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W.J. Cash After Fifty Years


[clock] 24-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 1991

It was in 1941, a full half-century ago, that Alfred A. Knopf published a volume by a North Carolina newspaperman, entitled The Mind of the South. Time has accorded the book by Wilbur Joseph Cash, known as “Jack” to his associates, a kind of classic status. No one compiling a list of the really significant Southern books of the 20th-century would omit it.

On the topical level, to be sure, the specific contemporary issues that Cash’s book dealt with are as out of date, as obsolete as Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound or the poetry of Paul Hamilton Hayne. To read about tenant farming, or the Gastonia textile strikes, or the revived presence of the old Black Code in Anderson, South Carolina, or the impact of the New Deal, is like examining a Southern Railway or Seaboard Air Line passenger timetable from the pre-Pearl Harbor years. Not only are the scheduled trains nonexistent, but most of the stations they stopped at have been torn down or converted into restaurants or boutiques.

Yet W. J. Cash took on a complex and immensely difficult subject, labored to make sense of it, and, however dated the specific topical concerns, he recognized and identified some abiding and still significant historical characteristics. If what has taken place in the South and the nation in the intervening half-century has been so astounding as to confound anything Cash could have imagined possible, he can scarcely be held accountable for that. For neither could anyone else. Cash himself was aware of the difficulty. He ended The Mind of the South with the statement that “It would be a madman who would venture [predictions of the future] . . .in the face of the forces sweeping over the world in the fateful year of 1941.”

He set out to do an audacious thing—not merely to show how Southerners think, but to interpret a century and more of Southern history in terms of that. His perspective was that of a Carolinian, and more specifically of a lifelong inhabitant of the Piedmont, who was born in Gaffney, South Carolina, and spent most of his life in or near Charlotte, North Carolina.

Rereading The Mind of the South, one is struck with how very self-conscious a performance it is. Stylistically and referentially, the authorial presence is repeatedly asserted. “But am I leaping ahead too rapidly?” “Do I exaggerate?” “But I must not leave the theme without calling to your attention etc.” Clearly he was engaged in battling himself every inch of the way—the familiar “love-hate” relationship. He was lashing out, castigating his community, his family, himself. It is an old Southern custom.

The performance is rendered more poignant by our knowledge that within months of his book’s publication, he committed suicide. The late Joseph L. Morrison, in his biography, W.J. Cash: Southern Prophet (1969), was at pains to make the point that the causes of Cash’s postpublication paranoia and self-destruction are not to be ascribed to remorse over having written the indictment, or to the impact of hostile criticism of the book. There was no hostile criticism to speak of; quite the contrary.

What Morrison says is plausible, and yet I wonder whether the absence of controversy might not have been even more devastating to Cash. Publishing his book after years of struggling to complete it, he must have long since prepared himself to face what he must have expected would be anger, denunciation, virtual immolation. There is the haunting paragraph in his book about Clarence Cason:

. . . poor Clarence Cason, who taught journalism at Alabama, felt compelled to commit suicide, in part at least because of his fear of the fiercely hostile attitude which he knew that both the school authorities and his fellow faculty members would take toward his criticism of the South in his 90° in the Shade, published by the University of North Carolina Press a few days after his death.

Instead of vituperation and denunciation, Cash encountered only some sporadic praise, while the world continued on its way. The book in which he had sunk all that he had to give, on which he had rested his very identity itself, turned out to be only—a book. Now it was written, and so no longer available to write. Nothing important had changed. So in a kind of intensified reenactment of the postpartum depression not unknown to numerous other writers, he decreed his own persecution, convincing himself that Nazi spies were stalking him and about to close in on him.

It doesn’t really matter why W. J. Cash did what he did, but one is led inevitably to such speculation because of the way the book is written; it dramatizes the author’s wrestling with his subject and himself. The Mind of the South is a virtuoso performance, a one-man show, written out of the author’s impassioned identification with and revulsion at the South, and both its existence and the form it assumes are a testimony to the powerful hold of the South’s community identity upon so many of its citizenry.

What Cash develops throughout his book is what he identifies as the enormously hedonistic quality of the Southern people. He sees them as self-satisfied, complacent. They will not be diverted from their smugness, their unwillingness to look critically at what they are, with the result that throughout their history anyone who has attempted to point out to them the extent to which they are being used and manipulated for the benefit of those in power has been unable to get anywhere. Conversely, those who have flattered their self-esteem and confirmed them in their prejudices have been able to manipulate them to vote and act contrary to their own economic and political interests.

During the antebellum period the rank and file of the white population permitted the planter establishment to conduct the South’s national politics with a single-minded emphasis upon the protection of chattel slavery, even though their own economic interest was by no means best served by such protection. During the late 19th century the efforts of populist reformers were frustrated because the spectre of black domination was evoked to keep white voters from bolting the Democratic Party and supporting efforts to make the state governments responsive to the needs of disadvantaged agriculturalists. In the 20th century the attempt of labor unions to mobilize textile workers against victimization by the owners of mills was thwarted because the average Southern white refused to recognize the divergence between his interests and those of the very wealthy, complacently preferring things as they were to a fairer share of the benefits of government, and allowing himself to be easily beguiled into voting his prejudices instead of his economic welfare.

Until Cash wrote his book, nobody had ever articulated that abiding complacency and hedonism quite so pointedly and vividly. The Mind of the South is an historic account of the enormous difficulties of getting the white people of the South to confront their own problems and do something about them. There is a lengthy tradition of books written with that objective in mind, and that enjoyed little or no success in furthering it. Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, Hinton Rowan Helper, in The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), produced a searing indictment of the baneful effects of slavery and planter domination upon the region, backed up with statistics; he got nowhere. George W. Cable managed no more successfully in The Silent South (1885), nor did Walter Hines Page in The Southerner: The Autobiography of Nicholas Worth (1909). It has also been a theme in the South’s fiction, as for example in Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles (1970), in which the schoolteacher Miss Julia Morrison wages a lifelong battle to keep the inhabitants of Banner, Mississippi, from being so satisfied with themselves and happy with their own ignorance (although Eudora Welty is no naive believer in Progress.)

II

Cash’s analysis of Southern society and its trials and tribulations is soundest, I think, in its dealings with the antebellum period, and weakest on the post-Reconstruction, late 19th-century South. His North Carolina and Upcountry experience serves him well in his skepticism about the actuality of the Old South’s having ever developed a genuine planter aristocracy. Although he makes an exception in favor of a surviving remnant of the old Tidewater Virginia squirearchy, his contention is that the white South was basically middle class, and the so-called planter aristocracy was mostly composed of financially successful plain folk who adopted the physical trappings of an upper class but in attitude and outlook bore very little relationship to a true aristocracy. The “chivalry,” as they liked to refer to themselves, constituted an entreprenurial interest, and their concern for that, and not any fundamental difference in cultural, social or ethical outlook, was what differentiated them from the plain folk, or “yeoman farmer” element.

It is the implications of Cash’s insistence upon the middle-class nature and allegiance of the planter leadership in the Old South that probably had most to do with the strictures placed on The Mind of the South by the most eminent of all historians of the South, C. Vann Woodward—that, and Cash’s emphasis upon what he considers the underlying romanticism and incapacity for hard realistic thinking of the businessmen and would-be industrialists of the post-Reconstruction South. Woodward has written comparatively little about the Old South as such, although what he has puts him more or less in the school of Ulrich B. Phillips or, in our own time, Eugene Genovese. That is, that the planter leadership of the pre-1865 South had evolved into a distinctive landed gentry with a set of values and attitudes qualitatively different from the finance-capital-dominated plutocracy of the Northeast.

I happen to believe that Cash’s view of the antebellum planter is closer to the actualities of Old South society, but this is not the place to debate that. Where it brings Woodward into conflict with Cash, however, is in its implications for the New South. Cash’s assumption is that after the Civil War and the end of slavery and the plantation economy, the old leadership gravitated to the cities and was the moving force behind the banking and railroading interests that manipulated the threadbare Southern economy during the New South period. There were, to be sure, successful and formidable “new men” such as Wash Duke and R.J. Reynolds, but in the New South as in the Old, basically the same people were in charge of the exchequer.

Cash therefore sees a continuity that Woodward explicitly denies. For Woodward, Southern history is characterized far more by discontinuity. In Origins of the New South (1951) and elsewhere, Woodward describes a changing of the guard; the leading figures of the post-1865 banking, railroad, and financial interests, he insists, were not the prewar planters-become-businessmen, but industrious entrepreneurs risen from the ranks of the Plain Folk, and quick to take advantage of the capitalistic opportunities of the Gilded Age and thereafter.

Now, obviously, as both Cash and Woodward admit, there was some carry-over, and equally obviously not only the Dukes and Reynolds but other prewar “yeomen” made fortunes in the postwar South and after a certain amount of backing and filling were admitted into the inner circles of the First Families. Nobody who has paid much attention to the social history of any given Southern city can be unaware of how the process worked (and still works, for that matter).

But the Cash-Woodward divergence on this point is not merely one of degree. Woodward’s earlier interpretation— his more recent approach has changed—rested ultimately on economics; Cash’s has the community’s community identity at its foundation. This may seem a strange thing to say; certainly Woodward at no time viewed race and racial injustice merely as a device for economic domination, while Cash emphasizes throughout his book the way that the working white (and black) population of the South has been manipulated and victimized by the wealthy. Yet at bottom it is the quest for power and prestige that motivates Cash’s Southern leadership; the drive to dominate the community is the root factor, which of course involves the accumulation of wealth. Woodward, by contrast, looked at Southern history in his earlier books—not only Origins of the New South but his biography of Tom Watson (1938) and Reunion and Reaction (1951) as well—as essentially a struggle for control of the natural resources and labor supply, and the political machinery to secure and maintain a grip on these. In The Strange History of Jim Crow (1955; 1966) and his later essays, however, particularly those in American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue (1977), Woodward has tended to see things less in terms of underlying economic interest and more in terms of social mores.

Whatever its underpinnings, Woodward’s interpretation of the Southern historical experience after Appomattox Courthouse seems to me to be a more reliable and convincing account than that in The Mind of the South. The comparison, of course, is not entirely a fair one, since at no point did Woodward essay to pull off the kind of audacious feat that Cash did—to interpret the mind of the South, in one volume; and moreover he has enjoyed an additional half-century in which to develop, document, and modify his critique. But however much one respects and admires Cash for his ambition and audacity, the fact remains that it is considerably more difficult to engage in exciting generalizations and overall interpretations of the South if one feels an obligation at all times to arrive at one’s conclusions through the cumulative building up of documented, factual evidence, the way that Vann Woodward works (which is not to say that Woodward, like any other really good historian, doesn’t proceed without assumptions, or that the assumptions don’t have something to do with the perception of data).

What seems obvious to me is that Woodward has managed a quite cohesive and overtly-structured presentation of the history of the South, certainly from the Reconstruction era onward, which if it lacks some of the fire and fury of Cash’s way of putting things is nonetheless equally as interpretative—i.e., the facts are not inert, but are used to reach and point to conclusions—and considerably more authoritative.

Another way to put it is this: on any subject that Woodward has developed at length, one isn’t likely to read his interpretation of a particular incident or development, and think, “all very true so far as the particular facts presented go, but that just isn’t the way it was.” This, I submit, is the ultimate test of sound historical interpretation. With Cash, in part because of his method itself, but also because the attitude of mind was what dictated the method, one sometimes has the sense that the overall thesis is forcing a particular interpretation of something, and that the event in question doesn’t really signify what Cash says it signifies.

To cite the interpretation that most aroused Woodward’s ire, Cash presented the pell-mell development of textile mills in the Piedmont South during the late 19th century as essentially a social phenomenon, a species of civic idealism motivated principally by the felt need to provide jobs for common whites, agriculturalists displaced from the land by the catastrophic drop in prices paid for farm products and in particular cotton. Drawing heavily on Broadus Mitchell’s influential The Rise of Cotton Mills in the South (1921), Cash not only saw the fervor with which the Southern community turned to textile mills as the cure-all for the region’s troubles as emotional rather than rational in motivation, and quasi-religious in nature, but fitted the phenomenon into his overall thesis about the South’s overweening romanticism. And when in the early decades of the 20th century improved business conditions encouraged Southerners to embark upon an all-out effort to build skyscrapers and boulevards in emulation of the industrial Northeast, the joyful ardor with which the Southern business community embraced commercial expansion, the gospel of Progress, and boosterism in general is seen by Cash as yet another manifestation of the regional preference for dream over reality.

In a famous passage, cited by Woodward on several occasions, Cash deposed as follows:

Softly, do you not hear behind that the gallop of Jeb Stuart’s cavalrymen? Do you not recognize it for the native gesture of an incurably romantic people, enamoured before all else of the magnificent and the spectacular?

To which Woodward responded, “The answer is , “No”! Not one ghostly echo of a gallop. And neither did Jack Cash. He only thought he did when he was bemused.” (“The Elusive Mind of the South,” in American Counterpoint.)

Woodward objects to the assertion not only because he fails to see in the commercial opportunism of the 20th century anything much beyond the wish to coin money as easily and as amply as possible, but also because Cash’s whole way of going about the matter violates his own notion of what history is and how historians should write about it. Cash uses a metaphor to assert and enforce a continuity of attitude and leadership that Woodward doesn’t concede existed. Cash implies that the basic motivation for the antebellum South was what Jeb Stuart’s cavalry connotes—showmanship, Walter Scott-style pageantry, romanticism in general, and not the considered defense of a planter society based upon chattel slavery—and that the real estate entrepreneurism that produced Greater Asheville, Greater Memphis, and the multi-tiered towers of downtown Atlanta was at bottom more of the same, undertaken within a context of peacetime commerce rather than wartime resistance.

As for the supposed altruism and idealism of the cotton mill movement in the New South, Woodward admits that it wasn’t simply a matter of dollars and cents, but points out that the ratio of profit to investment from operating a textile mill was normally very favorable indeed, and insists that what was going on in such operations was essentially calculated capitalistic investment and not a romantic reenactment of chivalric myth. The analogy Cash sets up so readily between the builders of skyscrapers in the 1910’s and the Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart a half-century earlier is in Woodward’s view much too vague, imprecise, and incomplete to serve the purpose of understanding the South of the Progressive Era. From Woodward’s perspective, therefore, Cash both oversimplifies and distorts Southern history.

From what I’ve seen of businessmen in general and investment bankers in particular, Southern or otherwise, I would have to go along with Woodward’s view of the entrepreneurial activity and the motivations behind it. (For that matter, neither can I discern very much difference between such activity and the acquisition of lands and slaves by middle-class Southerners in antebellum times, from the standpoint of the purchasers in any event.)

* Woodward’s Looking Back: The Perils of Writing History (1986) is a fascinating retrospective on a career of writing about the South.

III

Yet it seems to me that there is a real sense in which Woodward hasn’t given Jack Cash his due. Perhaps the best way to get at this is to look at a segment of Southern experience that neither of them could have dealt with—the present-day South. As I write these words, the national economy is showing some unpleasant signs of getting ready to repeat the performance described by Cash in respect to commercial real estate development of the 1920’s. If the under-tenanted skyscrapers, vacant store fronts, undeveloped subdivisions, and weed-strewn avenues of the Depression years, and the mortgage foreclosures and bank failures that followed, were the unhappy result of “the native gesture of an incurably romantic people,” the lineal descendents of Jeb Stuart’s chivalry, then what was once a Southern characteristic has spread throughout the nation.

It seems unlikely that conditions will be allowed to reach that stage again, but to the extent that the astounding expansion of recent decades is reaching a point at which it has overreached itself, the cities of the South will be among those hardest hit, especially if the Southwest is thought of (I believe properly) as being more Southern than Western in makeup. If so, it seems to me that W.J. Cash’s approach will be vindicated, though on a national scale. For it seems impossible to view the unrealistic assumption that limitless commercial expansion can go on forever, and that the extension of credit has no natural restrictions that a right-thinking man is bound to respect, which has characterized our way of doing things since the close of World War II, merely as a species of business greed.

Calvin Coolidge once uttered a remark that has been repeatedly cited as an example of the 30th U.S. President’s banality and triteness: “The business of the nation is business.” Though I would not question the ascription of those qualities to Coolidge, the particular comment is not without insight. For the ruling assumption of American society, very much including that portion of it located south of the Potomac, Ohio, and Red Rivers, is that it is through the conduct of business that the spirit and energy of man achieve their characteristic expression. We attach to entrepreneurial imaginativeness the prestige and admiration that in earlier societies was accorded to soldiers, priests, nobility, and so forth.

I am far from seeing this as any kind of a falling-off in community virtue; better by far Trammell Crow and Malcolm Forbes than the Ayatollah Khomenei and Erich von Hindenberg. But if this is so, it follows that the material wealth that comes as a result of properly-conducted financial activity is not the be-all and end-all of such activity, so much as a necessary result of distinctive achievement in it. It is the endeavor itself that matters most. Or, as one especially introspective businessman of my acquaintance wittily characterized the prevailing philosophy, “even a bad deal is better than no deal at all.”

The point is that when Cash described the building of textile mills in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and the boom and boosterism of the 1920’s, as something more than mere pursuit of the almighty dollar, he knew whereof he spoke. It certainly wasn’t a species of altruism, or a latter-day restatement of the Waverly novels, but it wasn’t just sordid money-grubbing, either. It was a form of expression, an assertion of purpose, a quest for meaning.

In the same way, the Omni-International in Atlanta, the Texas Commerce Building in Houston, the First Union Building in Charlotte, Hilton Head Plantation, and Shell Square in New Orleans weren’t the product—to use the terminology of Southern literature—of a race of soulless Snopeses interested in nothing but the acquisition of specie. At worst the developers thereof were probably closer to Jay Gatsby, whose faith in the orgiastic green light at the end of the dock across the way was adulterated by the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams. More typically they were neither, but instead decent citizens, whether Sartoris or McCaslin in lineage, engaged in making something of as well as for themselves. And if the net result of such activity, sanctioned as it was by the community lares and penates, begins now to appear reckless and fraught with civic peril, it was for the most part neither criminal nor even unduly selfish in intent. They were Building a Better America, Participating in the American Dream, Selling the Sun Belt, Balancing Agriculture with Industry, etc.; they were engaged in the workings of a Growth Economy. What they lacked was restraint—but no community worthy of the name has ever survived for very long by relying almost totally on private, self-imposed virtue, and it begins to appear that this was exactly what we seem to have been counting upon.

IV

In other words, what Cash was getting at with his Jeb Stuart analogy, however the particular comparison might not fit, was the way in which the Southern community went at things as a unit, a body. He was trying to show that what transpired at such times was more than merely the entrepreneurial schemes of assorted avaricious individuals. There was a public quality to it; and the motives involved could be civic as well as personal. (The trouble, of course, was that the two could become fatally confused—”what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” to use a comment from the 1950’s.)

It was this kind of community identity, this capacity for a common enthusiasm, shared throughout much of a society and giving sanction to those whose personal talents and predilections enabled them to act upon it, that Cash recognized in the South. Beyond doubt he stretched its boundaries too far, but he did indeed identify its existence—and its importance. For in truth, this is what we are really referring to when we speak of “the South,” in a way that we know makes sense and that would not make nearly so much sense if one were to speak of “the North” or “the Midwest” or (for the past century or so in any event) “New England.”

That, it seems to me, is perhaps the most salient attribute of The Mind of the South: its perception of the role and importance of the Southern community. Quibbles about the inaccuracy of Cash’s title—that the book doesn’t deal with thinking so much as feeling, that it omits treatment of Southern minds such as Jefferson, Taylor, Madison, Fitzhugh, Ruffin, etc., that it is concerned with only white minds and despite its caustic treatment of racism ignores what blacks were thinking—miss the point. What Cash set out to do was to elucidate the evolution, the historical role, and the characteristics of an entity known as the Southern community, that for something close to two centuries has been a palpable and powerful force which has had a formative impact upon politics, economics, race relations, religion, literature, and just about everything else.

One can disagree with Cash’s evaluation of that force, point out that he has misinterpreted or oversimplified its workings, but Cash’s triumph is that he identified it and dealt with it, as an entity, in a way that no one else had done. He did this particular thing better than Vann Woodward, U.B. Phillips, Francis Butler Simkins, Carl Degler, David Potter, or any other historian; he did it better than the Twelve Southerners who put together I’ll Take My Stand: he did it better than journalists, sociologists, memoirists, or whatever. From a topical, referential standpoint he did it better than the novelists or poets.

Something of this, I believe, is what Woodward means when he writes approvingly of Cash’s perception of the “class hegemony [that] prevailed in the South, and . survived in various guises the real breaks in historical continuity. This insight was Cash’s main contribution and he deserves full credit for it.” (“The Elusive Mind of the South.”) But that is just about all the credit that Woodward will extend to Cash, and it is more than just a matter of class hegemony that is involved. Rather, it is a perception of the nature and presence of the Southern community in the region’s history.

If we think of what Cash did in this way, it becomes apparent that the approaches and techniques of the formal, professionally-trained historian would not have served his purpose. Indeed, it is probably a mistake to think of W.J. Cash as an historian at all, in the sense of having purported to offer an accurate presentation of what happened in the South over the past two centuries. If I want to find out about, for example, the Populist revolt of the 1880’s and 1890’s, or the development of the New South ideology, or race relations during the Progressive Era, I’m not going to turn to The Mind of the South. I am going to consult Origins of the New South, or The Strange Career of Jim Crow, with the confidence that what I read there will come closer to telling me what happened, and how and why, than I could get anywhere else. But if I wish to get a sense of the workings of that elusive but very real entity known as the “mind” of the Southern community, and how it operated at those and other points in history, Cash’s book will offer certain kinds of insights that no other study can provide.

I submit that this was no mean accomplishment on the part of its author. It seems to me that over the course of a half century The Mind of the South still stands up pretty well. Samuel Johnson, writing of Shakespeare, set one hundred years as the proper term for evaluating literary merit: “Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every topic of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated.” Jack Cash was no Shakespeare, and, to paraphrase the conclusion of his book, it would be an idiot who would venture to predict how The Mind of the South will stand up to future critical scrutiny in the face of the forces sweeping over the onetime Confederate States of America nowadays. But if Johnson’s test is accurate, at the halfway mark Cash’s book would appear to be doing very nicely.

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