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Gerald W. Johnson: the Southerner As Realist

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

The representative Southerner, if there is such a creature, has generally been described somewhat like this: he is rural, conservative, religious, romantic. His thinking is concrete; he abhors abstraction. He looks backward, not forward; he distrusts institutionalized forms of truth—that dispensed by universities, newspapers, network news—and he hates reform, sociology, system-building, bureaucracy, and big government.

This portrait of the Southerner, though true enough in some particulars, seems to me far too limiting. It ignores that liberal-progressive strain in Southern thought running from one side of Jefferson through Walter Hines Page to Howard W. Odum and beyond. It neglects the fact that many Southerners, from Jefferson through Calhoun and George Fitzhugh to writers as self-consciously Southern as Thomas Nelson Page, have in various ways been committed to abstraction. What else but abstraction was the code by which the antebellum Southerner lived—a code that stressed honor, duty, and chivalry above all else? What else but abstraction was racial segregation—an attempt to categorize, classify, according to something other than individual worth and concrete experience? What else the attempt even to define the representative Southerner? All these in their way deny what Robert Penn Warren has called the massiveness of human experience.

And how do you account for Gerald W. Johnson? He was born into a staunch Southern Baptist family in the North Carolina black belt, and he grew up in the Carolina Piedmont. Both of his grandfathers had been slaveowners, and three of his uncles had fought for the Confederacy. The homes of both grandfathers had lain squarely in the line of Sherman’s march, and he grew up, he later wrote, listening to Civil War tales “that convinced me” Sherman “was a fiend in human form.” He followed others of his family to Wake Forest College in North Carolina, and he remained in North Carolina until his mid-thirties. But Gerald W. Johnson was liberal, progressive, and analytical. He advocated reform and hailed reformers, embraced sociology and sociologists, and tended to support big government. Far from distrusting the ideas emanating from universities and Eastern newspapers, he contributed to them—was always, first of all, a journalist and was for a time a professor. He was not conventionally religious (although he knew the scriptures as well as any divine), he lived not in the country but in the city (Baltimore the last half-century of his life), and, most of all, he was the self-proclaimed realist. Many young Southerners of the 1920’s fled from the romance of Thomas Nelson Page, but no one ran faster than Gerald W. Johnson. He kept running the rest of his life, and in his flight passed by some Southerners he should not have passed so quickly, among them the Agrarians of Nashville.

So how explain Gerald W. Johnson? Donald Davidson once accounted for Thomas Wolfe’s early iconoclasm by saying that Wolfe had attended the wrong school: if he had travelled 300 miles west to Vanderbilt, rather than 200 miles east to Chapel Hill, he would have been a different writer. No one could say the same for Johnson. Wake Forest was not only a Southern school but a Southern Baptist one, and it listed among its alumni such professional Southerners as Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman. Not only did Johnson attend a Southern Baptist college, he had grown up in a Southern Baptist compound in Thomasville, North Carolina, where his father edited a church publication. But Archibald Johnson was modernist rather than fundamentalist; and as concerns the late Confederacy the Johnsons, although descended from slaveowners, had long taken a dim view both of slavery and the War between the States. Even Johnson’s favorite uncle, a good soldier who had ridden with Wheeler’s cavalry, told him as a boy, “We lost that war because God Almighty had decreed that slavery had to go.”

The Carolina Piedmont in which Johnson grew up had long been noted for nurturing Southern dissenters. Abolitionist Daniel R. Goodloe came from there, and Hinton Rowan Helper—author of that notorious antislavery tract, The Impending Crisis (1857)—came from Rowan County, not 30 miles away from Thomasville. It was an area, in Johnson’s boyhood, under the influence of Walter Hines Page, a racial progressive for his day and preacher of the New South creed. Gerald Johnson was six years old when Page came to nearby Greensboro and made the famous “Forgotten Man” speech in which he appealed for education for the Southern commoner—a speech from which the journalist Gerald Johnson later drew in his own writing. And when it was time for Johnson to choose a college, Wake Forest was not so strictly religious and conservative a choice as it might have seemed. Its president, William Louis Poteat, was a German-educated Ph.D. in biology who annually placated those North Carolina Baptists who came to the state convention with the express purpose of denouncing his belief in evolution and throwing him out. Of Wake Forest, Johnson later wrote, “light streamed from its windows over a darkling land.” Professors such as classicist John Bethune Carlyle and English scholar Benjamin Sledd possessed a dedication “of a kind completely new to me then, and which I have seldom encountered since.” They de-educated as well as educated—disabused students of old notions and prejudices—and the former function was at least as important as the latter.

That small Southern Baptist college, then, contributed in large measure to the making of a Southern realist. “Realist” was the term Johnson applied to himself; “liberal” was what others usually called him. But a realist he was as much as he was anything, a man with an aversion for romance, an intolerance of fraud, sham, and hypocrisy—possessed of a realism, one suspects, even before he reached Wake Forest, a realism inherited from his practical Scottish forebears. To all his heroes he accorded the accolade “realist.” Jefferson was “the clear-sighted realist,” Woodrow Wilson, contrary to what others might have thought, “the hard-headed realist,” and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great achievement was “the establishment of contact between statecraft and reality.” His highest praise for Southern author James McBride Dabbs was that he was “a realist in a realm [race relations] given over to fantasy for ninety years and more.” And one of the few times he praised Allen Tate was when he felt that Tate, in referring to “the nightmare quality of Southern civilization,” had come “into sharp contact with reality.” The South’s greatest enemy was not Sherman, as he himself had thought as a boy; but instead, he later wrote, its enemies were Stephen Foster, Thomas Nelson Page, orators of the Henry Grady school, and—he would have agreed with Mark Twain—Sir Walter Scott. He spoke of the “asininity” of Thomas Dixon, and praised those Southern journalists who had a “disinclination to accept traditional romanticism as established fact.” It was evident early what kind of critic Johnson was. He was, as University of North Carolina professor Archibald Henderson wrote H. L. Mencken in 1922, “a “realistic” critic—of your school, preferring the axe and the bludgeon, particularly after the spear and the rapier have failed to “go home.”“

Late in his life, in 1974, Johnson issued a “Position Paper for the American Realist,” yet he was a Southern realist long before he was the American variety—and perhaps an American realist because he was first Southern, had come of age in a South in which the civilization seemed to him fraudulent. He had early training, that is, in spotting frauds. After Cole Blease, Richard Nixon was easy. But his achievement as it grew far transcended the South, and although I shall later return to Johnson as Southerner, it is Johnson in a larger arena—the man who from 1930 until his death in 1980 approached American political and cultural life with clear-sighted realism—that I should first like to consider. He was another of those North Carolinians, like Walter Hines Page, of whom any study might be entitled “The Southerner as American.” Like Page, he was an editor on a North Carolina daily who went north in his thirties to work on a newspaper—Page to New York, Johnson to Baltimore—and remained the rest of his life. Once in the Northeast, Page distinguished himself in areas other than writing. But Johnson remained always the writer, although one, considered historically, who is somewhat difficult to place. He produced some three dozen volumes of history, biography, and commentary on American life, as well as literally thousands of articles and essays for newspapers and magazines on the political and cultural health of America. He was an editorial writer for the Baltimore Sunpapers from 1926 to 1943, a contributing editor of the New Republic for a quarter of a century, and a leader in liberal causes for half a century. Adlai Stevenson called him “the conscience of America,” and Harry Golden referred to him as one of the three most brilliant stylists America has produced. He was one of the great essayists of any age and ranks with Mencken and Walter Lippmann as a great American journalist of the 20th century. Yet, compared to them, he seems at times a writer nearly anonymous. Even in comparison to his fellow Wake Forest alumnus and interpreter of the South, W. J. Cash, he has come up short. Cash has been the subject of a biography and any number of essays. Johnson has received only honorable mention.

* A selection of Johnson essays entitled America-Watching, with a brief introduction by Henry Steele Commager, appeared in 1976.


Why, it is difficult to say—except that Johnson was never the controversial public figure Mencken was, nor did he, as Cash, put a lifetime of thought into a single book and, shortly after its publication, die a strange and puzzling death. All he did was write, and he covered each decade of the 20th century, both as journalist at the time and as historian in retrospect, more thoroughly perhaps than any other American. Indeed, he covered American history in its entirety as thoroughly as one man could, devoting books or large chunks of books to figures as diverse as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Rierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, John Paul Jones, John Randolph of Roanoke, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, William Henry Harrison, the Grimke sisters of Charleston, Horace Greeley, Adolph S. Ochs of the New York Times, Henry George, Ingnatius Donnelly, Carry Nation, Tom Watson, Sockless Jerry Simpson, Gov. John Peter Altgeld of Illinois, William Jennings Bryan, H. L. Mencken, Woodrow Wilson, both Roosevelts, philanthropist Edward A. Filene, Southern industrialist Simpson Bobo Tanner, and sculptor Gutzon Borglum. He dealt with nearly every phase of American life, and when he was through writing about it for adult readers, he undertook to explain it to children—in a highly acclaimed series of books on American history and institutions. He also wrote two novels, very well received when they appeared in the early 1930’s, and, in 1934, a delightful book on the joys of playing the flute.

Basically Johnson was a patriot and an optimist, although some of his later works became increasingly apprehensive about the outcome of the American experiment. Early in the 1960’s he protested the American presence in Vietnam and voiced his fear that the United States was launched on a road to imperialism that would spell its doom. Among the most moving of his books are those of the later years, retrospective works in which he was less gleeful polemicist and more philosopher, less Henry Mencken than Henry Adams. The Man Who Feels Left Behind (1961) concerns the American of the 1960’s who feels that events, science, knowledge in general have passed him by. Here Johnson questions the idea of progress, laments the vanishing of a sense of place among Americans, sees a loss of confidence in American society—but, despite all, insists that the sixties are a good time to be alive. Hod-Carrier: Notes of a Laborer on an Unfinished Cathedral (1964) is an even more personal book, and one touched with a sadness uncharacteristic of the earlier Johnson. In discussions of education, liberalism, racial prejudice, the decline of inner-city Baltimore, the population explosion, the United Nations, and the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson surveys the era to which 74 years have brought him. He is the hod carrier, and the unfinished cathedral is not the Chartres of Henry Adams but the American nation. The lowest hod carrier at Chartres built for the glory of God, yet the cathedral took two centuries to complete and those who began it did not live to see it finished. It was time, Johnson suggested, to hand over the tools to the next generation. He was a man who would not “be expected to hang around much longer.”

But he hung around another decade and a half to observe, to reflect, and to write six more books. Indeed, the life and work of Gerald W. Johnson stands as a monument in several areas, and the first is as an example of what might be called productive longevity. The span of Johnson’s consciousness, of his productive life, is astounding. Born in 1890 when Victoria was queen and Benjamin Harrison president, he lived into the penultimate decade of the 20th century. He was born at a time just before his native South had fully descended into its dark age of segregation, and he lived to see it come out the other side and proclaim itself triumphant. (He questioned that too.) As a boy, he stood by the railroad track and saw soldiers return from the Spanish-American War, and as the son of an enlightened newspaperman he no doubt had some idea of what that war had meant. He attained “a state of relative consciousness,” he later wrote, “before the turn of the century. . . .” That consciousness would take in and process events for more than three-quarters of a century. Johnson, writing in the 1970’s, would refer to events—”the pursuit of Pancho Villa, the pre-White House attack on Franklin [Roosevelt], the post-White House wounding of Theodore”—as if they had just occurred. He had seen them, lived through them, been part of them. He drew on personal observations of events removed in time by two generations, and the participants in American history were as actors in a drama that he, nearly alone, had witnessed—at least comprehended—in its entirety. “The First Roosevelt,” “The Second Roosevelt,” “bright John,” “dulcet Lyndon,” and “oily Richard M.”—all had occupied the stage and left. The Greek Chorus, Johnson, remained. Rarely has a man observed so keenly for so long. If as Justice Holmes—”the Second Holmes”—wrote, a man must share the action and passion of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived, then Johnson lived as few men have. And he reflected and wrote as few have. Writing simply flowed, was as natural as conversation to him. Perhaps it was a form of conversation for a man whose hearing declined badly in his later years and who often found it easier to correspond with acquaintances than to talk with them. He lived and worked a full quarter century after the majority of Americans have retired. After age 65, he wrote some 16 books, and one declines to count the number of essays.

So that, one might say, is why Gerald W. Johnson covered American life of the 20th century more comprehensively than anyone else: he had seen more of it. But that is the least of reasons. For Johnson was a literary artist in a field in which literary scholars—the doctor-professors, Johnson’s friend Mencken called them—do not usually acknowledge literary artists. The field was journalism, and the word is often pejorative. Although 18th-century British journalists such as Addison and Steele qualify as literary figures, 20th-century ones such as Mencken and Lippmann—and Johnson—generally do not. The field was equally social criticism, and although 19th-century British social critics Carlyle and Arnold are regarded as literary figures, 20th-century American practitioners of the art are not. Finally, the field was history, and although British historians—Gibbon, Carlyle, Macaulay— are studied in literature courses, 20th-century American ones are not. Social criticism, like history and journalism, should be at least a century in the past, and preferably across the ocean, before it qualifies as belles lettres.

Such an assumption is particularly unfair in the case of Gerald W. Johnson. He was undeniably a journalist: even when he wrote history he called himself one. But he wrote of events past and present with a grace that can only be called literary. Not only did he approach events as acts in a continuing drama—”oily Richard M.” and “dulcet Lyndon” were merely players on the stage—but he also approached them allegorically. Historical figures—Jackson, Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt—were concrete individuals, but they were also representative, universal. Born in Victoria’s reign, Johnson was ever the Victorian moralist, always the 19th-century gentleman of diverse interests and instructive voice. History was philosophy teaching by example, and so was journalism; it was up to the journalist-historian to draw the moral. Johnson wrote history and biography, then, as Fielding and Thackeray and Trollope wrote novels: he both placed himself within and gently mocked the English narrative tradition. Adolph S. Ochs, in Johnson’s biography, is not merely a Tennessean who takes over the New York Times. He is more, as Johnson’s Fieldingesque chapter titles suggest: the Prologue, “A Discourse on Titans, Which the Gentle Reader May Skip as Preliminary, But Not Essential to the Story”; Chapter I, “In Which a Soldier Comes Home from the Wars and a Boy Goes Out into the World.” And so on. Similarly, in his work of American history, The Lunatic Fringe (1957), Johnson assumes the role of magistrate, parading historical figures before the reader for his instruction: “Witness the following tale of. . . Horace Greeley. Who had ideas when they were needed”; or “Read then the tale of . . . Henry George. Who hated the bitch goddess”; or “in witness whereof, now give attention to the tale of. . . Tom Watson. Who could dish it out but couldn’t take it.”

Much of this is sheer funning, but it also serves a purpose. Johnson converses with the reader in part to engage him in the search for meaning. The author himself is participant in his history the same way the narrator in English fiction, preHenry James, was participant in his stories. Or, rather, Johnson’s persona is, for it is a consciously created persona who engages the reader in his histories, more often in his essays. The persona is often quite different from the author himself—speaking in the early Southern essays, for example, as a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan or a Rotarian who has sold out for progress. Behind the persona stands Johnson, sometimes incredulous, sometimes indignant, almost always ironic— at least until that point in the essay when he assumes his own voice. And always there is the style—the dazzling Johnson style, at once drawing on and parodying the tradition of Southern rhetoric. The style is closer to Mencken’s than anyone else’s, but it is not precisely the same. The metaphors, if anything, are more elaborate, the allusions more erudite. Johnson draws on an astounding variety of sources—classical literature, mythology, history ancient and modern, and principally the Bible. He wore out three Kings James versions, he once wrote, and his essays support the claim. The state of North Carolina, as it existed in 1923, was portrayed as Issachar, a “strong ass” borrowed from the 49th chapter of Genesis. “Balaam, the bought prophet” misled America in 1968. “Casper and Melchior and swart Balthasar” are Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon. A metaphysical quality exists in Johnson’s prose, the jerking together of seemingly disparate elements into a convincing, striking whole. It is bravura writing, particularly in the early essays on the South.


It is to the Southern essays, then, that I want to turn. To do so is to retreat in time from the mid-to the early 20th century, from age to youth, and in scope from nation to region. But in these essays one finds the Johnson style at its most inventive. Beyond that, one might make the same claim for Johnson that Johnson himself, looking back in 1974 at the career of H. L. Mencken, made for the other Sage of Baltimore—that, despite his prominence as political commentator, observer of American life and man of letters, perhaps his single most important role was the one he played in the Southern critical and literary renascence of the 1920’s and in the ensuing debate between the Southern Agrarians and Southern progressives in the 1930’s. The South in the 1920’s was America’s number one news item. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Scopes evolution trial, the Florida land boom, the anti-Catholicism sparked by Al Smith’s candidacy in 1928, the labor violence of 1929—all kept the nation’s reporters traveling South. Gerald Johnson was, without question, the leading Southern interpreter of the South during this decade, a crucial one in the development of a Southern critical consciousness and the making of a modern Southern mind. He was the loudest and clearest voice in the rising chorus of Southern self-criticism, the boldest of writers for the Reviewer of Richmond and Journal of Social Forces in Chapel Hill, those journals that led in the new Southern expression, and the most perceptive of writers for numerous national magazines that wanted the Southern story. He and Howard W. Odum of Chapel Hill represented—indeed shaped—nothing less than a new Southern point of view. Many were the Southerners in the 1920’s writing on the South, but Johnson was the only one among them who wrote as well as the notorious outsider Mencken, and he understood the South much better than Mencken ever could. His picture, though often harsh, was always accurate. If the analysis of Southern civilization became a literary sub-genre in the 1920’s, he was its most artful practitioner.

To the Fugitive-Agrarians of Nashville, particularly Donald Davidson, he was the Southern bête noire. Davidson saw Johnson as a “fire-eating Southern liberal” who “found nothing good . . .in the traditional South,” a “loud and persistent voice” in Southern self-criticism. He was, according to Davidson, the most militant member of “the “enlightened” North Carolina school” and he led “a Fifth Column of Southern journalists” during the 1920s. His “tart essays” made him “in the gay, emancipated 1920’s” one of “the wonders of our stage.” Other South-watchers of the time also acknowledged Johnson’s significance, if not his notoriety. Mencken saw him as the leading Southern-born iconoclast of his generation as well as “the best editorial writer in the South,” and DuBose Heyward of Charleston described him as a “suicidal, but ecstatic, spirit,” a “fellow rebel.” But rather than rebel, iconoclast, or bête noire, Johnson in the 1920’s was precisely what he always had been and would be: a realist. Then, as always, he declared war on romantic illusion, fraud, sham, and hypocrisy; he expressed an outright fury toward those who proclaimed Southern civilization as it existed in 1920 a worthy successor to Greece and Rome. His message in the early 1920’s was that the South needed “hard-minded men, who [see] clearly, [think] straight, and [speak] the truth.” The Southerner had to “burst all bonds of conservative tradition, break with the past and defy the present with the bald, unequivocal, and conclusive assertion that lying is wrong.”

Johnson had viewed Southern civilization with a skeptical eye from the first of his days as a newspaperman—he had established the Thomasville Davidsonian in 1910, then worked briefly for the Lexington Dispatch before joining the Greensboro News in 1913—but he did not attract much more than a local following until 1923 when, emboldened by Mencken’s indictment of Southern culture, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” he began to write for the Reviewer of Richmond. His first essay in the Reviewer, a little magazine just begun by a colony of Menckenites, was a performance worthy of the Master himself—and on Mencken’s favorite subject. Mencken had claimed in his “Sahara” that the South in 1920 was “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” To the contrary, said Johnson in the July 1923 Reviewer:

The South resembles more Sierra Leone, where, according to Sir Harry Johnston, “the mammalian fauna of chimpanzis [sic], monkeys, bats, cats, lions, leopards, hyenas, civets, scaly manises, and large-eared earth-pigs, little known duiker bushbuck, hartebeeste, and elephant is rich and curious.” So is the literary flora, and if the reader presumes to doubt it, I invite him to plunge into the trackless waste of the Library of Southern Literature, where a man might wander for years, encountering daily such a profusion of strange and incredible growths as could proceed from none other but an enormously rich soil.

The South was “not sterile,” not the “treeless waste” of the Sahara. “On the contrary, it is altogether too luxuriant. . . . Its pulses beat to the rhythm of the tom-tom, and it likes any color if it’s red.” The South was “not the Sahara, but the Congo of the Bozart.”

Johnson’s figure was more apt than Mencken’s. The 16-volume Library of Southern Literature (a 17th volume would appear that same year) included some three hundred Southerners from Adams to Young. Its biographical dictionary went from Abbey to Zogbaum. It was nothing but lush and luxuriant, nothing if not a jungle. Johnson was right, and what’s more he was just as dazzling as Mencken. More Johnson essays followed in the Reviewer, some as elaborate and outrageous as the first. In “Fourteen Equestrian Statues of Colonel Simmons” (October 1923) Johnson insisted that the South should erect monuments to William Joseph Simmons, founder of the modern Ku Klux Klan, for awakening the Southern consciousness and revealing to the enlightened Southern minority the state of mind among many Southerners. “Greensboro, or What You Will” (April 1924) was a study of George F. Babbitt, Southern style. The city under investigation was Johnson’s own Greensboro or any progressive Southern city which lived by the creed: “There is no God but Advertising, and Atlanta is his prophet.” In “Onion Salt” (January 1925) Johnson declared what South-watchers half a century later would believe themselves original in saying: that while the South might appear to be losing its distinctiveness, seem to be absorbed into the great American average, in fact—like onion salt—its inextinguishable character would flavor the whole.

Johnson was early acclaimed the most original contributor to the Reviewer, that magazine which led the way in the first phase of the Southern literary renascence. He was also the boldest of writers for The Journal of Social Forces, a publication begun in 1922 by Howard W. Odum in Chapel Hill which served in the Southern critical renascence the same role performed by the Reviewer in the literary renascence. He wrote for other journals as well—between 1923 and 1929 some two dozen essays on Southern life for the Reviewer, Social Forces, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the North American Review, Harper’s, Survey, Scribner’s, the Current History Magazine of the New York Times, and the American Mercury—not to mention hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials. In particular, the essays in the American Mercury—on the Ku Klux Klan, evangelical religion, education, the Southern cotton mill, the cowardice of most Southern journalists, and Southern sensitivity to criticism— brought Johnson the national recognition he had earlier lacked.

In his writing he was reinforcing the image of the benighted South. But he was not creating that image, as Donald Davidson later charged. The Klan and the Scopes trial had done that, if indeed it had not been done before.


Johnson was regarded in some quarters as Mencken’s lieutenant. He was Mencken’s discovery, his vocabulary was Mencken’s—”below the Potomac,” “superior men,” “right-thinkers,” “the sacred cause of Service”—and he wrote on subjects that Mencken also tackled. But he understood the South as the Great Destroyer never could, and perhaps never wanted to. There existed in Johnson’s early writing, as there did not in Mencken’s, a remarkable capacity to empathize with people with whom he disagreed radically—people whom Mencken put down summarily. Mill barons and lint-heads, hedge parsons and klansmen: he humanized his Southern subjects. Those who were abstractions to Mencken were all too real to him. To Mencken the South was spectacle, a faraway mock kingdom-gone-mad whose darkness he did not penetrate until 1925. But Johnson had grown up in a Southern mill town, had attended Baptist revivals. The beat of the tom-tom, the thump of the pulpit were in his blood too.

Johnson wrote his last essay for the American Mercury in June of 1929. By this time he was in Baltimore—he had crossed the Potomac in 1926 to work with Mencken on the Sunpapers—and the South had become only one of his interests. As it happened, the very month he ceased to write for the Mercury another North Carolina newspaperman began— another Wake Forest alumnus of iconoclastic spirit and Menckenesque style. It must have seemed to Mercury readers, when W. J. Cash published “Jehovah of the Tar Heels” in July 1929, that Gerald W. Johnson had for the moment adopted a pseudonym. Indeed, the parallels between the two are remarkable: both had been born into strong Baptist families and had grown up in mill towns in the Carolina Piedmont, both attended Wake Forest, where they were influenced greatly by William Louis Poteat and Benjamin Sledd, both became editorial writers for North Carolina dailies—Johnson in Greensboro, Cash in Charlotte—both taught briefly, were inspired by Mencken’s “Sahara,” began to contribute to the American Mercury, and became Mencken’s leading Southern apostles. Johnson wrote eight essays for the Mercury between 1923 and 1929; Cash, beginning the month Johnson stopped, wrote eight between 1929 and 1935. Their vocabularies were similar, and so were their subjects: Southern politics, religion, racial conflict, and the psychology of the plain white Southerner. Johnson got there first, but Cash later received most of the credit. The reason, of course, is that W. J. Cash put all the insights and well-turned phrases of 15 years into a single book, The Mind of the South (1941), which almost immediately became a Southern classic. Johnson went on to write three dozen books, but no single book as penetrating as Cash’s one. Johnson himself valued Cash enormously. He corresponded with him, wrote a letter on behalf of his Guggenheim application, and long after Cash’s death pronounced “the two great diagnosticians” of the Southern condition “the ancient Hinton Rowan Helper and the modern W. J. Cash.” He also must have realized that Cash had been inspired not only by Mencken but by himself. For it was Johnson even more than Mencken who wrote about the South in the early American Mercury to which Cash was addicted. He was ten years Johnson’s junior, just as Johnson was ten years Mencken’s, and Donald Davidson was not far off when he wrote in his review of The Mind of the South that Cash’s interpretation of Southern history was “deeply colored” by the reading he did in the 1920’s “when Gerald Johnson and [economist] Broadus Mitchell” were leading intellectual influences.

So Johnson, to repeat, got there first. To get there first is not always enough. T. S. Stribling, among Southern novelists of the Southern Renascence, got there first—first appropriated Southern violence, racial prejudice, and fundamentalism for fictional use—but what William Faulkner did ten years later with the same material makes Stribling, as Robert Penn Warren later described him, a paragraph in the history of critical realism. But Johnson is at least a chapter in the story of the rise of the Southern critical spirit. Nearly all the themes—religious frenzy, the Klan, the poor white, and the subculture of the Southern cotton mill—that Cash treated in The Mind of the South Johnson had treated before. Not only that, but many of Cash’s insights Johnson had anticipated in his essays of the 1920’s. In his book Cash called the South of postwar ruin “the frontier the Yankees made.” Twelve years before Johnson had written, “The South after the Civil War was to all intents and purposes a frontier. . . .” In his book Cash emphasized the extent to which the rise of the cotton mills in the post-Reconstruction South was an economic equivalent of war, a way finally to defeat the Yankees, and also the extent to which the mill was an extension of the plantation, paternalism, and noblesse oblige intact. Johnson said the same things twenty years before in an essay entitled “Behind the Monster’s Mask.” He also anticipated Cash’s insistence upon the essential romanticism and chivalry of the Ku Klux Klansman. In his early essays on Southern sensitivity to criticism, he identified Cash’s “savage ideal” (though not by the same name) and in early discussions of the Klan he came very close to describing what Cash later called the “proto-Dorian” bond—that assurance that white men, what-ever their rank or station, are superior to Negroes.

Johnson also shared Cash’s distaste for the Agrarians of Nashville, whose book of essays, I’ll Take My Stand, appeared in 1930. Written by twelve Southerners, most of whom had attended or taught at Vanderbilt University, I’ll Take My Stand bore as its subtitle “The South and the Agrarian Tradition.” It was written to affirm the traditional South and to combat the assumption that the South should gracefully accept an industrial invasion. It was also an indictment of liberalism, many varieties of progress, and the “North Carolina school” of progressive Southern thought. As a leader of that school, Johnson jumped on the manifesto as soon as it left the press. He did not defend industrialism; he himself was on record against its abuses, and he was also against mindless progress, advertising, and Babbittry. But that the twelve Southerners “should turn to agrarianism as a remedy would seem to indicate that their sole knowledge of the South had been gleaned from the pages of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page.” He continued, in his January 1931 review in the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Have they never been in the modern South, especially in the sections completely ruled by agrarianism? Have they been completely oblivious to the Vardamans, the Bleases, the Heflins, the Tom Watsons, who are the delight of Southern Agrarianism? Have they never been told that the obscenities and depravities of the most degenerate hole of a cotton-mill town are but pale reflections of the lurid obscenities and depravities of Southern back-woods communities?

Apparently not, Johnson concluded. Thomas Nelson Page was still the problem. Realism was the solution.

But Johnson had only begun. The next month, February 1931, he came out with a longer essay, “No More Excuses,” in Harper’s. He spoke as “a Southerner to Southerners” and again he castigated the Agrarians as blind romantics:

At first blush it seems incredible that twelve men, all born and raised in the South, all literate, and all of legal age, could preach such a doctrine without once thrusting the tongue in the cheek or winking the other eye. . . . Of such a philosophy one can only say that it smells horribly of the lamp, that it was library-born and library-bred, and will perish miserably if it is ever exposed for ten minutes to the direct rays of the sun out in the daylight of reality.

Agrarianism had brought the South only a “hookworm-infested, pellegra-smitten, poverty-stricken, demogogue-ridden” civilization. The idea that the antebellum South, grounded in agrarianism, was “one of the ornaments of the world” was “sentimental tommy-rot.” Industrialism by contrast—despite the cotton mill strikes and violence of 1929, despite “the evils which the growth of manufacturing” had brought into the South—offered hope. Johnson turned to his native North Carolina as an example. It was the most industrialized Southern state; it was also the most progressive in education and social legislation. “If industrialism created Gastonia and Marion, it also created Chapel Hill and that neighboring hill on which Duke University is now rising.” The money had “come from industrialism.” And industrialism, despite its flaws, was the way of the future. Indeed, it had already arrived, and “the job of the South” was “to take industrialism and with it fashion a civilization” in which Jefferson and Lee could live. As for “sniveling and excuse-hunting on the part of intelligent Southerners,” these were a “worse betrayal of their ancestors than are Gastonia, lynching, demagoguery, and religious fanaticism combined.”

Johnson came closer to anger in his Harper’s discussion than he had ever come in the essays of the 1920’s. Missing were the wit, the dazzling metaphors—even, to some degree, the essential fairness—of his earlier pieces. What angered him was that intelligent Southerners could defend agrarianism, even fundamentalism. It had been his assumption—as well as that of Odum and Paul Green in Chapel Hill and James Branch Cabell in Richmond, not to mention Mencken in Baltimore—that all civilized Southerners were on their side. And indeed, before 1925, almost all—even the Fugitives of Nashville—had been. It is easy to see today why Johnson, Odum, and Mencken read I’ll Take My Stand as they did: as a prescription for Southern ills, and a very poor prescription at that, guaranteed only to make the patient sicker. For Johnson, as Odum, had been accustomed to dealing only with a problem South, a South which required reforming and reshaping. He had treated the South as it was in a literal sense: it badly needed treatment. His earliest essays had been written on social problems, some written for sociological journals. He himself, in some respects, possessed the sociological vision—although he wrote better than any sociologist who ever lived. But the Agrarians, at least the greatest of them, were poets, and as poets they were given to the image. I’ll Take My Stand and its vision of the agrarian South, as Louis D. Rubin, Jr., has written, “can best be considered as an extended metaphor,” not a literal prescription for Southern ills. Exactly. But it was impossible for Johnson to see it as such. It was improbable that any Southerner—particularly any Southern realist distressed by the labor violence of Gastonia and Marion, concerned for the social and economic future of the South—could see it as such in 1931.

With his two responses to I’ll Take My Stand, Johnson joined the debate between the Agrarians and the Regionalists of Chapel Hill. The Agrarians viewed him seriously indeed. He was “carrying on the W. H. Page line of thinking, mixed with a bit of “American Mercury” vocabulary,” Davidson wrote John Gould Fletcher. “He needs badly to be exposed, and it is up to one of us to hit him good and hard.” Davidson hit often, once in an essay, “Dilemma of the Southern Liberals,” which he sent, strangely, to the despised Mencken at the American Mercury. The article, Davidson wrote Edwin Mims, was an attack on “younger liberals—Gerald Johnson & Co.” because “they have had an opportunity that [Walter Hines] Page did not have for making a frank estimate of the social and political history of the South.” This is precisely what Johnson had done—what he felt Davidson and Company had not.

If Johnson had not appreciated I’ll Take My Stand as fully as he might have, the Agrarians for their part never really understood him. If they had read carefully those very essays of the 1920’s they attacked, they would have realized that Johnson was far from uncritical in his acceptance of that newest of New Souths. Further Johnson, as they themselves, valued the Old South, although his Old South, unlike theirs, stopped about 1830 and never quite crossed the Appalachians. More than once he had praised Virginia of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and in 1925 he had written that if the civilization of Jefferson became extinct, “smoke stacks and Rotarians can never replace it. If that civilization is extinct, the South is dead, and its material activity is not a genuine revival, but a species of galvanism, the horrible twitching of a cadaver stimulated by electricity.” More, Johnson had published in November 1930—the same month I’ll Take My Stand appeared—a novel which, if Davidson had considered it, he might have esteemed. By Reason of Strength was precisely the kind of novel he had urged Southerners to write—not a critical novel, not a sociological one, not even a particularly realistic one, but rather one which drew its strength from Southern tradition, and not the tradition of Washington and Jefferson but that of the plain antebellum Southerner whom Davidson had championed. By Reason of Strength was the story of early Scottish settlers, based on Johnson’s own forebears, in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. Its heroine was Catharine Campbell Whyte, a woman of enduring strength and courage. Horace Gregory found the book a “first-rate romantic novel,” and Jonathan Daniels—who a year earlier had charged that Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel hated North Carolina and “spat upon” the South—had nothing but praise for Gerald Johnson. He had “written about” what “he loves.” But Davidson, if he read the novel, made no comment. He never gave Johnson his due. He never even forgave him as he forgave W. J. Cash. “Let’s turn him loose,” Davidson declared of Cash at the end of his damning review of The Mind of the South. After all, “Mr. Cash” was a Carolina boy who “went to Wake Forest College.” So was Johnson, but Davidson never extended him the same absolution. He never let him go. As late as 1958 he was still attacking him, long after Johnson had left behind the battles of the 1920’s and 30’s.


Gerald W. Johnson never actually stopped writing about the South. He published in 1933 a second novel, Number Thirty-Six, set in the North Carolina of his youth. He also wrote a well-reviewed work of history, The Secession of the Southern States (1933), and in 1937 produced The Wasted Land, a book drawing heavily on Howard W. Odum’s Southern Regions of the United States (1936). He continued to contribute essays to various journals, particularly the Virginia Quarterly Review, on the condition of Dixie. To the end he espoused realism. “For the past seven years,” he wrote in the New Republic in 1960, “the country has suffered less from lack of liberalism than lack of realism. . . .” Four years later he attributed the South’s failure to solve racial problems to its excess of romanticism and lack of realism. Ten years later, at 80, he declared in the Virginia Quarterly Review that unless America faced its problems “realistically” it could not overcome them. “No realist is unremittingly cheerful,” he had written the year before. “I am . . .a man imbued with the black pessimism of Thomas Jefferson.” His pessimism, in fact, never became all-encompassing, and he continued to write until the end. At age 89, just before his death in March 1980, he was struggling to finish what he called “a sort of apologia pro vita sua in the shape of an analysis of the reasons for being since 1890. . . .”

If Johnson was realist until his death, he was also very consciously the Southerner. He had not rejected his birthright when he crossed the Potomac to Baltimore, as some of the Agrarians had charged. He remained not only Southern but conscientiously so. As he once wrote, he was a Southerner who was “a little arrogant” in his demands of the South: “A civilization which I might regard as admirable in Kansas or in Ohio would seem for me woefully inadequate to Dixie. . . . We have built one civilization and seen it collapse; but the standards we created while building it still exist, and they are very high.” In the last two decades of his life he wrote more about the South than he had written since the 1920’s and early 30’s. The South of the 1960’s, like the South of the twenties when Johnson had first flourished, was again at center stage, both sinned against and sinning in an outrageous fashion. One essay in particular, “To Live and Die in Dixie” (Atlantic Monthly, 1960), illustrates perhaps better than any other his continuing identity as Southerner. A critical Southerner, to be sure: Johnson had not changed his belief that the Civil War had been a ludicrous enterprise and that Southern civilization from the 1830’s to the early 20th century had been largely fraudulent. Further, “acceptance of a fraud inevitably involves some deterioration of character.” Yet, had not the South of 1960 “paid in full”? Had not the war, “ten years of military occupation, thirty years of poverty and grinding debt, ninety years of harassment, anxiety, frustration, and moral deterioration” been enough? “What then is the reason . . . for a Southerner’s pride in his birthplace?” Johnson asked. “Why, its difficulties, of course.” “I am a Southerner,” he concluded, “and I want the fact to be known; for the land of my birth is right now enduring the discipline that makes a nation great.”

“To Live and Die in Dixie” was about as close as Johnson came to the kind of intensely personal statement to which his fellow Southern liberals—from Odum to Ralph McGill, James McBride Dabbs, and Lillian Smith—were given. He does not belong, as they do, to a Southern school of shame and guilt. He does not manifest the same fervor to do penance for the sins of his fathers. It is easy, in some respects, to see why Donald Davidson charged that he approached the South with his head, not his heart. In all fairness, one must also acknowledge his shortcomings as an observer of Southern life. He was largely—or at least his vocabulary, formed in the 1910’s, suggested that he was—paternalistic in race relations. But who of his generation was not? And for all his insight into the direction of Southern literature, he tended in the 1930’s to classify the greatest of Southern writers, Faulkner, with T. S. Stribling and Erksine Caldwell and label them “the horror-mongers-in-chief.” But who in the 1930’s did not? He did not appreciate the Agrarians. But neither did they appreciate him. He shared, finally, some of the limitations of his fellow Carolinian Cash—principally a tendency to view the entire South from a distinctly Tar Heel point of view. Darkest Mississippi seemed at times as foreign to him as the Congo of his early imagination.

But how he understood his South—which also happened to be Cash’s. Who else in the 1920’s knew and expressed better what the South needed in order to regain the true spirit of inquiry it had lost about 1840? It needed courage, even irreverence. And, as he said of Sir Thomas Browne, how he could write! One is tempted to consider what might have happened if Johnson, like Cash, had spent his entire life contemplating the South; whether, if he had not moved to Baltimore, he might have written something like The Mind of the South. He had all the component parts in his essays of the 1920’s, but he was not, like Cash, a one-book man. He was not even, like his friend Odum, a one-region man. But when he did look South from Baltimore in his later years, he did not—as he had sometimes appeared to earlier—deny the heart. He only, at times, distrusted its excesses. He well understood his own situation. “Even those [Southerners] who fled from the intellectual sterility of their early environment,” he wrote at age 70, “realize that its emotional wealth is prodigious; they may be able to think almost anywhere else, but nowhere else can they feel as intensely, so they are aware that their voluntary exile is not all gain.”

At times, in Johnson’s later years, there existed a poignancy in his looking South from Baltimore—and in seeing the South come North. In April 1968, two days after the murder of Martin Luther King, Baltimore erupted in flames. “As the hands of the clock moved past midnight ushering in Palm Sunday,” Johnson wrote, “I stood at a back window of my house and watched Baltimore City burning. . . .” He did not remark on the fact that the fires were fueled by the rage of the descendants of those very Negroes who, like Johnson himself, had come up from the South in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He did, however, mention that Baltimore had “to reach down into North Carolina and Georgia for troops” to put out the fires. He seemed, in his writing of the incident, to be what he had rarely been before—bewildered, even helpless. The events of the 1960’s—the assassinations of King and the two Kennedys, the war in Vietnam—had made the “incredible tale” that Johnson had proclaimed the first half of the twentieth century now appear tranquil and normal. But he must, too, have viewed it all at least partly with Southern eyes. Racial conflict, violence, failure in a ridiculous war: his Southern experience had prepared him for these. “Baltimore howled like a Congo jungle,” he wrote. Madness was “prevalent in both races.” It was urban, not rural, but it was not unlike the darker side of the South—of lynchings and Kluxers and labor violence—that Johnson had left behind in the 1920’s. The South had come North with him. Johnson was, above all, an ironist, and surely the thought did not escape him.

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


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