'The Mind of the South' Reconsidered

RAY JENKINS

February 17, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem, N.C.--Last weekend several hundred serious historians, with a few dozen journalists thrown in, gathered on the sedate campus of Wake Forest University here in the changeless hills of the North Carolina Piedmont for a most unusual celebration: The 50th anniversary of the publication of a book entitled "The Mind of the South."

Written by an eccentric and enigmatic Carolinian named Wilbur Joseph Cash, this is not a widely known book, nor one that I would especially recommend to the casual reader. But the fact that in all the past 50 years it has never gone out of print is a testimony to its almost mystical power as an enduring influence on those who make an occupation of, or have an obsession with, the history and psychology of the South.

The sheer audacity of the title -- the mind of the South -- is in itself a little breathtaking. Yet Cash pulled it off. No less a figure than C. Vann Woodward, chief among the luminaries at the conference and one of Cash's sharpest (but also fairest) critics who has the credentials to criticize, conceded that "it qualifies Cash as some sort of genius that he could make Southerners believe that the Civil War didn't matter and that the Yankee victory was an illusion."

So it has become almost a confession of Southern faith that you can't understand the region unless you have read "The Mind of the South."

Cash was more a journalist than a historian, as his magnum opus so well attests: It contains not a single footnote, nor even a bibliography. Rather, the book simply represents the deep reflection, laden with irony and despair, of a man who both loved and hated his region, and who was well acquainted with its brooding history and literature.

As Vann Woodward suggests, to a great extent the work is a testimony to Cash's power of metaphor. So rich and vast is Cash's power of imagery that it is all but impossible to choose any single passage from the work that represents its depth of observation, its richness of ironic humor. Perhaps the closing lines of "The Mind of the South," written in 1940, are as good as any:

"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 such at its best 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."

Not long after the book was published Cash would learn just how accurate he was about the South's intolerance of dissent. His book was roundly condemned by the region's intellectuals of the day, including his fellow newspaper editors, as a scurrilous libel upon the South.

Cash was already on the verge of madness over, as he put it, "the forces sweeping over the world in the fateful year of 1940." He had grown so obsessed with the march of fascism that he believed Hitler had dispatched agents to assassinate him. Mad or not, it is virtually certain that in his mind he had made a connection between fascism and what he called, in his book, "the Savage Ideal" of the South -- the eager and willing embrace of intolerance, brutality and compulsive conformity. He recognized that whether in Germany or in Georgia, philosophical absolutism inevitably led to political authoritarianism.

Only three months after "The Mind of the South" was published, "Jack" Cash, at the age of 40, hanged himself with his own necktie on the doorknob of a bathroom of a seedy hotel in Mexico.

I found it ironic that at the conference, the younger, revisionist historians who examined Cash's work through the lens of the present found it to be racist, sexist, fascist and other vile things. Many quite rightly noted, of course, that "the mind" of W. J. Cash's "South" included no women, no blacks. But the fact is, everyone at the conference knew that the most precise and proper title of the book would have been: "The Mind of the Southern White Male As Viewed By One Member of That Small Tribe From the Slightly Off-Center Vantage Point of North Carolina as of the Year 1940." But titles like that don't sell a lot of books.

Whatever his shortcomings, W. J. Cash did what he set out to do: To undertake a relentlessly honest and unsparing look at his own species, with utter disregard to the dangerous consequences of such a rash enterprise. In so doing he ended once and for all the kind of romantic vision of his people exemplified by a book and film of the same period, "Gone With The Wind."

Cash's new-generation critics would do well to emulate that example with their own.

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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