The Advancing South. By Edwin Mims. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1926. $3.00 net.
There are thirty million people in the South. Dr. Mims has carefully searched for and catalogued the liberals among them. The index of his book lists the names of 123, many of them dead. Dr. Mims, having checked up the liberal movement, feels better.
This optimism, which permeates “The Advancing South,” has brought scandalized critics buzzing around the author’s head like a swarm of hornets. The man who can uncover only 123 passably good liberals in a population of thirty millions, and can feel cheerful about the future of Southern liberalism, simply passeth the understanding of the inhabitants of other sections. They are evidently inclined to believe that he must be either insincere or insane.
But that merely betrays the critics’ unfamiliarity with the South and with Edwin Mims. Fifteen years ago it would have been impossible to uncover 123 liberals of the sort listed in this book; and Edwin Mims is the sort of man who can be cheerful even as a college professor in Tennessee. The practice of twenty-five years in looking on the bright side has given him the ability to stare at Dayton without shrinking. This is not an intimation that Dr. Mims is a masculine Pollyanna. He is nothing of the sort. He is a scholar of liberal tendencies who has remained in the South and striven to inculcate liberalism in young Southerners. He is an extreme optimist, if you please, but a robust one.
This optimism has operated to weaken his book, of course. He is so eager to mark any advance that he tends to write summa cum laude after many a name, especially if it belong to a young man, that should be given a bare passing mark. He foretells the development into swans of some singularly ugly ducklings. This determined optimism handicaps him, too, in estimating the cultural value of destructive criticism. Devastation simply is not Dr. Minis’ method of working, and the excellencies of pessimism do not come within the range of his comprehension. His fist of names might have been enlarged somewhat had he been capable of apprehending the effects wrought by men temperamentally alien to him.
However, this criticism is relative. The author of “The Advancing South” is far indeed from wearing a fixed smile on all occasions. There are passages, especially those touching on religious bigotry and fanaticism, as blistering as anything in “The Sahara of the Bozart.” But these passages deal with men and events that have forced themselves upon the author’s notice. Not only does he never search for such themes, but he consciously avoids them in so far as they can be avoided.
On that point one may take issue, not with the theory but, rather, with the expediency of the Mimsian criticism. The South perhaps has had enough of pessimistic criticism from outside; but surely she has had enough optimistic criticism from within her own borders. Is a Southerner at this juncture justified in looking on the bright side when he surveys the civilization around him? Dr. Mims measures the present condition of the South by her former condition. As one standard of measurement that is certainly unobjectionable, but as a spur to further achievement it is questionable. The pride of the South is so tremendous already that it needs no further augmenting. Considering the meagerness of its foundation, it towers perilously. For an outsider to attempt to reduce it is futile, for the defense mechanism works perfectly against outside assaults. Persuasive Southerners, though, might be able to divert the attention of the section from what it has accomplished to the vast amount that it must still accomplish in order to pull abreast of the more advanced sections; and that would do the South no harm.
Yet to thrust such dirty work upon Edwin Mims would be ungracious and, on the part of a Southerner, ungrateful. He has labored so diligently and so well in the Southern field that one prefers to salute the undaunted optimist rather than to wish that he might change himself into something other than what he is. No more gallant contender for the civilization of the South has appeared below the Mason and Dixon line, and his latest book ought at least to stimulate the efforts of such of the 123 as survive.
Still, when one reads what he has to say about Fundamentalist bishops and political college presidents, one cannot help wishing that he had laid about him a little more. One cannot avoid the feeling that that shattering battle-axe might do more real good to the South than the trumpet and cymbals, seductively as they are used.