Skip to main content

James McBride Dabbs: Isaac McCaslin In South Carolina


ISSUE:  Autumn 1977

THE radical need of the Southerner to explain and interpret the South is an old and prevalent condition, characteristic of Southern writers since the 1830’s and 40’s when the region first became acutely self-conscious. The rage to explain is understandable, even inevitable, given the South’s peculiar place in the nation—the poor, defeated, guilt-ridden member, as C. Vann Woodward has written, of a prosperous, victorious, and successful family. The Southerner, that is, more than other Americans has felt he had something to explain, to justify, to defend, or to affirm. If apologist for the Southern way, he has felt driven to answer the misstatements and accusations of outsiders and to clarify the image of the benighted and savage South. If native critic, he likely has been preoccupied with Southern racial sin and guilt, with the burden of the Southern past—and frustrated by the closed nature of Southern society itself, by that quality which suppressed dissent and adverse comment. I omit for the moment the Southern novelist, and even the black Southerner—who more than anyone else possessed and has been entitled to possess a rage to explain the South. I mean, rather, those white Southerners—some journalists, some teachers, some writers of no exact description—who have felt strongly about the South and have written books expressing their feelings. The apologists number Southerners from George Fitzhugh and Edmund Ruffin through Robert Lewis Dabney to Donald Davidson; the critics, Southerners from Hinton Rowan Helper to W. J. Cash and Lillian Smith. It would be to oversimplify to say that the apologists, after 1865, belong to a Southern school of remembrance, and the critics to a school of shame, although something of the sort comes close to the truth. But the quality almost all of these writers, apologists and critics, possessed was a need, almost a compulsion, to—in Faulkner’s words—”tell about the South.” Most were Southerners who agonized about and brooded over the South, its promise and its failure, who undertook their writing with a purpose that went beyond professional interest or intellectual curiosity, who wrote also with deep commitment and often outrage but rarely with humor and sometimes not even with perspective—indeed, who in some cases seemed tortured and consumed by their Southernness. If this Southerner with a rage to explain himself and his region had a prototype in the fiction of the 20th-century South, it was Faulkner’s Quentin Compson.

But I speak in the past tense, and for a reason. This impassioned outpouring of hopes and fears and frustrations by white Southerners, this telling about the South as much by compulsion as by choice, may be now largely a thing of the past. This is not to say that books in the Southern confessional or explanatory mode will cease to be written. The contrary is true: South-watching is flourishing as never before, and such was the case even before a Southerner reached the White House. Every year brings new books by journalists, politicians, scholars, and various others who seek to explain the South and themselves as Southerners. Yet I question whether the visceral need, the all-consuming passion to tell, will constitute the basis for future Southern writing as it has often in the past. Recent books such as Willie Morris’s North Toward Home (1967), Pat Watters’ Down to Now (1971), and Larry King’s Confessions of a White Racist (1969) at first suggest it might. But even these books are now somewhat dated: they belong to a different South from the one we currently have with us. And in the hands of most of the numerous other writers who seek to explain the South, I feel the confessional literature has already become, in part, a habit, a function, an aesthetic ritual. The Southerner who leaves his home—or even remains—now writes the obligatory self-study because his predecessors have, and because people seem to like to read about the South. In one respect, this is encouraging—for a literary tradition, a sub-genre as it were, a Southern confessional and explanatory literature, has grown up and is firmly established in the 20th century, a literature not seen in its exact form in any other American region.(New England in its flowering and the Middle West from 1880 to 1920 came close.) Still, to repeat, Southern writing is no longer quite the same, and the reason it is not, of course, is that the South is no longer the same. For the compulsion to tell about the South as it existed for more than a century assumed that the Southerner spoke from a defensive position, a position of inferior status within the nation. It also assumed—and this was especially important in the case of the anguished native critic— that the Southerner spoke to and within a society that would not tolerate critical examination. Now neither of these conditions necessarily exists—instead of a benighted or savage South, we have, in some eyes, a Superior South—and as a result the despairing Southern confession of guilt and shame, and the eloquent defense, as they have existed over the past century and a quarter may be no more. The newest of the New Souths is many things, but it is not a likely partner in a love-hate relationship.

II

If all this is to suggest how difficult it is for the Southerner to feel quite as strongly about the South, for good and for ill, as he once did, it is also to introduce a particular Southerner— one of the last of his kind—who did feel strongly, who did agonize, who was obsessed with Southern guilt and shame. Less Quentin Compson than Isaac McCaslin, James McBride Dabbs of Rip Raps Plantation did his thinking and writing in his family’s ante bellum house in South Carolina, and out of his pondering came three books on the Southern past and the role of his family in it. Basically in the tradition of George Washington Cable, Cash, and Lillian Smith, a conscience-smitten Southern white ever aware of the burden of Southern history, Dabbs was at the same time something quite other than this. For he brought together, as no Southern writer of nonfiction had before him, the dissimilar traditions of remembrance and shame. He was both preoccupied with Southern guilt and certain of Southern salvation, certain of a divine plan of Southern history and “God’s Providence” in the working of Southern affairs, affirming more than once that the Negro was brought to the American South to test and to teach the white Southerner, to show him his own limitations and to strengthen and prepare him through suffering to provide spiritual leadership for a troubled world. Dabbs, to repeat, in his musings on Southern history resembles no Southerner living or dead so much as he resembles Faulkner’s Isaac McCaslin, who in “The Bear” sits in the commissary of his family’s plantation and tries to come to terms with the Southern past and his family’s role in it. It is Dabbs speaking, but except for the reference to segregation it could as well be Ike McCaslin:

[God] was in the picture, in the patience and trusting faith of the Negro, and in the acceptance of life as imperfect and sinful on the part of the white. He remained in the picture through the South’s defeat, willing that defeat and the great lessons it spread before us, He was with the Negro when he was shoved aside through segregation, into a sort of Babylonian Captivity, where, partly because he was out of the mainstream, he could both retain the best of the past and prepare through long, hard years for the future.

This is the message of all Dabbs’s important work. The South was “a pilot plant, set up [by God] under fortunate circumstances, where the white and colored races can learn how to settle the frontier that now divides them. . . . Those who are Calvinists might well believe that the South, like Queen Esther, has come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” Dabbs himself was the descendant of such Calvinists, and himself possessed the certainty, the integrity of vision, of the Calvinist at his best. Even, in one respect, Dabbs’s own life seems part of the drama of Southern history which he read as predetermined or at least foreknown by God: he died the day, May 30, 1970, he wrote the last lines of his final book.

James McBride Dabbs, however, was something besides idealist and prophet. He was also a Southerner who lived within and understood the exact requirements of his time and place, who prided himself on his realism. Despite his own private burden of Southern history, he did not relinquish the family plantation, neither did he escape his calling among men. Born near Mayesville, South Carolina, in 1896, Dabbs was at various times English professor, farmer, leader in the Presbyterian Church, and from 1957 to 1963 president of the Southern Regional Council. It is not with these aspects of his life that I am concerned (although Dabbs would have said it is impossible to separate them from his written work); it is rather with the three books he wrote trying to explain the South—The Southern Heritage (1958), Who Speaks for the South? (1964), and Haunted By God (1972). The Southern Heritage first attracted widespread attention to Dabbs. Jonathan Daniels, Gerald W. Johnson, and Ralph McGill all reviewed the book enthusiastically and hailed a fellow Southern liberal who spoke out openly against segregation. C. Vann Woodward marvelled at Dabbs’s courage, and Leslie Dunbar wrote that The Southern Heritage was “the likeliest candidate of recent years to stand beside the classic interpretations of Cash and Lillian Smith.” Dabbs was immediately hailed by the national press as the most enlightened of Southern liberals. Yet outsiders missed a side of Dabbs: few of them—indeed few insiders—quite recognized just how much a Southern traditionalist he also was, a fact which would have been clear if they had read his essay, “The Land,” which had appeared the previous year in that most self-consciously Southern of volumes, The Lasting South (edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and James Jackson Kilpatrick). There, sandwiched between Southern conservatives Richard M. Weaver and Francis Butler Simkins, Dabbs had not appeared noticeably uncomfortable.

We can see the essential Dabbs in this essay, and in one other work which is little known but reveals more about him than anything else he wrote—that is, his spiritual autobiography, The Road Home (1960). I should like to consider this book in order to see what brought Dabbs to write his better known works, the books on the South.The Road Home is a terribly earnest book, a pious and somewhat didactic book written for a religious press. It is not the sort of autobiography one accustomed to the irony and self-deprecation of Henry Adams or William Alexander Percy easily respects, It is, however, the progress of a modern Southern pilgrim, a book poetic and moving in its way, particularly in the early chapters in which Dabbs describes his youth near Mayesville on the upper edge of the South Carolina coastal plain. His memory of childhood is one of wonder and isolation; the outside world seemed far away. His mother’s family, the McBrides, were conservative planters, “the inheritors of the culture of the Old South.” His father’s family was of humbler stock; Dabbs’s father came to the community as an overseer, then married a McBride and acquired thousands of acres of land, James McBride Dabbs grew up in his father’s farmhouse, but the columned McBride home was but a mile away.

The Road Home is more about the growth of a mind, the development of a consciousness, especially a religious sense, than anything else, and religion to the young Dabbs meant woman and nature. He idealized women, first his mother (who died when he was twelve), then a cousin, and later girls his own age. Nature, which was to say farm life, taught religion through dependency, and Dabbs was early moved by the rhythms of nature, the farmer’s “fields of faith.” The stern Presbyterian faith of his fathers, he writes, was a negative force. The poetry of Homer and Wordsworth meant more than his Calvinist inheritance, and idealized woman—finally incarnate in Jessie Armstrong whom he married in 1918— more than an Old Testament God. Dabbs was first student at the University of South Carolina and Clark University, then soldier in France, graduate student at Columbia University, and chairman of the English Department at Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina. Life was progressing pretty much as he had expected until the late 1920’s when darkness over-shadowed the light. His wife, whose health had long been poor, became an invalid, and in 1933 she died. Her death was the central event of Dabbs’s life: he was struck with the loneliness and tragedy of the human condition, with the need in a seemingly naturalistic world for love and community. Also, although he did not know it at the time, the seeds of his concern for the black Southerner were sown, In the late thirties, he married again, left full-time teaching, and moved back to the old McBride home to farm, to think, and to write. But he was not to think and write about race and the South until the 1940’s, and then only because he decided that segregation was an unnecessary burden for people already laden with too many burdens in life.

Dabbs’s social conscience, that is, developed out of his personal situation, out of the need for oneness which he came to feel after his wife’s death. First he retreated from the world of duty and obligation into himself and into nature to construct a new life; later he emerged as a compassionate critic of his society. It is no coincidence that Dabbs’s greatest influence during his middle years seems to have been Henry David Thoreau, another man whose social commitment followed, and grew out of, a retirement into self and nature (but who insisted, as Dabbs later, that he was no reformer). It is Homer and Wordsworth whom Dabbs discusses in The Road Home as his primary inspirations, but it is Thoreau whom he quotes and whose thinking he often mirrors. In fact, he had echoed Thoreau from the time of his earliest articles in the 1930’s. In 1933, the year of his wife’s death, he announced in a Scribner’s essay that he was fleeing from the “highly organized world” and “going home” to nature and “self-dependence.” He quoted Thoreau, and also drew on him in another essay the next year in which he announced, “This is my religion. The universe throbbing with life given of this life, carelessly indeed but lavishly, to those who know and are fortunate.” In subsequent essays he returned to Thoreau, and in 1947 wrote for the Yale Review “ Thoreau: The Adventurer as Economist” in which he praised the philosophy of Walden.

In The Road Home, the influence is equally pronounced. Like Thoreau, Dabbs prefers to stay at home and let the mind travel, to observe nature closely in its various seasons, to live “economically,” and to drive life into a corner. His celebration of the “Homeric Morning” is inspired by Walden and even his rationale for opposing segregation is Thoreauvian. It violated the Transcendental concept of oneness: “I had finally to oppose all division and separation, both within myself and within that outer picture of myself, the world.” Besides, segregation was a burden, it was not practical, or, in Thoreau’s words, “economical,”

III

The making of the Southerner James McBride Dabbs was essentially accomplished by the mid-1940’s, although he had thought little about the South itself.”I only sensed with a vague uneasiness the fact that we [Southerners] were haunted; haunted by institutions and attitudes that, however vital in their inception, had now become pale and unreal.” “Life had pretty well stripped me of most of what I valued, and I saw that I didn’t have much left but my basic humanity. . . . I was tired already. Segregation seemed to be not so much an evil thing as a useless, foolish thing.”

Thus Dabbs began in the 1940’s and 50’s to write on Southern race relations for the Christian Century and other national journals, and in 1958, in The Southern Heritage, to take his stand firmly against segregation. It was a stand he had considered almost two decades earlier in an essay, “Is Christian Community Possible in the South?,” but from which he had retreated. Then he had acknowledged that segregation made true community impossible in the South, and further “I do not see that we shall make any radical changes in this community—and this is the south—in generations, perhaps in centuries. . . . We have got ourselves into a situation where, as I see it, it is impossible without revolution to establish a Christian community. I am no revolutionist. If a Christian community is what. . . it appears to be, then I am not in favor of a Christian community here and now.” But Dabbs did not include the future, and by 1958 in The Southern Heritage it was clear that he had changed his mind.

That heritage, one would conclude upon a brief reading of Dabbs’s first book, is largely one of racial guilt and shame, or at least this is what overwhelmingly concerns him in the book. Like Melville’s Benito Cereno, he describes his mind’s obsession by exclaiming “The Negro.” In the white Southerner’s treatment of the Negro, “We were terribly wrong much of the time, and much of the time we knew it at the time, not merely in retrospect.” The great sin of the Old South, he writes, was its overweening pride, this and the greed which drove it to use Negroes for personal gain, And the Negro is always “before our eyes, the symbol of our sin.., . There’s little health left in us.” But there is a chance for redemption because “we know we need a physician. . . . Our conscience continually stirs. . . . Through the processes of history and the grace of God we have been made one people,” and “if we would be our deepest selves, there is no telling what great age might develop in the South.”

It is this belief in the future and in the hand of God that, despite Dabbs’s preoccupation with sin and guilt, makes The Southern Heritage in fact a positive statement—a book which, if anything, is too optimistic and upbeat. It is also a book, despite its criticism of the Southern past, that was less likely to antagonize traditional Southerners than many a less “liberal” work—partly because, slavery and segregation excepted, Dabbs actually finds much to admire in the Southern past; and even more, because Dabbs professes himself a “confused” Southerner, searching for answers rather than giving them. He writes, then, to discover himself “and especially to get a clearer view of the road ahead.” He will review his own past, recalling especially the “actions, scenes, and people” that “suggest some clue to my present situation: a Southerner slowed down by racial fog but determined to find a way out.” “I have no desire,” he declares, “to reform the South. . . .

What I should like to do is to learn what the South is striving to be. . .,” Dabbs’s strategy in this book is clear: he recognizes his penchant for preaching and wants as fully as possible to avoid it, so he makes himself one of those Southerners with fears and doubts about ending segregation and the particular Southern way of life that rested on it. In fact, Dabbs is far more sophisticated in his thinking than most of his fellow Southerners, and despite the rhetoric of doubt and confusion he has pretty certainly made up his mind that a South without segregation is the South he prefers.

Dabbs insists in the beginning of The Southern Heritage that “I feel the throb of this land in my blood,” and he confesses his own early mistreatment of Negroes—his assumption of white superiority, his abuse of a small Negro girl who would not move from a path in which he was walking, his total insensitivity to the Negro’s plight when he was in college and in the army. He praises, as fully as any professional Southerner might, the “Southern way of life”—hospitality, leisure, manners, love of the land, a sense of place and family and tradition—and all this too, though sincerely expressed, is a part of his strategy, for next he insists that segregation is not a part of this way of life, that it is in fact “in sharp contrast to the rest of Southern life, . . .a constrictive force in a genial society.” Then, apparently sensing he is too far in advance of his Southern readers, he retreats to declare that segregation, after all, “may be necessary.”

But having so stated, Dabbs again shifts course and attempts to show why it is not necessary. In doing so, he confronts point by point the arguments of the segregationist. Racial segregation is “instinctive”; if so, why bolster it by law? Negroes are inherently inferior to whites; could not environment have more than biology to do with “inferiority”? Dabbs denies that integration will corrupt white morals or lead to intermarriage (except perhaps in the distant future, which he will let take care of itself). Dabbs, that is, sees nothing good in segregation. Slavery may have created some Southern virtues—manners and leisure among them—but segregation has eroded these virtues and added no new ones. And it was impossible for Dabbs to discuss the South and race without finally coming around to the role of Providence in Southern affairs. The South is destined, he suggests, to show the way to the rest of the world, to be a “pilot project.” This was a claim often heard from the Southern apologists, from George Fitzhugh forward, but rarely from a member of the school of shame. But to Dabbs, the Southerner would lead because of his “basic goodness” and because “we are also better fitted than most men to do the social pioneering the day demands.” And not only the Southern white: “Though one may not say where the spirit of God will move, it is possible we shall find [men of large, generous, and magnanimous natures] more frequently among Negroes than among whites.”

Dabbs was poetic, impassioned, and at times prophetic in The Southern Heritage, and although his view of Southern history might be disputed, his only failing in viewing the contemporary South was in underestimating the rage of the Negro whom he championed.”Has there ever been any cry from the Negroes of “black supremacy”?” he asked, and he answered “No,” except “maybe, during the-darkest days of Reconstruction, a few faint cries, but that situation is gone forever. . . . I have known them for sixty years: from playmates, through hoe-hands and plow-hands, to university presidents. I think I could count on the fingers of my two hands the words of bitterness I have heard from them.” The Southern liberal, a critic might say, seeing the Negro for something other than he is—but Dabbs was hardly the only Southerner, liberal or otherwise, in the year 1958 to underestimate the capacity for rage in the American black.

IV

If The Southern Heritage was a powerful plea for racial understanding and justice, Dabbs’s next book, Who Speaks for the South? (1964), was even more forceful—and even bolder in proclaiming the role of God in Southern history. Although the book received less attention than Dabbs’s first work, Carl Degler wrote in The Reporter that it surpassed all other attempts to explain the South “except its prototype, W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. . . . In some ways [Dabbs’s] book is even superior to Cash’s; it is more temperate, more lucid and less diffuse.” It also had a most misleading title, because the reader soon discovers that it is Dabbs himself who hoped to speak for the South, and he does not always speak as clearly and as originally—or as temperately—as Degler suggests. Here Dabbs assumes the role of historian and attempts, in the first two-thirds of the book, to trace the formation of the Southern mind and character. His picture, simplified, is this: from colonial days the Southerner was a rather simple creature, was more willing to accept his world as it was than was the Yankee; he saw slavery as a way to build the good life, and slavery also taught the Southerner to prize place more than space (or movement). The coming of the Scotch-Irish—the “Southern Puritans”—changed the South somewhat. They were more aggressive, more energetic, and more introspective, though not as introspective as the New England Puritans.(Southern Calvinism tended to be “emotional” rather than intellectual.) But so powerful was the attraction of the earlier “English” South that even the Scotch-Irish were tamed to some extent; they too came to appreciate slavery and place. Slavery thus prospered, and as it grew it restricted the original spacious Southern vision, and warped and narrowed the Southern mind, indeed rendered the Southerner almost incapable of thought. The Scotch-Irish brought with them also a penchant for guilt, which at first would seem to have been a healthy addition to a South which had lacked guilt and had experienced on occasion only “shame” over slavery (shame being a more social and public and less deeply held commodity than guilt—and even at that, shame more over occasional mistreatment of slaves than over slavery itself). But the Scotch-Irish contribution of guilt in fact became a Southern liability: the guilt came to be repressed and resuited only in harsher treatment of slaves and, in general, a sicker society.

Thus James

Dabbs on ante-bellum Southern history, and he is no more and no less to be believed than, say, W. J. Cash. For one thing Dabbs, the “liberal” historian, is concerned almost exclusively with the slave-holding planter and very little with the plain and poor white. For another, some Southerners before the coming of the Scotch-Irish did express guilt over slavery. But his conclusion is clear enough: the Old South as a society was a failure in almost every important respect. It lacked a sense of community, it lacked anything other than a shallow spirit and a shallow philosophy, it had worked out no raison d’etre for itself (Dabbs ignores those Southerners such as Fitzhugh of Virginia who did state a raison d’ètre), and most of all it lacked (as Allen Tate has remarked before) a proper religion. That is, the highly individualistic religion of the South with its emphasis on personal salvation and damnation failed to serve a proper social function; thus the politicians took over. No matter how much the South hoped to model itself on medieval life, Dabbs contends, it failed because the wholeness and chivalry of feudal life were centered in religious life, the Church; in the South they were not. He concedes that the Old South had manners, leisure, charm, and a confidence and noblesse oblige among its aristocrats (and he, unlike Cash, would concede that the South did have an “aristocracy” in the sense of public figures who illustrated the possibilities of splendor and charm). But these virtues were decidedly inferior ones to Dabbs, himself after all the lineal and spiritual descendant of those Scotch-Irish Calvinists who valued a moral sense more than an aesthetic one.

If Dabbs is pretty much the secular historian in the first two-thirds of Who Speaks for the South?, he becomes again the proponent of God’s providence in the latter parts of the book. After treating rather briefly the South between 1865 and 1914 (and concluding that Southern demagoguery is what results when a culture of manners and gestures and rhetoric goes sour), he assumes the role in which he feels most comfortable—that of a contemporary Ike McCaslin, holding forth from his old plantation on—in Dabbs’s words—”the racial sins the white South has committed and, consequently . . . the justice of its being defeated and thwarted.” Out of this “judgment of God,” Dabbs suggests, comes the grace of God.”The Negro in America was defeated and thwarted, unjustly. The white South was defeated and thwarted, in the broad sense, justly. . . . We should thank God for this, thank Him even for the defeats and the hardships. . . .” Suffering has prepared the South for moral leadership, has equipped it to be God’s “pilot project learning . . .to do within a limited area what now has to be done in the world if civilization is to survive.” But before the white Southerner is ready to assume this responsibility, he must confess his guilt: “The greatest, the essential injury was simply our assumption that we were different from and better than Negroes,” and we may “heal this injury” by “admitting, in thought and action, that we are not better. . . .” We must “admit that we ourselves have failed; that we should not have permitted the racial injustice to go on; that we have been selfish, overprudent, cowardly.”

To conclude his argument, Dabbs proposes an irony of Southern history even more striking than the one C. Vann Woodward has noted: the despised, the Negro, becomes redeemer for the despiser, the Southern white. The idea is not entirely new. Woodward, David Potter, and other historians have suggested that the Nego might be the quintessential Southerner, and still others have remarked that the Southern traditions of manners and dignity characterized the civil rights movement. Dabbs goes further:

Here is the man the South was trying unconsciously to produce. The paradox is that his forefathers were brought here simply as means for creation of Southern ends, and he has become, through a strange inversion of roles, the best exponent of the ends the South was seeking. If he should become generally accepted in this role, the possibilities of achievement for the South are almost unlimited. This acceptance can take place only at the religious level.

Here, then, if anywhere, is the working of God’s grace. . . .

A despised minority, excluded from the common life, returns at last more in love than in hatred to reveal to the majority, not only that possibility of community that has always haunted the mind of the South, but also and far more importantly a vision of the universal meaning of failure and defeat, revealing how men become human through the positive acceptance and affirmation of defeat. The man who was once servant reveals through his suffering to the man who was once master the meaning of suffering, and in this common realization paternalism breaks down and a democracy richer than we have yet known may arise.

The course of racial events in the South in the mid and late sixties seemed to confirm much of what James McBride Dabbs had been saying for a decade: that segregation was not the Southern “way of life,” that there could be found a “basic goodness” in the white Southerner (and also, though Dabbs had not said this, a habit of finally conceding to federal force), that the Southern Negro might demonstrate Southernness at its best, and that the South could in some instances provide an example for the rest of America in race relations. As Dabbs sat in his study at Rip Raps in the late sixties, he might have taken some satisfaction in Southern racial progress and might even, as other Southerners, have indulged in self-congratulations at having nearly come through. Instead, he continued to ponder Southern racial sin and guilt, and the result was a book, Haunted by God (1972), in which he returned to a subject he had earlier explored—the failure of Southern Protestantism. The only one of Dabbs’s books to be poorly received—reviewers found it confusing and unoriginal— Haunted By God is also his harshest portrait of the South. Just as his second book was more critical than the first, his third was more critical than the second. This would be his last book on the South; he wrote it in his early seventies and said he drew “more or less on everything” he knew for it, tried to put his “philosophy of life” into it. There was no holding back. As Edgar T. Thompson wrote in his preface to the book, “In the manner of the prophets of the Old Testament,” Dabbs was “calling upon the people of this region to face up to their racial as well as their individual sins, and to repent. . . .” And in the manner of the prophets, Dabbs departed dramatically: he died, as I have said, the day he completed the first draft of the work.

V

It would have been a better book, though not a more honest one, if he had lived. A revision might have remedied some of the confusion, repetition, and fragmentation. Other flaws—a tendency to belabor the obvious, to generalize, and to exaggerate the South’s uniqueness—might have survived a revision. And the book could not have been made more earnest, and not much more critical. Again, Dabbs traces the roots of Southern culture and concludes that of the three basic Southern institutions—the family, the plantation, and chattel slavery—two, the latter two, were disgraceful.”To expect anything positive from the South with this background,” he writes, “seems to be to expect the impossible.” The Southern land was both blessing and curse: “God’s chief gift to the South” became “the Southerner’s chief temptation,” and pride of ownership—of land and human beings—doomed the South. As for slavery, Dabbs exclaims in some anguish, “We are still inclined to cry out, why?”

But his concern with history, Dabbs explains, is largely pragmatic; he wants to know what has been done so that he might live better. Even more, here as before, his concern with history is religious; history is an expression of the will of God, Much of what Dabbs says here he had said earlier, but his treatment of judgment and grace is new, The South has had plenty of both, he writes, and the one is the absence of the other. I quote Dabbs (or, if you will, Isaac McCaslin): “The basic fault of the South has been that it has misused God’s gift [a “rich and sunny land”], thereby turning his grace into judgment. But the gift was not entirely misused, and so some of the original grace continued.” A second major fault of the South, he emphasizes, was its institutional religion, a religion inadequate in almost every way to meet its public needs. To those failings of the church already enumerated in his previous work, Dabbs adds that the Southern church in the 19th century was “moralistic and private”; it pretended order and decorum in a world which possessed little of either; and it was not sufficiently strong to enable Southerners to feel themselves “a consecrated, chosen people,” as the New England Puritans had, and thus when Southerners lost the Civil War “there were no real grounds upon which to rest a prophetic explanation of their fate. If they could have been convicted of breaking their covenant with God, they might have repented and been blessed by his forgiveness.” Instead, the South attributed its defeat to fate,

The post-bellum church, Dabbs believes, has served little better. It has conformed to society (and in the wrong ways) rather than transformed it, has sanctioned and supported the Southern worship of the past, has accepted racial injustice— has, in sum, left the community little better than it found it. The church Dabbs blames for many Southern failings, and he concludes his book with his most severe thrust of all: “The church continued and continues to spend too much time repenting of its sins . . .too little celebrating the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. . ., The church of my boyhood . . . did not give me what I needed. I needed God. . . . But the Protestant Church was not made for the celebration of life; it was made for repentance. . . .” As for himself, Dabbs had rather praise God—”polish . . .the pinnacles of heaven”— and he would wish the Southern church to “become a city set upon a hill, a light unto all the people.”

It is fitting, a Southern conservative might be tempted to say, that Dabbs ends his book—and the last page he ever wrote for publication—not with the words of a Southern divine but the words of the New England Puritan John Winthrop. For what, that same Southerner might say, are Southern dissenters like Dabbs anyway if not spiritual New Englanders—analysts, critics, reformers, outside the Southern grain. And if this same Southerner were inclined to take an overly dramatic view of Southern history—and if he considered as well that Dabbs, the severe critic of the Southern church, was also a leading Southern churchman and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church—he might also say that Dabbs died of a heart attack the day he wrote these lines for the same reason W. J. Cash and Clarence Cason committed suicide about the time their books on the South appeared: they knew the reaction was coming, and it would not be a favorable one. True for Cason, partly for Cash—but of course not for Dabbs. He had taken the criticism for two decades, and he was very sure of his ground. As for any doubts about his Southernness, they are also unjustified. Dabbs, if we except his views on segregation (and not even these, if we follow his own reasoning), was as fully a traditional Southerner as one could wish, was that purest of traditional Southerners, an agrarian. It was no accident that he wrote an essay on “The Land” for The Lasting South in 1957, If he had been writing a quarter century earlier, he could as easily have appeared with Ransom, Davidson, Tate, and Warren in I’ll Take My Stand. For Dabbs had a better claim to agrarianism than most of the Agrarians: he was a working farmer for much of his life and had tested his love of the land. Like Tate, he maintained that one’s religion, one’s entire outlook, stemmed from the way one made one’s living, and farming was the best of ways. The farmer is in constant contact with nature and with God, He assumes mystery in the universe, he learns the lesson of dependency. The farmer has a whole life, Dabbs insists in his Lasting South essay: “His work is interwoven with his life, his life interwoven with the family . . .he belongs to the natural world, in co5peration with which he-and-the-family gain their livelihood. His life is all of a piece; he is integrated; he has integrity.” Dabbs shares equally the Agrarian fear that unrestrained industrialism will destroy the Southern way of life: “We shall then be cut loose from ourselves; we shall lose the old integrity of the individual standing with his family amid the elements. We shall lose the sense of belonging. We shall lose the heart out of our region.” He reiterated his fear the following year in The Southern Heritage: “ That there might be an industrial way of life uncongenial to ours isn’t deeply considered.” As yet “the South isn’t deeply concerned to find the spiritual security sought by modern man because she hasn’t really lost it. But she will lose it if she merely grabs the offered factories and plants them in the fields.”

Not only did Dabbs share the Agrarian fear of industrialism, but also the Agrarian—and Southern—fear of abstraction. The two were related in his mind.”Industrialism,” he wrote in The Southern Heritage, “ is a high abstraction that, unless modified, will make abstractions of us all.” If to embrace the concrete and to rage against abstraction is to prove one’s Southernness, Dabbs is that most Southern of beings, for in each of his books he strikes out at anything that violates the massiveness of experience. Much of what he writes about the Southern fear of abstraction (in the 19th century, the “isms”) and preference for the concrete has been said—and without enough qualification—by others; in fact the rural nonSoutherner also prefers the concrete and fears abstraction, But Dabbs is original and provoking when he discusses, in The Southern Heritage, the reasons for the ante-bellum Southerner’s fear of abstraction. Aside from causes stemming from a rural tradition, the South was “afraid of abstractions . . . because it had built its life upon an abstraction it couldn’t justify”—slavery.”The South also feared abstractions, certainly theories about the nature of society, because it was too well pleased with the society it had created. Knowing the doubtful base upon which it had been built, it feared that investigation might result in disaster, . . .” After slavery was abolished, racism and segregation became the great Southern abstractions; they violated as nothing else could the totality of human experience.”No wonder we are afraid of abstractions,” wrote Dabbs in 1958, “We are dying of one.”

Exactly. Here as elsewhere Dabbs was not only one of the most committed and compassionate interpreters of the South but also one of the most astute, This is a quality even his supporters did not always recognize in the fifties and sixties. They called him courageous and dedicated, but they sometimes failed to point out just how well he understood the South. Perhaps they were a little embarrassed by his divine view of Southern history: how could a modern man, they might ask, affirm in all seriousness that God was directing and overseeing Southern affairs? The kind of piety and earnestness with which he wrote is also out of fashion. We equate brilliance with irony, and there is little of irony in the writing of James McBride Dabbs.(There is awareness of irony in Southern history, but that is quite another thing.) This is not to say that Dabbs mastered the Southern mind in all its intricacies; like Cash, even more than Cash, he was limited by his perspective—he wrote largely about the South he himself knew—and he also had his own special faults of being, on the one hand, too optimistic and, on the other, preoccupied with race. But despite these shortcomings, Dabbs is a Southerner to be read and heeded, both for what he says about the South and what he suggests about himself. He was, to be sure, mightily displeased with Southern institutions, but he was also the only major native Southern critic—the only member of the school of shame—who saw more good than ill in the Southern tradition; and if he more often stressed the ill than the good it was because he was at heart a preacher who knew what his Southern parishioners needed to hear. His notable 20th-century predecessors, Cash and Lillian Smith, were tortured and consumed by the South in a way Dabbs never was. His 19th-century antecedents—Cable and the young Walter Hines Page, not to mention the hated Helper—had to leave the South to breathe freely. Dabbs both remained and prevailed. He was notable in his tradition in this respect, and he is also notable because he may be the last of his line: for the South we have with us now is a South more concerned with power and public relations than with the burden of its past, a South not about to fight any more battles or take any more stands, not noticeably haunted by God, and not likely to take sin and guilt so seriously as did James McBride Dabbs.

* I wish to thank the Research Grants Committee of the University of Alabama for its support in this venture.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading