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Books
The Idea of the South

The American South may be joining the national parade, but writing about the South still tries to establish its distinctiveness

by Benjamin Schwarz

"TELL about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." So demands the Canadian Shreve McCannon of his roommate, the Mississippian Quentin Compson, in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom. Readers' urge to know about the South and writers' compulsion to explain it have engendered a vast subfield of American letters over the past century and a half. Even leaving aside the southern novelists, poets, and storywriters, since the 1850s not five years have passed without a major work seeking to explore, explain, justify, or condemn a region that the historian David Potter called "a kind of sphinx on the American land."


THE OXFORD BOOK
OF THE
AMERICAN SOUTH


edited by Edward L Ayers and
Bradley C. Mittendorf.
Oxford University Press,
597 pages, $30.00.


POWER IN THE BLOOD:
Land, Memory and
a Southern Family


by John Bentley Mays.
HarperCollins, 286 pages.
$24.00.


DIXIE RISING

by Peter Applebome.
Harcourt Brace/Harvest Books,
393 pages, $13.00, paper.



Meditating on the region has also become a thriving academic industry, with specialized journals such as Southern Cultures, Southern Studies, Southern Quarterly, and the venerable Journal of Southern History. Louisiana State University Press and the presses of the Universities of North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia have developed long lists of titles in the fields of southern culture, literature and literary criticism, and history. (Trade publishers, especially Knopf, have over the years also published a surprising number of studies of the South.) There are the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, and the Encyclopedia of Southern History. There are two Institutes for Southern Studies, along with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the Center for the Study of Southern History and Culture. The South also claims a group of outstanding literary and cultural quarterlies -- the Southern Review, the Sewanee Review, the Georgia Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review -- that, although national in scope, pay particular attention to the region.
Discuss this article in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte. From the archives:

From the archives:

  • "Mississippi Monte Carlo," by Benjamin and Christina Schwarz (January, 1996)
    "Tunica County, in the Mississippi Delta, has long been among the poorest places in America. But casino gambling is changing Tunica's prospects."


  • The three recent books under review, then, cover well-traveled ground and follow familiar forms. The Oxford Book of the American South, edited by the historian Edward Ayers (whose Promise of the New South,published in 1992, is one of the broadest and most original interpretations of southern history of the past twenty years) and the writer and political consultant Bradley Mittendorf, is an anthology of southern writing about the South from the eighteenth century to the present. Surprisingly, it is the most novel of the three books, even though more than twenty-five anthologies of southern literature have been published since the Civil War. Ayers and Mittendorf have taken a new approach, in that they haven't assembled a simple historical anthology.

    Their selections don't, for instance, end in the 1950s, when the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision set the stage for the eradication of the South's last peculiar institution, segregation, and when for the first time more of the population of the South -- America's most rural region -- lived in urban areas than in the country. Nor do the selections follow strict chronological order. Rather, by juxtaposing an excerpt from the diary of Sarah Morgan, born in 1842, with a short story by Barry Hannah, born in 1942, for example, Ayers and Mittendorf suggest that the South is a living tradition, "a society unfolding in time." Implicitly they, like many other southerners, see the South in much the same way that George Orwell saw England in 1940:
    What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
    John Bentley Mays's Power in the Blood traces his family's nearly 400-year history in the South and explores the lands in Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana where they dwelt. Having spent his adult life to that point in the North and in Canada, Mays, who is an art critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail and the author of a previous memoir (a No. 1 best seller in Canada), returned to the South to explore his personal, family, and regional history, intending "to discover the truth of the South -- at least the truth of dwelling on the Southern land embodied in the ten generations of my ancestors and kin who have lived there." Power in the Blood is thus similar in form and intent to a host of classic works that marry memoir and family history in an effort to define the South through some specific southern experience or locale -- including God Shakes Creation (1935), by David Cohn; Lanterns on the Levee (1941), by William Alexander Percy; Red Hills and Cotton (1942), by Ben Robertson; The Making of a Southerner (1946), by Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin; and The Southern Heritage (1958), by James McBride Dabbs. (In a quintessentially southern coincidence, Dabbs, unbeknownst to Mays, was a distant cousin and was born in Mayesville, South Carolina, the town founded by their ancestor in 1820.)

    Since Mays's endeavor obliged him to travel throughout the South, his book at times also echoes another popular genre -- the southern travelogue, which goes back to 1856, when Frederick Law Olmsted wrote A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (and which also includes Clarence Cason's 90° in the Shade and Jonathan Daniels's A Southerner Discovers the South). The travelogue is also the form that the former New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Peter Applebome adopts in Dixie Rising. Each of Applebome's chapters is devoted to a different southern locale paired with a theme -- race relations in Selma, class conflict in the Carolina Piedmont, popular music in Nashville, urban prosperity in Charlotte, North Carolina. These often vivid pieces of reportage are made to serve his thesis that not only is the South becoming more like the rest of the country but the rest of the country more and more resembles the South.

    With so many models, it's not surprising that Power in the Blood and Dixie Rising labor under an enormous and potentially deadening weight. Mays and Applebome, and nearly all modern writers on the South, are consciously or unconsciously responding to their predecessors. They can't help seeing the region through other writers' eyes, which makes writing on the South tend toward the formulaic. When Mays, attempting to find a link to the past, tramps through neglected and overgrown cemeteries in search of lost ancestors, he is perhaps inspired by Willie Morris's similar search at the end of his memoir North Toward Home (1967). And Morris may have been inspired by the great southern poet Allen Tate's own graveyard visit, recounted in his "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1926), by far the most famous southern poem of the century. These cemetery visits might be prompted by genuine sentiment, but they have also become obligatory. How could Mays, who has absorbed the notion that the southerner's way of thinking is "defined by memory and the land," write "a memoir of my family during the first four centuries of our tenure on Southern ground" and pass up the opportunity to search the Carolina softwood forest for the grave of his long-dead kinsman? Since it is almost impossible to see the region through fresh eyes, for a long time it has been difficult to find fresh perception in anything written about the South, or even in one's own impressions, for that matter.

    The travelogue form that Applebome has chosen (which he describes as a "journalistic voyage across the region that captures in a big way a moment in the South's history and its place in the national imagination") is particularly difficult in this respect, since he visits many places -- for example, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, and the Mississippi Delta -- precisely because they have already been mythologized. (Applebome did, however, manage to resist the obligatory visit with Eudora Welty on his swing through Jackson, Mississippi.) Not only is the writer prepared to see what his predecessors have described, but -- a further complication -- many of those interviewed have themselves absorbed stock answers and regional clichés. The North Carolina novelist Doris Betts, in an essay on southern literature, expressed amazement at V. S. Naipaul's contention in A Turn in the South (1989) that southerners mentioned General Sherman to him almost daily, when she didn't hear of the general once a year. She ascribed Naipaul's experience to the stories southerners reflexively tell about themselves: "The temptation to go on quoting Allen Tate whether his words still apply or not is very great." "Naipaul seems," Betts continued, "to have accepted the South's idea of itself and scribbled it intact into his notebook after it dropped from the mouths of southerners." Similarly, Walker Percy suspected that much of the talk he heard about the South was only the repetition of unexamined clichés. He dismissed the literary characteristics of the South about which one hears so much. Percy wrote in 1977,
    I've heard about that, the storytelling tradition, sense of identity, tragic dimension, community, history, and so forth. But I was never quite sure what it meant. In fact, I'm not sure that the opposite is not the case.
    PERHAPS, then, Mays's effort "to discover the truth of the South" is doomed to failure. After surveying the myriad attempts to define southern distinctiveness (yet another genre of books, often consisting of collected essays and symposium papers), one finds that attempting to discover "the truth of the South" has become in large part a self-referential academic exercise, and it's tempting to concur with the argument presented by the intellectual historian Michael O'Brien in The Idea of the American South that the distinctive South is merely an intellectual construct.

    The two twentieth-century classics of southern self-definition are The Mind of the South, by W. J. Cash, and I'll Take My Stand, a collection of essays by "Twelve Southerners," including Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Stark Young, collectively known as the Agrarians. These books are fifty-six and sixty-seven years old, respectively, and everything written on the South since their publication is something of a footnote to them. Like virtually every other writer on the South in the past half century, Ayers and Mittendorf, Mays, and Applebome are implicitly addressing two questions: Does Cash's statement that the South is "not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it" remain true? And do the qualities of the southern character identified by the Agrarians -- summed up nicely by the literary critic Fred Hobson as "a sense of time and place, a religious temper, a suspicion of material progress, a tradition of manners, a fury against abstraction" -- also remain? Given all the changes that have engulfed the South in the past half century -- the civil-rights revolution and what the historian C. Vann Woodward calls "the bulldozer revolution," which has destroyed the South's predominantly agrarian way of life -- that these questions themselves remain is a testament to the persistence of the idea (if not the reality) of southern distinctiveness.

    The first problem with the idea of a separate and distinct South is, simply, which South does one mean? Famously, the "mind" that Cash brilliantly dissected was not so much that of the South as a whole as it was that of the Carolina Piedmont. On the other hand, The Oxford Book's notion of the South is broad: it contains passages written by Frederick Douglass, who lived in the Maryland Tidewater; William Alexander Percy, who lived in the Mississippi Delta; and Fred Chappell, who was born and raised in Appalachia. The temporal, physical, cultural, and political distances separating these writers is enormous. Even within I'll Take My Stand it's unclear which antithetical version of the South the book is defending -- the low-country, Anglican, planter-dominated, aristocratic vision that Ransom, Tate, Young, and John Gould Fletcher celebrated, or the upcountry, simple, democratic (for whites) South of the plain folks that Davidson, Andrew Lytle, and Frank Owsley embraced.

    Moreover, one of the distinguishing features of southerners has supposedly been their sense of rootedness and community. But, as Cash argued, the South was a frontier society for longer than any other section of the country; and Mays writes that his family since 1609 "never tilled the same plot of Southern ground for more than two or three generations" and that "rootlessness [is] our most durable heritage." The intellectual Hugh Legaré, of Charleston, South Carolina, put it bluntly in 1838: "We have no local attachments.... If an estate, a residence in town, a country seat, rises a little beyond what we are accustomed to think its value, it is sold without any hesitation."

    Finally, and most important, even granting that "the South" was once a place apart from the rest of America, with a culture peculiarly its own, today's Dixie is by many measures fully "Americanized." After all, it has been nearly twenty-five years since the writer and veteran South-watcher John Egerton announced in his southern travelogue that "the South is just about over as a separate and distinct place." The region has proved no more immune than the rest of the country to the blandishments of the national commercial culture, and, as Applebome argues, what was once the rural impoverished South is now the country's "main engine of economic growth." How can we still talk of a South and a southern culture? And even if we can, could it be more than a relic?

    BUT the South does remain a distinctive and recognizable unit, albeit in attenuated form, despite geographic and cultural differences within the region. As the North Carolina novelist Reynolds Price argued in 1976,
    I can travel from Durham, North Carolina, to Jackson, Mississippi, which is a distance of 800 miles, and find that people are still speaking almost exactly the same dialect that I have grown up with and known all my life, whereas I can go from Durham, North Carolina, to Philadelphia, a distance of 400 miles, and find them speaking an utterly different dialect ... So it's not so much a matter of geographical distance as it is of a prevailing tradition over a large part of the country.
    Even when southerners like the Mays family moved from place to place, those places were always populated by southerners. The Mississippi Delta, for example, is considered the most southern place on earth, although its history as a southern place is relatively recent. It was settled in the last generation before the Civil War, almost exclusively by blacks and whites from other places in the South -- a group that the historian Joel Williamson describes as "the descendants of the primal stock that had first settled the South Atlantic seaboard." In 1955 the historian George W. Pierson claimed that there was "no New England region today" by showing that about 60 percent of Connecticut "Yankees" were in fact either foreign-born or born of foreign or mixed parentage and that fewer than 30 percent had New England forebears that went back more than two generations. In the South today, on the other hand, despite the influx of outsiders to Atlanta, Charlotte, and other cities, the vast majority of the population probably still descends from the original inhabitants. Because its share of immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been so small, the South has more residents with a long history in this country than any other region.

    Southerners having been southerners for so long accounts in part for the clichéd perception of their special sense of memory, family, and history. Much of this, especially the vogue for genealogy that Mays notes, tends toward trite ancestor worship. But it can also be detected in the remarkably unselfconscious attitude that, in Faulkner's famous phrase, "the past isn't dead, it isn't even past." Thus, writing in 1942, Ben Robertson, discussing his family's long-held antipathy toward John Calhoun, who had been dead for ninety-two years, casually remarked, "We remembered when his grandmother was scalped at Longcane in 1760." That black and white southerners, as Reynolds Price writes, can "conduct mutually intelligible, agreeing dialogues with their resurrected great-grandparents and ... for all that, do not see themselves as isolated islands of the past but as typical of the world around them" has given the best southern writers and thinkers an ease with tradition, permitting them to engage it rather than treat it with what T. S. Eliot called "a blind or timid adherence" that would lead inevitably to its ossification.

    Throughout its history the South's death has been repeatedly predicted. John Randolph in the early 1800s foresaw its demise in the decline of "the old families of Virginia" and the rise of new "monied men," "citizens of no place or any place." Others supposed its death would come with the rise of the Cotton Kingdom's nouveau riche, with defeat in the Civil War, with the rise of the "New South," and then with the automobile. Finally desegregation and postwar prosperity were going to kill it. But as The Oxford Book shows, by juxtaposing past and present writing to create a dialogue that extends over generations, the South's best minds and most-astute observers have both seen and created the South as a thing akin to England's culture in Orwell's description: "an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same."

    ATTEMPTS to define the South and relate the southern experience still too often commit the error that Tate made in his 1935 essay "The Profession of Letters in the South." Describing the distinguishing features of southern life and culture, Tate sought to explain how these developed even though "the South was settled by the same European strains as originally settled in the North." In fact the populations of the North and the South were considerably different, in that blacks were a majority in Colonial South Carolina and made up about 43 percent of the population of Jefferson's Virginia. Applebome astutely observes that "the South" celebrated today by active "southern partisans" is really only the South of white southerners. Advancing such a version of the region is a serious error, not because it violates contemporary codes of racial sensitivity but because it presents an incorrect view of the South and its people.

    In a 1993 survey at the University of Virginia, black southerners were even more likely than white southerners to take pride in their southern background. This shouldn't be surprising; Martin Luther King Jr., after all, always spoke of himself as a "southerner" and wrote of "our beloved Southland." Perceptive students of the region have long observed that if an intense attachment to the land, a sense of place and family, an insistence on hospitality and manners, a strong folk culture, and an adherence to evangelical Christianity characterize the southerner, then "there is no one more quintessentially Southern," as C. Vann Woodward maintained, "than the Southern Negro."

    Without doubt the fundamental element of the temperament and culture of the South is that blacks and whites have lived there together for so long. Of all Cash's insights into the southern ethos, none was so penetrating -- or, unfortunately, so underdeveloped -- as his argument, scandalous for the time it was written, that blacks had a profound influence on whites in the South.
    In this society in which ... nearly the whole body of whites, young and old, had constantly before their eyes the example, had constantly in their ears the accent, of the Negro, the relationship between the two groups was, by the second generation at least, nothing less than organic. Negro entered into white man as profoundly as white man entered into Negro -- subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude.
    Nearly every distinctive aspect of southern life -- from speech and food to music and the storytelling tradition to the style and spirit of southern Protestantism to the very word "Dixie" -- developed from the interchange of the two races. Even southerners' courtesy and manners (subtly explored in the stories of Peter Taylor and the novels of Reynolds Price, Hamilton Basso, and Eudora Welty), qualities that, Ayers has written, are "perhaps the most tangible evidence of a Southern upbringing, "are, scholars agree, the product of the fusion of black and white attitudes.

    Applebome is especially sensitive to the biracial nature of southern culture and manners and believes, or wishes to believe, that "the routine courtesies and kindness and daily common ground of Southern life" afford "the nation's best blueprint for racial peace." This argument has a distinguished history. The South Carolina writer and minister James McBride Dabbs, for example, was devoted both to the traditional, agrarian southern way of life and to the notion that southern blacks and whites by "the grace of God ... have been made one people." Like Dabbs's, King's vision of a biracial redemptive South as the scene for national salvation -- in which the descendants of slaves and of slaveholders would sit together on the red hills of Georgia as southern brothers -- was based on a commitment to evangelical Christianity, an admiration of the South's manners and spiritual values, and an appreciation of the informal relationships between black and white southerners.

    THE idea that those distinctive qualities of the South that are admirable have something to offer the nation as a whole has been powerful, as Applebome points out, although it has yet to be taken seriously by what is often called the cultural elite. On those rare occasions when intellectuals in, say, New York or Los Angeles discuss the South, the talk too often gets ugly. Someone inevitably mumbles something about Deliverance, and another jokes about trailer parks, while the rest swap adjectives, one of which is always "intolerant." Among those who would never issue a racial slur or denigrate a foreign people in polite conversation, flaunting a prejudice against the South is not merely acceptable -- it's helpful in establishing "progressive" bona fides. But many of the South's distinctive qualities that are reflexively condemned -- its religiosity among them -- are hardly what those who belittle them suppose them to be. Traveling throughout the region in 1910, the English writer William Archer observed that "the South is by a long way the most simply and sincerely religious country that I ever was in.... it is a country in which ... God is very real and personal." Eighty-seven years later southerners -- black and white -- remain the most religious regional group in the country. Evangelicalism is, as Ayers has maintained, "the great continuity and commonality in Southern culture." Traditionally, this southern Protestantism has meant something quite different from the stereotype of emotion, ignorance, and superstition promulgated by H. L. Mencken.

    In its renunciation of all worldly things, in what the writer Lillian Smith called its "sheet-lightning glimpses into the dark places of the human mind," in its demand that every believer work for his or her own salvation, and in its stark and tragic view of life, evangelicalism was a hard religion for a hard people. Historically, evangelicalism in the South found most of its adherents among the lower half of the social scale. Slaves and sharecroppers, dirt farmers and mill hands, embraced it, because it allowed them to shape their culture and their spiritual values, rather than being forced to depend on the mediations of political and religious elites. As the southern sociologist John Shelton Reed argued in 1981, it engendered a "prickly independence of men whose God has told them they are as good as anybody else, and better than the unsaved."

    Evangelicalism's strong sense of the imperfections of the world and its pessimistic view of the nature of man, together with its ultimately redemptive and joyous creed, also helped to produce among the writers of the Southern Renaissance a literary and philosophical viewpoint peculiar in mid-twentieth-century liberal America. In "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," Flannery O'Connor explained the essential role played by the fervent religion often glibly disparaged in the southern literature so widely admired.
    It was about 1919 that Mencken called the South the Bible Belt and the Sahara of the Bozarts. Today Southern literature is known around the world, and the South is still the Bible Belt.... To be great storytellers, we need something to measure ourselves against.... guides have to exist in a concrete form, known and held sacred by the whole community. They have to exist in the form of stories which affect our image and our judgment of ourselves. Abstractions, formulas, laws will not serve here. We have to have stories in our background.... The Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete.... is one of the reasons why the South is a storytelling section. Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.
    Although its emphasis is clearly not on political thought, The Oxford Book's selections from I'll Take My Stand, Red Hills and Cotton, and Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia let readers limn what the historian Eugene Genovese calls the "southern tradition," a political and philosophical tradition that Mays succinctly, if inadvertently, sums up at the end of Power in the Blood as "noble, failed attempts to raise on Southern ground a culture rooted in the natural order of our seasons, to build a civilization free of cruel utopianism and metropolitan alienation, sustained by loyalties to place." The significance of that tradition is its failure, for, as John Crowe Ransom declared, the Agrarians supported "a Southern way of life against what might be called the American or prevailing way."

    From Thomas Jefferson and his contemporary the political thinker John Taylor of Caroline through the Agrarians to Dabbs (and to a figure many of the Agrarians saw as their successor, the northern social critic Christopher Lasch), the southern tradition reconciled the populist and aristocratic strains that the region has always embodied. The two strains, as Robertson pointed out, "have had this in common throughout the South since the beginning: both have been ... fearful of the sort of state the Northern capitalists intended to set up in the United States." The southern tradition is thus -- as Robertson described his grandmother, who was an adherent of it -- "conservative in a Southern way and radical." Its defense of rural life was more generally a defense against the development of a market-based society -- against what the Agrarians called "corporate capitalism," the discipline of factories and mass production and the creation of a wage-dependent working class. It defended the South, as Stark Young wrote, as a "civilization whose ideal is social existence rather than production, competition and barter," and which resisted the nationwide creation of an atomistic, individualistic, and impersonal society. Its efforts, of course, were futile. It has nevertheless, as Genovese asserts, "constituted America's most impressive native-born critique of our national development, of liberalism, and of the more disquieting features of the modern world."

    THE noble aspects of the South's biracial, religious, and political traditions make it tempting to embrace the frequently held notion that the region, as the southern religion historian Samuel Hill writes, is "in a position to reclaim and give guidance to the entire nation." But the South has always had a perverse tendency to turn its back on its best attributes and to fail to apply the lessons that its history teaches. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, C. Vann Woodward offered the thesis that the South, with its heritage of failure and tragedy, might temper America's sense of self-righteous invincibility and teach the country to be modest, particularly in its foreign relations. Fifteen years later the U.S. war in Vietnam seemed a propitious occasion, as Woodward acknowledged in retrospect, for Americans to "profit from the un-American heritage of the South." Ironically, however, southerners, rather than counseling restraint, were at that time sitting as President, Secretary of State, and commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam.

    Mays and Applebome each offer a depressingly large amount of evidence of the South's tendency to fail to live up to its possibilities. Mays rather elliptically bemoans the "devastations brought down on the South by the unworthiness of my [southern] countrymen," citing "the spiritual ruin inflicted by our adoption of America's materialism and will to power, the emptying of the countryside people into the huge cities of the New South, the dissolution, in my postbellum family, of old loyalties to the Southern earth." And Applebome's Dixie Rising is unintentionally a chronicle of how the South in its encounter with the rest of America has retained its sins but lost many of its virtues.

    A traditional feature of southern life, for instance, is that blacks and whites come in daily contact with one another. Despite the enormities of slavery and the Jim Crow system, continual interaction engendered shared experience and what King called "an intimacy of life." King predicted that the nature of life in the South would "make it one of the finest sections of our country once we solve this problem of segregation." Today, however, the biracial South of the past is being replaced -- as Applebome repeatedly demonstrates -- not by the integrated South of King's vision but by a new, suburbanized South in which, conforming to the national pattern, the cities are left to poor blacks, reducing them in the eyes of whites to an abstract problem and further alienating and estranging the races. This new, informal segregation, regrettable everywhere, is especially tragic in the South, since by giving up their close co-existence, white and black southerners will inevitably lose a vital part of what makes them who they are.

    Southern religion is also changing. Although the Bible admonishes, "Be not conformed to this world," southern Protestantism is increasingly finding that its self-abasing inwardness conflicts with its drive to make its mark in today's culture. Although its adherents are outwardly committed to the religion of their parents, that religion, with the temporal ambitions of its televangelists, the sprouting of its massive and impersonal suburban churches, and its Christian resorts, is bending under the weight of its members' increasing prosperity. Lured by the gratifications of a consumerist society, many of today's southern Protestants are seeking, and finding, a religious expression that is undemanding and offers immediate psychological rewards in keeping with their new ethos. They want to consider themselves evangelical Christians even as they join the rest of America in its pursuit of the good life.

    As for the South's political tradition, the region has recently spawned a host of political leaders, most prominent among them Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, who are self-described conservatives. Those figures, however, along with the leaders of the South's low-wage, socially indifferent industrial sector, represent a repudiation of the region's distinctive conservatism and the triumph of the laissez-faire, corporate-friendly "New South" vision, the bête noire of both traditional southern conservatives and radical populists. Whereas today's "conservatives" simultaneously embrace the free market and family and community values, the Agrarians and other traditional southern conservatives -- as well as Jeffersonians and the Populists -- dreaded capitalism precisely because it undermined those values. Capitalism, they argued, reduced individuals to abstractions, anonymous buyers and sellers, whose claims on each other were determined solely by the market, and thereby corroded the human and Christian ties that, they believed, bound men and women into communities. The South today is, as Applebome asserts, politically more powerful than it has been since before the Civil War. But the influence it has gained by conforming to the narrow range of the national political and economic culture has cost it its distinctive and potentially valuable political voice.

    The South's tragedy, however, is not its repeated betrayal of its best self but that its best cannot be separated from its worst. It would be comforting to accept Mays's simplistic division of the region into a dark, murderous, and racist upcountry on the one hand, and a coastal plain that serves as a repository for southern virtues on the other, but in fact the legacy of the region is far more complex and ambiguous. In case after case throughout southern history the admirable and the loathsome have been rooted in the same soil. Antebellum southern intellectuals delivered perhaps the most sophisticated critique of America's commercial values and social relations ever produced in this country, but they did so in the course of defending slavery. For more than three centuries blacks and whites in the South were bound together in an organic community, but only because of brutal economic exploitation that guaranteed their estrangement. Historically, democracy for white southerners went hand in hand with racial discrimination against black southerners. Such opponents of segregation as Robert Penn Warren, Faulkner, and Dabbs sought to preserve the admirable qualities of traditional southern life against the spread of market values, even though the spread of market values would have destroyed the Jim Crow system. The South is famous for its courtesy, but the highly refined concept of honor that largely produced its manners has also helped to make the region the most violent in the country -- as the old saying goes, a southerner is gracious and friendly until he is mad enough to kill you. For 400 years the South has been riddled with such contradictions and paradoxes, and this may ultimately account for the seemingly endless attempts to explain it.

    As it submits increasingly to what Woodward deploringly termed "the national steamroller," the region's many admirable and its few remaining reprehensible qualities will be ironed out. With the apparent global triumph of corporate capitalism and its concomitant, an atomistic, radical individualism, the world and the country, even the South itself, are hardly likely to heed the noble and anachronistic aspects of the southern political and religious traditions. Although contradiction and paradox are by no means peculiar to the southern experience, the South has exhibited them in unusually bold relief. Its own tragic experience of the ambivalence at the heart of history and in the heart of man may be the only valuable heritage that the South can bequeath.


    Benjamin Schwarz is a contributing editor of The Atlanticand the executive editor of World Policy Journal.

    Illustration by Cathie Bleck

    Copyright © 1997 by Benjamin Schwarz. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; The Idea of the South; Volume 280, No. 6; pages 117-126.

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