The South did not produce any significant literary or philosophical giants during this way. Set in its ways, the South was reluctant to give up slavery, which economically was a failure.

Cash interpretation of the Civil War would probably anger both northern and southern apologists.

“The Civil War and Reconstruction represents in their aspect an attempt on the part of the Yankee to achieve by force what it had failed to achieve by political means: first, a free hand in the thievish aims of the tariff gang, and secondly, and far more fundamentally, the satisfaction of the instinctive urge of men in the mass to put down whatever differs from themselves—the will to make over the South in the prevailing American image and to sweep it into the main current of the nation.”
He continues by pointing out that it appears the North was successful at Appomattox, but their victory was illusory. Although the South was defeated, the will and mind of the South was not only still intact, it had been fortified. In fact, the South was even more unified after the war than during the war, when individual states overshadowed national unity. Reconstruction ended during the 1876 election, according to Cash, because Florida was willing to put the Republican “tariff gang” into the White House, trading high tariffs for the removal of Northern soldiers. After Reconstruction, the old order in the South returned. Although slavery had ended, African-Americans found they were not really free. With tariffs in place, guaranteeing low prices for southern cotton for the northern mills, Cash noted that moral issues such as civil rights were less a concern and the North. Of course, the years following the Civil War were difficult in the South due to the lack of capital. During this time, when no one had money, the leadership in the South was solidified with the former planters who had also been the officers in the Confederate Army.

As the 19th Century came to a close, textile mills began to be built across the south. Again, new opportunities were available, but they were limited as the mills became the plantations of the early 20th Century. As with the Planters and the Confederate Captains of previous decades, the mill owners developed a paternal outlook for their workers, even though they also worked hard to maintain the low wages that allowed them to lure more business away from the New England mills. In time, as one generation of leaders gave way to the next, the paternalistic outlooks of the bosses waned, leading to the textile strikes in the late 1920s. Unionism, however, failed in the South.

Much of Cash’s interpretation of the southern mind has to do with holding contradictory or paradoxical views. The South both embraced progressive movements yet it was reluctant to change. A tendency toward both hedonism and Puritanism is found throughout the South. Religiously, even the Methodists in the South were steeped in a stern Calvinism, yet there was also an undercut of free-will theology. The southern conservative mythology focuses on the individual, yet at the same time demands conformity from everyone. Throughout the era of Cash’s study, a caste system existed in the South. It changed, from planter, to confederate officer, to mill boss, but it structurally remained the same. This system also prevented the rise of an egalitarian populist movement in the late 19th century that brought together poor whites and blacks. Instead, poorer whites continued to seek the leadership of more well-to-do whites.

This is not a book to understand the South today. DON’T PICK IT UP THINKING YOU CAN GET INSIDE SAGE’S MIND!!! Cash interprets the South at the end of the “cotton era,” which ended before my birth. There are many problems with the book. Although critical of romanticism, he tends to have a romantic view of the south. He also has a problem with religion in general. He sees fundamentalism rising from southern primitivism (George Mardsen in Fundamentalism and American Culture, along with others have shown that fundamentalism as a movement developed first within Northern evangelicalism). There are more up to date books for understanding the South. For Southern religion, check out Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt and Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. For the develop of business and industry in the South, see Allen Tullos, Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont.


  1. Long, wordy and meandering wouldn't describe the inside of your mind? Are you sure about that? ;-)

  2. These are the books that have shaped my view of the South - Gone with the Wind, Beloved, Prodigal Summer, Cold Mountain, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Jesse James, and my absolute favorite book, To Kill A Mockingbird.

    All but Jesse James are fiction . . .

  3. I haven't read this one, no, I like to watch documentaries of such things instead so it is explained easier but I actually think I might could read this one. I visit Charleston in a few weeks and I'd like to read something other than romantized fiction about plantations.

  4. Diane, you got to read some William Stryon or Faulkner or Flannery O'Conner or Walker Percy or Willie Morris or Roy Blount.

    Or, to learn about the best part of the South (North Carolina), I pick up a book by Clyde Edgerton (I suggest Ramey or Walking Across Egypt). If you can find a copy, I also suggest Guy Owen's "The Ballard of the Flim-flam Man." Both authors will have laughing so hard you'll be in tears.

    Deana, I'll have to research some on plantation books--NC had a few plantations, but we weren't like SC in that aspect.

  5. There's something about Southern writing that's different from the rest of the country

    I usually love it

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  7. Gee, Sage, no mention of Pat Conroy. He must fall in your chick book category or you ignored him because he's from, I believe, South Carolina.

  8. Pia, Cash makes an interesting point that I have to agree with--it wasn't until the 20th Century that the South began to be known for its literary. Before the war, there were few authors from the region noted in literature--Poe being one.

    Murf, believe it or not, I've not read any Pat Conroy--must be because he's from SC

    Diane, you're welcome--I hope to read reviews of these in your blog!

  9. Gonna have to do more reading cause it looks like I'm missing out.

  10. Great review as usual. But now I'm curious as to what your expectations were of the book? I'm just curious to know if it turned out to be a disappointment or were you particularly curious about the book or author?

  11. Sage, I don't need to read the book after reading this review. I am a "sutherner" and I don't understand the south. But, I don't understand the north, east or west. Most enjoyable!!

  12. This is a good review here on an interesting topic. This time period is very interesting, the changing and competing cultures in America.

  13. I don't know if it's your review or the fact that I'm from the South, but something about it makes me want to read this book.

  14. I just noticed the photo in your Intimate Stories movie review and the comparison to the movie The Straight Story. Have you seen that one?

  15. Karen, It'd be fun to get a Yankee's review ;)

    V, I wasn't disappointed with the book, but I knew a bit about it before I read it--I am trying to get more into Southern history

    Paul, I'm a sutherner too, but I best understand the West--the intermountain West.

    Peri, as a historian, it'd be interesting to get your take on the book

    Bone, there is something about being from the south that causes questions to rise--there is both a pride and a shame that goes along with it which makes those of us being from down there to want to learn more

    Murf, I haven't seen it.

  16. Oh, you should. I actually own one. I smell Murf doing a movie review soon.

  17. Adding these to my list of need to reads! Great review.