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The Journalist as Interpreter of the South

ISSUE:  Winter 1983

HL. Mencken’s ferociously satirical attack on the South was launched on a small scale when an attenuated version of “The Sahara of the Bozart” appeared in the New York Evening Mail on Nov. 13, 1917. But it was not until 1920 that “Sahara” made its first major penetration of the region when it appeared as a more comprehensive vituperative essay in the second of Mencken’s appropriately entitled series, Prejudices. Although Mencken found almost nothing worth sparing in the cultural desert of the South, either by way of its small “c” anthropological culture or its capital “C” Culture of Arts, Letters, and Sciences, his denunciations bypassed the whole field of journalism and the popular press, except for an occasional reference to, or quotation from, a newspaper story that reinforced a condemnatory point about the desiccation of Southern social structures and the sorry state of the arts and learning in the South. Since he indicated that after James Branch Cabell had been counted one could not find a single Southern prose writer who could actually write, perhaps the practice of journalism and its news products in the South were simply beneath even Mencken’s profound contempt: had Mencken not been the kind of journalist he was—an intellectual imperialist who took the entire realm of symbolic expression and moral and political action as his territory—one might have attributed his failure to lambaste Southern journalism to an oversight caused by the relatively modest standing of journalism among the civilizing arts. But modesty did not impose many constraints on Mencken in any of his filibustering expeditions, so it is difficult to conceive of his underrating his chosen profession in this way.

Whatever the cause of Mencken’s failure to castigate journalism evenhandedly with all other intellectual pursuits in the South, this neglect (or oversight) compounds the irony of his critical relation to the intellectual history of the South. The most obvious irony is that within the decade following his devastating depiction of the South as a hopeless American wasteland, the Southern Literary Renaissance was underway, although its full recognition and national and international influence came somewhat later.

A more subtle irony is this: even though the bard of Baltimore ignored Southern journalism and journalists in his sweeping condemnation of the South, it was those very journalists (along with a few editors of “little” magazines) who responded most readily to Mencken’s call to arms against the boobs, barbarians, and Philistines allegedly desecrating the region’s sacred soil. Most noteworthy, of course, were Gerald Johnson and Wilbur J. Cash. Both were to take their points of departure from Mencken’s corrosive satirical style, and for a time were so derivative that they even wrote imitatively in his idiom. Johnson remained pretty much fixed in that pattern, but Cash, in The Mind of the South (1941), transcended it, at least in part, by giving a profundity and theoretical comprehensiveness to his interpretation of how the South had come to be a land of such poverty and paradox, of so many myths and prejudices.

The Mind of the South also added another dimension to the more strident impressionistic critics of Southern culture in the Mencken mode. Although never developed as fully as the negative portrayal, a sense of Cash’s deeply rooted attachment to the South runs through many passages of the book, not only tempering the brittle Menckenesque satire, but also indicating that even the excesses of Southern behavior come from springs of emotion that, brought under more rational control, are capable of contributing as much to the good of the South as they have to its faults. In brief, Cash acknowledged the inherent individual and social virtue in elemental, if often abused, characteristics of the Southern mind-set that are now regarded as regional assets—individualism, personalism, raw courage coupled with a sense of honor, etc. The love-hate relation Cash had with the South has since become so common among Southerners who write about the region that it may appear banal. But among the detractors and defenders of the South of the 1920’s and 1930’s this was not the case, and it may have been part of the reason The Mind of the South was almost as favorably received inside the South as it was above and beyond the Mason-Dixon line.

Although The Mind of the South is considerably less than a balanced account, and it is no longer regarded as the demythologizing scripture it once was, neither has it been displaced as a critical exegesis of the formation of white Southern consciousness between the Civil War and World War II. The point is that this seminal interpretation of Southern mind and manner came from a journalist.

In the interim between Mencken’s unsparing attack and Cash’s deliberate (and infinitely more complex) exposition of the Southern white mind, the literary renaissance had proceeded apace. By 1940, Southern creative writers and literary criticism emanating from Southern sources were on the way to occupying the preeminent position among American men and women of letters that they held throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s and into the 1960’s, and from which they have not been effectively displaced by any subsequent literary movement or combination of movements. Although not without its own critical or countercritical side, the Southern Literary Renaissance was solidly grounded in concrete Southern experience, history, tradition, myth, and image. Certainly the revival of Southern letters was partly a defensive reaction to a long-established pattern of disparagement of the South (and hitherto evoking a standard response) that grew out of the typical war victor’s writing of history and reenacting it symbolically to the advantage of its own self-image. But it was much more than that, because the literature of the South from the 1920’s onward, although provincial in its setting of time and place, as well as in its characters and metaphor, was universal in its moral and social implications.

Although it reached its apogee somewhat later than the literary manifestation of the revival of a distinctive Southern culture (both big and small “c”), it might be suggested that Southern journalists generated a regionally based renaissance in the middle years of the 20th century that is comparable to, and in some ways complements, the Southern Literary Renaissance. Perhaps it would have received greater attention had Mencken vented his spleen on Southern journalism as he did on Southern literature. We do have a recent acknowledgment of sorts that Southern journalists did indeed come to dominate American journalism generally in the 1960’s even more clearly than Southern writers had ruled the American republic of letters a bit earlier. I refer to Norman Podhoretz’s article “How the North Was Won” in the Sept. 30, 1979 New York Times Magazine. Although he sometimes merges Southern creative writers and critics with journalists in strange ways, Podhoretz is concerned to show how ambition, drive, writing skill, and a turning of the tables on the North relative to the liberal credentials of Southern journalists (including bona fides as stringent critics of Southern economic, political, and racial practices from the inside) moved a bevy of Southern journalists into prime editorial positions with leading newspapers and magazines. And one might add to the list a substantial set of names of those who infiltrated the news division of the radio and television networks.

For present purposes, however, this outside manifestation of a Southern journalistic renaissance is less important than the development of a distinguished journalism within the South that extended beyond newspapers to the production of books that furnish penetrating interpretations, both critical and constructive, of the South as a social, cultural, and political entity. Those who participated in the capture of the North may not be fully a part of this development for reasons that the writer, George Garrett, has described in a biting way: “There are those,” he says, “like Willie Morris and Larry King and Tom Wicker and Marshal Frady, who have gone North and have actively joined the establishment, establishing their own impeccable liberal credentials by denouncing the worst excesses of Southern life (often confirming stereotypical liberal suppositions in doing so) while managing to preserve something of the Southern style for themselves. This is, in effect, the ironic contemporary equivalent of the gesture called “pulling wool” or “Fully Wooly” (in some parts of the South) whereby certain sly black men ingratiated themselves with their oppressors by acting out the part already assigned them with gusto and enthusiasm.”

It is not possible, of course, to do justice to the indigenous journalists who stayed in the South and contributed in one way or another to our understanding of the South through their commentaries on the way the South shaped their personal identities and developed or extended its own distinctive cultural identity as a region within the larger American nation. To do so would require that we go back in time to the country editors, as Thomas D. Clark has done, to show the personal and local community character (together with the regional defensiveness) of that type of journalist. We would also need to return to Henry W. Grady and the rise of Southern urban journalism, with its progressive New South connotations. A return to the origins would also require touching on the Southern editors who moved from local journalism into national public life, and would include such figures as Walter Hines Page and Josephus Daniels. When one ponders these and many other possibilities, it is easy to see how much room there is for work in this large field of intellectual and social history.

At this point both the topic at hand and the confinements of time and space require that examples be made to suffice when a survey might be more satisfying. The three examples that follow were chosen to provide a rough sketch of sociopolitical types among Southern journalists who are also noteworthy interpreters of the South. One, Hodding Carter, Jr., was a small town publisher drawn from what might be described as the patrician element of the deep South. He combined some measure of the paternalistic past with a mild economic progressivism and a much more egalitarian attitude in matters of race and religion. The second, P.D. East, was a radically individualistic Populist type whose attitudes on race were uniquely unorthodox. My third example, James Jackson Kilpatrick, is the best-known of the three today, being both a syndicated columnist and frequent television commentator. The former editor of a major urban newspaper, he is a legal abstractionist, a social conservative, and something of an economic libertarian.


Hodding Carter, Jr., perhaps the most eloquent, and certainly the most prolific writer of reflective books on the Southern experience among 20th-century journalists, was far more complex than he is usually considered to be. Like the South that nurtured him, he eludes classification according to standard (oversimplified) social, psychological, and political categories. Because of his identification as one of that small band of Southern spokesmen who led the fight against the extreme segregationists during the civil rights crisis of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and because he opposed the exploitation of wage earners and natural resources in the South as the price Southern business and political leaders were willing to pay neocolonial industrial forces from outside the region for economic development, Carter is usually perceived as a straightforward socioeconomic liberal. But neither his image of the South nor his identification as a Southerner could be forced into that Procrustean ideological bed even when, during his own time, ideas conforming to the special meaning attached to the term “liberal” by Americans seemed the dominant influence in intellectual and political circles that counted as centers of power in other sections of the country. One had only to see him in the late 1960’s in the left-liberal setting of an Eastern university to realize how puzzling this anticipated hero from the benighted South was to a nonSouthern audience. His surface simplicity, his courtly manners, and above all, his rhetorical style, which was critical without being condemnatory and drew on a fund of humorous stories filled with particularized and personified smalltown and rural images, were in striking contrast to the overintellectualized and abstract modes of thought expressed in an uncompromisingly militant and humorless style that completely displaced even the moderating remnants of Hubert Humphrey’s politics of joy among Northern liberal intellectuals. To those who knew Carter only by public repute as the courageous civil rightist he in fact was, he appeared strangely antiquated in such a time and place. To those who knew both him and his books, he was a man whose consciousness had been formed in a Southern context in which values were firmly grounded in a tradition that was not simply reducible to the Southern romantic, Southern realist, or general liberal stereotypes.

Hodding Carter was a descendant of a prominent south Louisiana family. In 1932 he lost his job with the Associated Press in New Orleans. The closing section of his letter of dismissal explained that, while Carter had some good qualities, he “. . . would never make a newspaperman, and . . . ought not to waste any time getting into another business.” He thereupon removed himself to Hammond, Louisiana, where his father had settled on a moderate tract of family land left from a vast holding acquired by earlier generations. Hammond is in the cutover small farm section of eastern Louisiana (the toe of the boot), located between the Mississippi and Pearl rivers and known as the Florida Parishes. The Carters were reasonably well-to-do and locally prominent, so Hodding Jr. had been brought up in that semirural environment inhabited largely by an extended family and neighbors who enjoyed a good, if not ornate, life. With the help of his family and his wife Betty, he took over a throwaway mimeographed advertiser, which he converted into a four-page tabloid daily that was to become a successful small-town newspaper, the Hammond Daily Courier.

Carter’s notoriety expanded beyond local confines when he became an implacable journalistic foe of the Huey Long regime and thus one of the prime objects of Long’s unremitting and repressive attacks on the opposing media. After four years in this embattled position, and having survived continuous threats and a boycott, as well as Huey Long himself, without total disruption, the Carters accepted an invitation (backed by the necessary capital) from a group of prominent residents of Greenville, Mississippi to edit and publish an independent and responsible newspaper in that Delta town. Although Hodding Carter’s reputation expanded to national and international proportions, the small-town newspaper that he always referred to in the first person possessive as “my” Delta Democrat-Times (even after Hodding Carter III took over as editor) remained for the rest of his life the firm journalistic base from which he operated.

In his later years Hodding Carter was in continuous demand as a writer and lecturer, out of which he managed to produce a distinguished series of books. The settings and the themes of his magazine articles and books are in and of the South, and, even when his historical materials extend beyond his life span, as in The Angry Scar, he brings a personal touch to his interpretation that demonstrates how historic memory can literally be absorbed into the writer’s immediate consciousness. Like Faulkner, Welty, the Vanderbilt Fugitives and Agrarians, and other contributors to the Southern Literary Renaissance, Carter worked within a cultural tradition in which the continuity of human experience had been preserved in mytho-poetic form and was opened to moral exploration and recasting through the critical and creative imagination. His style is simple, yet graceful, and unfolds in flowing cadences that reflect the tradition of oral communication in the South. Not only are his images concrete, but when he deals with ideas they are imbedded in, rather than abstracted from, the natural or social settings out of which they have been evoked. The rational and the affective are blended in his writing in a way that recalls Allen Tate’s formulation, “knowledge carried to the heart.” If the exponents of the “new” journalism bothered to read Hodding Carter, they might discover that the values he extrapolates from the specific characters and circumstances through which he explores the Southern scene and his place in it have already set a standard that they should find difficult to measure up to. The present context is too limiting to permit justice to be done to the well-integrated corrective image of the South offered in Hodding Carter’s collected works, which are really a series of vignettes that make for a composite whole. Carter’s general perspective may be closer to the paternalistic outlook of his Delta planter and professional friends than the liberal doctrinaire would like to admit. But if his concept of democracy does not exclude social stratification based on the virtues sometimes ascribed too generously to a real or imagined Southern aristocracy—such as courage attended by a sense of honor, family pride, good manners, and a tempered generosity toward dependents—these distinctions could only be justified on the basis of personal merit and never conferred by heredity alone, nor could arbitrary classifications on the basis of race, ethnicity, and similar irrelevant attributes be used to preclude worthy individuals from any social distinction that might be owing and justified. A responsible elite is one thing; a privileged and self-indulgent Bourbon is something else. It is worth noting that William Alexander Percy, an extraordinarily civilized, if anachronistic, man whose Lanterns on the Levee remains the definitive statement of the paternalistic attitude, was one of the Greenville notables involved in Carter’s move to the Delta. Although Carter indicates that Percy should have lived in an earlier century, he also paid him an ultimate compliment when he discovered, following his friend David Cohn’s lead, that “Will Percy was a living saint.” It is also worth noting that what drew Percy and Carter to each other in the first place was the battle that their families had waged against the crude grasp for raw power, and the resulting inhumanity, of Populist demagoguery in the respective forms of James K. Vardaman of Mississippi and Huey P. Long of Louisiana.

In Southern Legacy and Where Main Street Meets the River, Carter defended the differentiated unity of the Southern peoples while reserving the right to criticize the faults manifested in the very attributes through which that unity is maintained. He constantly expressed his attachment to those features of the South that are usually identified as establishing the region’s distinctiveness—its individualism, personalism, emphasis on family, sense of history and place, love of the land and closeness to nature, good manners, unyielding religious commitment, distrust of the abstract, and awareness of the elements of spatial and populational scale that make for humane social relations. He is defensive about his particular place in the face of patronizing attitudes on the part of outsiders toward Greenville, the state of Mississippi, and the South as a whole; and he understands that the Southern experience in defeat, reconstruction, and confinement to semicolonial status and resulting poverty during the heyday of American industrial “progress” contributed to some of the uglier aspects of Southern attitudes and social practices. But he does not resort to what Robert Penn Warren calls “the great alibi” to exonerate the region from moral culpability, and his love for his place and his people is too great to permit him to elide his critical function as a journalist or to fail in his moral obligation to abominate the sins of the South while maintaining a compassion that may lead to the salvation of the sinner.

Perhaps the simplest summing up both of Hodding Carter’s identification with the Southern ethos and his interpretation of the region’s strengths and weaknesses is his simple listing of “Southern Contradictions” in the collection of essays entitled First Person Rural: 1. The South is the seat of an early American culture, yet it remains the principal American frontier. 2. The South contains the nation’s most homogenous people, having shared more important things longer than any other regional group, yet it still holds the largest unassimilated and still unassimilable racial group in the U.S.3. Southerners have a strong love for the land, yet the South contains the largest proportion of landless farm workers and more cruelly wasted land than any other region. 4. The South contains the largest proportionate number of churchgoers, but the implications of Christianity in bespeaking the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God is generally lost sight of. 5. The Southerner is an individualist in matters of rights, honor, and opinion, yet politically and in some of his social thinking he is the nation’s most regimented man. 6. The South is kindly, courteous, and hospitable to strangers, yet intensely suspicious of the stranger who challenges its social, economic, and political paterns. 7. The Southerner is proverbially gentle in manner, yet the statistics on violence in the South top the rest of the country. 8. Southerners are the strongest national patriots, yet are more defiant of national authority than any other Americans. 9. The South has more have-nots relative to haves, and its have-nots are more destitute than those in the rest of the country, yet it has fewer Communists and fellow travelers than any other area. 10. The South takes its politics with more intensity than the rest of the country, yet fewer people vote in the South and more obstacles are put in the way of voting here than anywhere else. Carter recognized that the best things about the South are vitiated in whole or in part by these contradictory features, and that the key to resolving the contradictions lay in doing something about racial issues in terms of a larger conception of humanity. That is why he made much of his critical and constructive interpretation of the South turn on civil rights. Had he lived a little longer he would have rejoiced to note how many of his Southern contradictions had been at least partly resolved for the better. At the same time he would not have been complacent about the way things were going either in the emerging South or the uneasy nation.


Unlike Hodding Carter, who was widely celebrated both in and out of the region for his critically sympathetic interpretation of the South, in which conservation and change played complementary roles, and who was protected in part by that somewhat capricious Southern tolerance for the near heretical aberrations of one of its own, and especially one whose status and associations place him among the elite, the name P.D. East carries recognition only in the narrowest circles. East was raised in the crude and constantly shifting lumber camps of southeastern Mississippi during the 1920’s and 1930’s, when the final acts of depredation against man and nature were being taken by absentee-owned companies whose stripping practices used up Southern labor and raw materials with equal abandon and with no thought of sparing or restoring either. P.D. East, in short, was a poor white— latterly, a redneck—in the most impoverished state in the Union, an adopted child whose kindly foster parents were trapped in an economic activity that offered even less security, let alone opportunity, than sharecropping in marginal cotton country.

In the self-deprecating account of his early life set forth in his one book, The Magnolia Jungle (1960), East presents himself as one foredoomed to failure. He was an indifferent and often obstreperous student, a natural victim of both a cruel early employer and some of his peers, a disgruntled and unsatisfactory railroad employee, and a psychological misfit in the army, whose psychiatric problems extended well beyond his medical discharge. But through these accounts run two threads of meaning. The first is a stubborn resistance against all attempts to bind East’s will to any sort of socially or institutionally imposed conventions. The second is an emerging propensity to evaluate the worth of a person strictly on the basis of his own experience with that individual and to ignore abstract social distinctions related to race or ethnicity. The first of these attitudes accounts for a nonconformity in P.D. East that at times approaches an alienating, nearanarchic, and certainly eccentric, individuality that is one of the sources of his talent for the grosser forms of satire. The second arises in the context of his experience with two individuals, one a black man of sybaritic spirit and the other an itinerant Italian peddler, each of whom befriended the lonely boy without patronizing or exploiting him.

East had some partly expressed youthful ambitions of becoming a writer, perhaps a journalist, so in the wake of his occupational failure in the early 1950’s he organized two moderately successful labor union papers, and in 1953 he extended his more or less tentative career to small-town newspaper editing and publishing when he established a weekly in Petal, Mississippi, a hamlet across the Leaf River about three miles from Hattiesburg. The Petal Paper was for a short time well received by the local population, and appeared to be a ticket to upward social and economic mobility and civic respectability for East, whose passing attempt at conformity led to the purchase of a home in Hattiesburg, owning two cars, and joining the Kiwanis Club.

But P. D. East was a morally driven man, whose internal restraints could no more control his tendency to react explosively against moral and political obtuseness than Flannery O”Connor’s God-obsessed character, Haze Motes, in Wise Blood, could contain his self-destructive acts of resistance against the religious compulsion that continued to plague him despite his rational repudiation of faith. East’s selfinterested identification with his advertising clientele in Petal disintegrated rapidly in the face of the extreme reaction to the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation in the public schools in the 1954 case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. As Mississippi resistance mounted by way of radical legislation and state constitutional amendments providing for such drastic remedies as the closing of public schools, formation of White Citizens Councils (the uptown version of the Ku Klux Klan) throughout the state, the revival of the Klan itself, and various other organized or spontaneous obstructive tactics ranging from litigation to outright violence, The Petal Paper was steadily transformed into a vehicle for a one-man counterattack. The mode of East’s response was satirical, all of it broad and some of it as earthy and frontier oriented in its imagery as the early 19thcentury humor of the old Southwest. There was not much subtlety in P. D, East’s prose, and the ragging was done in a way that maintained a facade of news, editorials, and advertising characteristic of an ordinary weekly. The problem was that the paper became a single-issue organ that did not command a vestige of local support by way either of subscriptions or advertising. Although his subscriptions had never exceeded two thousand, anyway, and the cancellations in Petal and the near vicinity were made up by new subscribers scattered throughout the South and the country at large who were in bemused sympathy with East’s quixotic sallies against real, if elusive, enemies, the loss of advertising revenue that was not replaceable in the pamphlets that East continued to produce and distribute put him in as precarious an economic position as his social position in Petal already was. As Mark Ethridge said in the foreword to The Magnolia Jungle, “How he lives nobody knows except himself and perhaps his wife.” One of the great ironies was that East was so extreme a case of the raw frontiersman hacking away at the jungle around him in an effort to cut a path to civilization and a “. . . clearing so that all of us could look up and see . . . the face of God” that, as he put it, “few persons could tolerate . . .” him. The distinguished curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, for example, wrote a revealing letter to one of the references suggested by East in his second application for a Nieman Fellowship in journalism. He noted that East baffled the selection committee, whose members really could not figure what he was up to and for what purposes he might use the Fellowship. In the end Louis Lyons seemed to come down on the side of abstract orthodoxy when he noted that there were several candidates who were “. . . doing a good job against the climate of the segregation belt and who want earnestly through studies to strengthen their own understanding to cope with this vital issue in their own communities.” Since that was exactly what P. D. East said he wanted to do in his application, one might draw the conclusion that the committee would have been happier had a redneck who did not subscribe to stereotypical Southern racial attitudes or to any of the ordinary methods of carrying on the battle over racial issues not applied for one of their prestigious fellowships. One could report other instances in which East’s appeals for help drew applause but no payments, and on one occasion his very appearance—he is described as having been a tall, heavy, and gangling man—caused a black community, individually and collectively, to go incommunicado in response to East’s efforts to make contact with a distinguished local black leader who waited in vain for East to reach him.

East’s unorthodoxy consisted largely of exaggerated examples of those traits usually identified as typically Southern: moral (if not quite religious) fundamentalism, radical individualism, a tendency to regard individual dignity as a matter of personal honor, a refusal to submit to authority even when it took the form of mild social pressures, a sense of the absurdity of life, and the sort of comic realism that is pervasive in Erskine Caldwell’s novels about the poor white farmer and mill worker. At the same time, what P. D. East wanted for himself, his family, and his friends and neighbors was so typical of the aspirations of Southerners and Americans generally that it is only when we see him ridicule the way these things are denied to declassed blacks, poor whites, and other arbitrarily excluded groups that we realize how simple the goods sought actually are. East holds a mirror up to himself to show his own inadequacies relative to his aspirations, which he then translates into desiderata for mankind: because of his ignorance he wants every human to be wise, his bigotry and prejudice make him wish all mankind to be open-minded and tolerant, his foolishness evokes a desire for universal wisdom, in his poverty he sees the desirability of wealth for all, his personal pride compels a general quest for humility, in his lack of faith he wills an abundance of faith in God and self, and in his awareness of his material being he hopes that every person realizes that in him is a spark of that which men call God.

As a journalist, P. D. East may not have amounted to much in terms of normal measures of success. But we have few interpreters of the South and of Southern identity from the perspective of the poor white, perhaps no journalist of that persuasion except P. D. East, and almost certainly none who took East’s stance on the race issue. Only in his preacher friend Will Campbell’s book, Brother to a Dragonfly, do we have expression of that particular Southern type comparable to that painfully extracted from East in The Magnolia Jungle.


Measured by the usual American standards of economic reward and public exposure in both print and through the electronic media James Jackson Kilpatrick is one of the South’s and the country’s most successful journalists. A native of Oklahoma, and educated at the University of Missouri, he moved to Virginia in 1941 as a young member of the news staff of the Richmond News Leader, and in 1949 he succeeded the distinguished journalist and historian Douglas Southall Freeman as editor of that paper. From that commanding position Kilpatrick became the intellectual leader of the Southern defense against racial desegregation. As much or more than any other figure, he was responsible for framing the arguments justifying massive resistance as the proper strategy for Virginia and the South to adopt as a way of preserving “the Southern way of life” against the civil rights movement. In fiery editorials that harkened back to the defensive posture with which the South responded to the Northern reform and antislavery movements of the 19th century, Kilpatrick evoked not only the shades of Calhoun in resurrecting the doctrine of Interposition and other legal strategies that were thought to have been put permanently to rest with the preservation of the Union as a major outcome of the Civil War but other and more primitive emotions that were always close to the surface of Southern sensibility as well. In 1957 Kilpatrick published his major treatise on the general subject, The Sovereign States, with a subtitle, Notes of a Citizen of Virginia, that Mr. Jefferson surely would have observed with a certain measured wryness had he been able to see it in mid-20th-century context.

When Governor Lindsay Almond abandoned massive resistance in Virginia rather abruptly in 1959, and even the milder delaying tactics against school desegregation steadily declined in effectiveness, one might have thought that Kilpatrick had been discredited as the theorist of a failed radical movement. As late as 1962, he published a book entitled The Southern Case for School Segregation that may be regarded retrospectively as the summing up of a lost cause rather than a legal brief backing up a strong plea in a viable case. But for so strict a constitutional constructionist and for one seemingly so firm in his ideology, Kilpatrick has demonstrated an unusual adaptability. As J. Harvie Wilkinson III says in his book on the Byrd organization, “. . . Kilpatrick had learned Virginia modes of thought, and he seldom failed to cast his editorial appeals in an irresistibly Virginian way. He was easily one of the most gifted phrasemakers of the national press . . . moreover [he] attacked all forms of liberalism with crusading zeal.” So with a base in a Virginia whose political configuration remained, except for a brief interlude, as conservative (and in some ways politically less attractive) as it had been during the hegemony of Harry Byrd, Sr., and with a facile rhetorical skill in debate and a substantial talent as a writer, Kilpatrick was able to advance his career as a journalist to new heights on the national, as well as the Southern, front. Today he is a senior statesman among journalists, a syndicated columnist, a college circuit lecturer who commands middle-range, four-figure fees, a political commentator in major network coverage of big events, a political pundit on public television, and a former in-house “conservative” on the “Sixty Minute” show. His stock on the conglomerate market of contemporary journalism commands at least an “A” rating.

James Kilpatrick’s portrayal of the South has an artificial or contrived quality about it, despite his unquestioned ability as both a descriptive and analytical writer. For one thing, much of his interpretation turns on abstract legal arguments characteristic of the defenses of states rights that consumed the talents of politicians and Southern men of letters alike in the period leading to the Civil War. Although he makes some passing tributes in his earlier books and essays to the particular experiences that shaped the personal qualities broadly associated with the Southern ethos, he tends to move quickly on from these references to the legal abstractions that in turn relate to social abstractions that the law can deal with in a way that is not applicable to problems of individual moral consciousness and natural social formation by way of family and other primary groups. In this respect Kilpatrick is more a sociologist and legal theorist of the South than a sensitive moral observer, literary artist, or even a social realist.

In his more recent writings Kilpatrick has moved increasingly into a personal, reminiscent mode or style in which he deals with his domestic world and its natural setting from the vantage point of his ostensible country seat in Scrabble, Virginia (he actually lives in Woodville). One might note that the proper noun “Scrabble” is not attended here by the modifier “Hard” as it is when used in descriptive rather than designative cases. From these passing family scenes and accounts of homey neighborhood happenings amid the beauties of rural Virginia comes the romantic side of Kilpatrick’s affinity with the South. Here is the well set up (if adopted) member of the Virginia gentry living a bucolic, slow-paced, and regularized life that recalls a traditional South in which every man was in his proper place, and society, nature, and God were in full harmony.

In his larger public world of the electronic media and the public lecture forum, Kilpatrick often gives the impression of a New South, or even a new national, conservative of the libertarian rather than the communitarian type, with emphasis on economic freedom as the foundation of individual incentive and initiative, leading to growth in productivity, diminution of the power of government, and general prosperity and happiness for all. This expression is indicative of the extent to which Kilpatrick has moved from Southern reaction into the mainstream of the revival of classical economic (libertarian) orthodoxy on the national scene. It may also reflect the extent to which the South, in its newest “developmental” stage has ceased to resist complete homogenization with the nation. If so, the Southern journalistic renaissance, which, like the literary renaissance, was solidly rooted in the distinctive culture of the South and not only contributed to the understanding of that culture but also brought about some salutary changes in it that permitted its best features to reshape, and in some cases eliminate, its worst ones, may be at or nearing its end. The most likely form of its dissolution is submergence by the giant corporate structures (public and private alike) into which publishing and communications, like our other activities and lives in general, have now been organized.


In recent years the South has had a substantial number of journalists who have been able to escape from the tyranny of the deadline and the ephemera of the daily news long enough to write penetrating historical and philosphical interpretations of the moral, social, and political environments within which they developed and, in turn, influenced. It has often been noted that the periods in which great literature appears usually are eras of social and cultural transition. One may make a minor application of this thesis in the case of the post-World War II emergence of a highly visible Southern journalism. Although the civil rights movement was the most dramatic progenitor of the changes and resistance that the journalists responded to in varying ways, even that massive (and still unfinished) effort at social restructuring has to be considered part of the general change from a traditional, mainly rural and agricultural, society to a “modern” urbanindustrial one. And just as the Southern Literary Renaissance was stirred in the 1920’s by the perception of the pressures from within and without the South toward “modernization,” and through fiction and poetry expressed the experience of this change in terms of the tensions it produced in historic memory and moral consciousness, so too did the immediate public harbingers of change prompt the journalists to explore these larger questions in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s.

If one were writing a history of Southern journalism over the past 30 years, the lists of the illustrious, and the less than illustrious, and their respective deeds would be long ones indeed. But the purpose here has been to focus on representative examples of the way journalists in the South perceived their region, particularly in terms of the tension between stasis and change. And this involves getting beyond Mr. Podhoretz’s perhaps exaggerated, but fairly sympathetic, account of the conquest of national (i. e., northeastern) journalism by Southerners, although that particular symbolic manifestation of a journalistic renaissance on the part of Southerners should not be taken lightly in relation to change both in and out of the South.

Our representative sample spanned the traditional spectrum of Southern political types—the Paternalist, the Populist, and the New South Whig, and it touched briefly on the Southern liberals who went North. But regardless of their range of perceptions and degrees of criticism, affirmation, and resistance to, or advocacy of, change in the South, the journalistic interpreters who remained were intensely aware of their Southern identity in relation to the distinctiveness of the South and were concerned (in their widely varying ways, of course) with the delicate balance between conservation and change. Perhaps the best illustration of that common trait is contained in personal comments by, or in relation to, some of the legendary Southern journalists who also wrote classic interpretations of the region. The first was made by Eugene Patterson in 1963 to the editor of this magazine (then with the Southern Regional Council): “The role of an editor like Ralph McGill is to create an environment in which the politician can operate.” The second is a paraphrase of a recent remark by Harry Ashmore to this writer: We did not start out to transform society, said Ashmore in reference to the Little Rock crisis; what we wanted to do was save the community. These aims, which involve the effort to apprehend the meaning of the complex cultural infrastructure of the South and then to advocate ways in which that understanding can best be used to enhance regional life, permeate the major journalistic contributions to the self-interpretation of the South.


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