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Our Social Revolution

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

Aflame with the industrial revolution that is visiting it, the South has never seemed more brilliantly hosable. Prosperity has quickened the social life until the very winds are beneficent; country-club bonds are soaring; and the night life of the towns is gay, free and scandalous. From the rook club of Sprague Junction to the bridge parties of the fastidious suburbs, there is some form of conviviality: there is a need for laughter, the urge of genial spirits, the heroics of a crowd. Methodism is on the decline, simply because the camp meeting and the revival have proved inferior diversions; a people celebrating their own status are not in the mood for depressing evangelics. Money, of course, is at the root of it. The South has never been so rich, so hilarious, so splurgy. Money is burning its pockets: the golden rewards of bumper crops, the incredible dividends of mill earnings, the premiums of spectacular real-estate deals. The manner as well as the making has been highly dramatic.


Entertainment is thus lavish, and in a spirit of thanksgiving. It may lack the grace and nicety of the Southern hospitality of yore, but it makes up for it in splendor and thrills. Caterers, despised for generations as the last resort of a true Southern hostess, swarm by the dozen; professional entertainers are in as great demand as chiropractors; and the social department of every three-penny sheet is grievously embarrassed with copy. Personals, indeed, are almost as numerous as want ads, and quite as consequential. Gone that ancient fear and prudery of breaking into vulgar print! With the rising noblesse a man is his own best press-agent, and he feels no more timidity at currying initial publicity with the social editors than he would at calling the advertising staff for a rate; in truth, he regards it as good business. In the society of the New South there is this smack of salesmanship, a lack of restraint that somehow overdoes the thing, if it be no more than felicitating one’s host. Ro-tarianism and the uplift have carried over, and enlivened the party: in certain admitted circles today there is no greater lion than the self-made man! If a few members of the old families lift scornful eyebrows and sniff, it is their loss; they are merely depriving themselves of a good time. . . .

And who are the old families, anyway? Well, they are the noblesse, an ever-decreasing circle of the first landed aristocracy that remains aloof, superior and immortally calm above the climbings: they lie back on lineage, on being who they are; a gentleman is born, not made, and no amount of money can command him. Money is a pleasant consideration, of course, but so far no climber, however virtuous and insidious, has won them with gold alone. Occasionally an irresistible charmer has wormed her way in, but, even then, the admission has its philosophical reservations. A scintillating personality, that rare find in any society, is its own raison d’être: who would exclude her would blazon too obvious a defect in his own nature. She is accepted—for the manoeuver is more requisite of feminine subtlety—because she is fascinating, dazzling, clever, intuitively wise . . . all aristocratic ideals in themselves.

Family isn’t everything, of course, but it is enough to make the nobility sufficient unto themselves, and hence esteemed and disparaged. There may be other circles, and gay ones, but none so exclusive, none so authoritative. The society of every thriving Southern town of today comprises four or five, or more groups—sets—all formed as a result of the lock-out, and all chameleon in spirit. They, in turn, attempt a literal kind of exclusiveness, their numbers increasing all the while. The truth is that, though they flout conservatism, the precise omnipotence of the old regime, they cannot resist the temptation to be warily imitative: they are, as yet, not quite sure of themselves.

The old families, last remnant of the landed aristocracy, are, nevertheless, doomed to function as a social group in the new industrial whirl inevitably less and less. They have maintained the status quo magnificently, and yet at an irreparable cost. The young bloods have drifted away in spite of them, attracted to more gala displays, and no group has been elected to fill their places, or to stay them. It is beginning—and rapidly—to require more money than precedence to achieve any degree of social dignity in the most self-centered communities. Two generations of money, unless the aspirant is impossible, usually work the transition. Enough money, under any circumstances, is essential to the dignity of man, but it requires more to “run around,” to dress effectively, to extend the proper courtesies: entertain, play Santa Claus, travel, feign intellectual pursuits. There are a thousand and one costly amenities to observe; anniversary presents, going-away presents, engagement presents, Christmas and Easter remembrances, congratulatory presentations, confirmation presents, getting-sick presents, getting-well presents. . . Where a simple call or a note sufficed in the old days, there is a constant deluge, a veritable miscellaneous shower. Playing Santa Claus, as the local slang has it, is of all leads the most effectual; it is not so subtle but it is fetching: it appears in a Christian light.

There is yet the grand gesture that money affords the pseudo-philanthropist, the public benefactor and dispenser of blessings. A Southern gentleman of the old school, with more money than he knew what to do with, felt a moral obligation to help his immediate fellow-sufferers, his slaves, and as time progressed, his employees, his less fortunate neighbors and compatriots. Obviously—if he were to the manor born—there was no fuss about it; as a responsibility of his superior heritage, he discharged it sympathetically, generously, unostentatiously: he was impelled by no less a motive than noblesse oblige. Today the fanciful entrepreneur, his successor in the cotton mill or the iron and steel industry, strikes a very different pose. He makes his beneficent gifts in sensational lump sums: a subscription to the general endowment of the State university, a contribution to the fund for disabled World War veterans, and more often still, a capital gift to the church—for the purchase of a new parsonage, with a fire-proof garage, the extension of foreign missions, the erection of a commodious baptismal font. Frequently, if civic improvement is the uplift, it takes the form of a donation to the playground committee or a memorial tablet and flagpole for the new stadium. At all events it is front-page news, the subject of editorial comment and the insistent rumor that Mr. So-and-So is a public-spirited citizen, and a Christian gentleman.

Henceforth, if he has the gift of tact, he soon comes into his reward. He becomes a fêted dinner guest, a speaker at Kiwanis, a committeeman, a man of Vision. He is invited to teach a Bible class, and when the Reverend Rector entertains at his annual reception, he is accorded a prominent place in the receiving line. In very short order he is put up at the more prominent fraternal orders, with opportunities to enlarge his clientele at banquets and conventions; politicians begin to consult him on doubtful issues; he is appointed to the stunt committee of the Civitans, and pulls jokes on his superiors. He is graduated from a good worker to a good fellow! He knows all the important people now, and they know him. He is a member of the Inner Shrine, and song-leader at conventions; a member of the Country Club, and plays golf at inter-club tournaments; a vestryman of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church—for, though he regretted leaving the evangelical faith, he feels, somehow, more deeply akin to the Episcopalians. The beauty of belonging to the sacrosanct fraternal orders is that they are the opening wedge for securing larger social activities in the big-convention cities, where social politics are not so circumscribed and dour. It is pleasant to be taken for granted after so arduous a campaign. Southern cities, eager for investors and boosters, are not so snobbish as Southern towns. There is a welcome in at least one of the many sets for a prosperous-looking newcomer who is a good loser at bridge, and who has a creditable line of small talk—the inevitable mark of social experience. There is even competition for him. And he is happy to remain. He takes up his residence at “the club,” installs a private telephone, and is counted in. . . .

Hence it is in Southern cities of the thriving industrial type that the nobility are fast losing their hold. Some of them, of course, are proclaiming themselves good mixers, as they did in the late war, and are yielding certain graces to the upper hundred. But the gesture is both a timid and a guilty one. The Southern aristocrat has never felt the urge of the democratic ideal, the call of Service, the zeal of go-getting. He has never proselyted, uplifted, promoted: he would die first! So, today, his only recourse is to retire, and to regard the whole business as infra dig.


It was the War in all its gaudy aspects that started the social revolution now in progress in the Southern States. Overnight, it seemed, the banquet halls were swarming with saviors, Red Cross workers, Lady Bountifuls, canteen angels in flowing blue veils, lady aviators, chauffeurs, chaplains, teachers, entertainers, ukulele girls, recitationists, volunteers for reception committees, tag days, Y. M. C. A., recreation, Liberty Loan, Belgian Babies, . . . farmerettes. . . . It was, alas, no time to pick and choose. There were bandages—and logs—to be rolled, units to be organized, quotas to be carried over the top. Anybody with an automobile was an asset! Publicity was as free as air. The social column spilled over to the sports page, the front page bristled with dollar marks—the Roll Call of the Red Cross, Liberty Loan! Demure debutantes smiled side by side with Miss Who-and-So and Mrs. Rich-Quick, coworkers in the last great drive. A brilliant reception followed the signing of the last pledge at which Mrs. Rich-Quick poured coffee, and Miss Who-and-So and the season’s debutantes were the charming hostesses. The whole town was invited!

In such wise was the South made safe for democracy. The barriers down, they stayed down, and all the king’s horses couldn’t raise them again. After the signing of the armistice, Mrs. Rich-Quick, who had so competently emulated the noble example set by the glorious mothers and wives of the Confederacy, entertained the members of the reception committee at a most enjoyable bridge luncheon, where it was unanimously voted to organize as the Wednesday Morning Bridge Club, and meet regularly throughout the season. A chairman was appointed to arrange a civic betterment prospectus, and to affiliate with other workers in the city with the view of becoming an active unit in the State Federation of Women’s Clubs. Thus the uplift got its start. Before the protocol was signed, the movement had spread from the towns to the backwoods: the war hostesses remained in power, launching Reconstruction reliefs, drives, campaigns, charities. Always to be depended upon, enthusiastic, patriotic, they flitted from one meeting to another, making speeches, sitting on committees, routing out the women voters, canvassing. There was no job, however thankless, that they refused to tackle. They began to be put up for offices—the scrub work at first: secretaries, treasurers, propagandists in the established clubs. But eventually, having curried only good favor, the surrender was complete. The Athenian Club, highbrow no longer, elects a progressive president, and is forthwith consecrated to Service.

The most aristocratic clubs, the most unscrupulous with the black-ball, have federated at last, and sent their delegates forth to convention where every delegate is created free and equal. The grand dames of the D.  A. R. and the U. D. C. sit with lifted lorgnettes, yet they seldom miss a ballot. Dignified, set and waspish, they would account for their presence on the ground of responsibility to the common herd: their sense of moral superiority has simply been appealed to; they are in no way stooping to conquer, amenable to majority laws, and they are distinctly apart. Yet they come, and they remain to tea! The purely social club, charming and congenial, untroubled by need or purpose, is practically extinct in the South today. The ideal of democracy, vested in the uplift, has spoiled it all. At the most innocent gathering there is always the whisper of a campaign afoot, some new reform to report on, a special delegate bearing challenging tidings to be heard. Hostesses resign the chair to Madam Chairman, and the tea grows cold while a lovely lady with a brassy voice expounds the Child Labor Amendment. There are—actually!—fines for absence, for tardiness, fines for failure to remember one’s fine. Pleasure has thus become a duty, and a duty enforced by law. In the end, of course, evil turns to good: the fines, by unanimous acclamation, are donated to the building fund of the widowed veterans and war orphans. . . .

Hospitality in the true Southern sense of being spontaneous, gracious and unequivocal is sadly a thing of the past; even the lofty gestures of the country gentry are passing into legend. The plantation gathering and barbecue—that state occasion when the whole countryside turned out as feted guests—has long since been subsidized by the go-getters: the Exchange Clubs, the Southside Baptists, Kiwanis, the Elks, the Epworth Leagues. What was once a memorable occasion is now a benefit performance, with ticket collectors and orators on the stand. The negro minstrels have been replaced by a jazz band, the barbecue pits are presided over by cafeteria assistants; the reception committee of hosts, oblivious of their guests, are consecrated to business.

A pity! For the South, of all sections of the country, is peculiarly adapted to the admirable uses of hospitality. The “lay of the land,” the very winds conspire to warm the lazy, grateful atmosphere. The average Southerner, born to it, is sociable by nature, indeed, he is compelled to be. He loafs through the larger part of the long spring and summer days as a matter of self-preservation, and, with so much time on his hands, he is obliged to invite his fellow-sufferers. They seek him, as a matter of course, for the same reason: to break the tedium of hot afternoons, the long twilight of a summer evening. As the seasons changed, in the old days, the entertainment varied. There was the ‘possum hunt, the dove hunt, the rabbit chase, the barbecue, the turkey roast, the watermelon cutting, the duck shooting. Whatever the event, it was a notable occasion for relaxation and recreation. Often the party moved from plantation to plantation, with a rotation of dignified, gifted hosts. Guests came and went as they pleased. Enthusiasm there was, but no pep; passionate denunciation and invective, but no uplift. It came as near, perhaps, as the South will ever experience to an ideal existence. In truth it was the worthy gesture of a beneficent aristocracy.

The evangelical churches are, in large measure, responsible for the phenomenal change. Very early they combined the brotherhood-of-man ideal with Americanism Simon-pure, and raised the Anglo-Saxon barricade at every Southern frontier. Sunday-schools became recruiting stations, the church itself a hub of political, social and fraternal activity. With so much convocation it became almost obligatory to entertain. There were the young people to think of, restless, full of life, appreciative of a good time—any simple, innocent little party would do—anything to hold them. So the Baracca House was hung with crepe paper and Southern smilax, a tea table was spread in one corner, and the cake plate was replenished amid bursts of wholesome laughter. The whole Sunday-school staff, in formal attire, acted as hostesses, making it a jolly home party! In like wise all the auxiliaries and aids and guilds turned out regularly for a social evening: a chicken supper, an oyster fry, a radio party, and—for men only—a smoker! Some of them were benefits, of course, which added even more to the democracy of the occasion, but at none was there any suspicion of social cleavage. All were one big family, all were the flowerhood.

Social notes from the churches, turned in by official correspondents, comprise fully three-fourths of the social news in any well-to-do Southern community, and the authority of the printed “among those present” has proved a gospel in itself. Church hostesses and honorees and donors, formally acclaimed from one Sunday to the next, are soon pressed into Service: a good church worker, a good citizen! Gradually they are taken in—the patriotic home circles at first, such as the Mothers’ Council, the Playground Association, then the more progressive welfare clubs, the literary clubs . . . the luncheon clubs. . . . The final step is achieved one especially bright Sunday, when, without too much hubbub, they are duly confirmed as communicants of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church.


The social eminence of the Episcopal Church in the South, as elsewhere, lies in the fact that it is a non-proselyting faith. A strange parodox! It is restrained, aloof, impartially cool, and hence dignified and subtle. It has a manner, a distinctive air, a certain snobbish holier-than-thou attitude. Its services are marked by solemnity and beauty, incomprehensible media to hoi polloi; in their elaborate ritual they require a special initiation, indeed, a thorough schooling. The prayer book itself is a veritable book of etiquette. Episcopal ladies have their guilds and auxiliaries, it is true, but they are undemonstrative and strictly devoted to the carte du pays. The Sunday-school classes are institutions of decorum, the only evangelical note being the singing of Christmas carols. There is, in addition, the restrained introspection of the Lenten season, with Easter egg hunts ruled off the church lawn; the austere separation of Church and State, as far as petty politics are concerned; the scholasticism of the reverend clergy. Above everything, the Episcopal church is rich, or appears so, and goes back to England. . . .

There has always been a feeling among the Southern aristocracy that a man’s personal habits, his propensities for amour, gambling or the julep, were his own affair. Hell and destruction were his own affair: for an outside body to interfere was somehow unconscionable. The Episcopal clergy, as the phrase is, have always been above such snooping; dogmatize they may, but prosecute never! Furthermore, they speak the King’s English, as gentlemen should. Membership in an Episcopal parish thus came to carry a certain dignity with it. The first families belonged as a matter of course, and the intelligentsia—when they were not the same—and the poor but proud, and the aesthetes. The philosophy underlying their attendance at church was not that they ought to go, but that it was a pleasant exercise, a social obligation. It was not a case of salvation, but of paying their respects to a generous Host. In that gesture, perhaps, they memorialized all there is of social dignity on this earth, certainly in this America: the consciousness of superiority and noblesse oblige, becoming restraint, the freedom from contamination that restraint affords, freedom in the sense of willing, and graciousness withal.

What remains of it in this enlightened Christian era is not always plain to see. The ceremony, perhaps, but it is as if the spirit had died out of it, leaving only the shell of empty formalism. Ostentation has crept in, and money—not so much for the freedom and pleasures it buys, but for its own sake. A few of the old families still occupy their historic pews, but they are rapidly giving place to the new: the reformed Methodists and Baptists and fundamentalists. Even members of the clergy have joined the Ministers’ Union, and when the evangelists streak in town, dash out and nail up tabernacles to receive them. The secret is that there is an increasing number of the evangelical clergy who are seeking eleventh-hour ordinations and charges in the more prosperous dioceses. Reformed though they are, they occasionally revert to type, with a display of their old talents. And yet, in spite of them, the church has held its own. It is still socially superior, elect, fastidious, and it still represents the cream of the flowerhood. The function that it is performing in the New South is that of preserving what is left of the social taboos of past aristocratic generations. Those taboos, of course, had to do with one’s conduct toward one’s neighbor rather than one’s conversion of him: they frowned upon brashness and insobriety and immodesty, just as they smiled upon honor and the chivalrous ideal; they established the dictum that thou shalt not sin against thy host; they extolled the inviolable dignity of the aristocrat; they sought, quaintly, to sublimate justice in honor. In brief, they enforced honor.

What social taboos, if any, are in force in the South today? Few insurmountable ones! True, a man may not commit the major indecencies, murder, robbery, bootlegging, forgery, perjury, and still retain his place in the sun, but the old concept of honor has been greatly modified. Even the outlawry of Republicans, as being a class beneath social recognition, is dying out. Any number of Southern gentlemen, indeed, far from denying it, are professing the deepest admiration for the interests of big business—as opposed to the Underwood tariff—and would vote so if it were not for the fact that they would be practically disfranchised in becoming ineligible to participate in the Democratic primaries. It is not what a man accomplishes so much as what he gets away with: all is fair in love and politics. The South, of course, is getting ahead, and there are prices she must pay for it; she cannot stand back on ceremony, as of old; she cannot afford to be too honest. Transgressions against the social code, for lack of proper introduction, are sad, but failure to bring home the bacon is much worse. Intrepidity in the face of the amenities is lamentable, but when opportunity knocks there are exceptions to the Golden Rule.

The lack of education, the lack of personality or charm, the lack of family—background—are still taboo with the first descendants of the old gentry. Yet, even they are beginning to admit that money helps, or rather it is an asset. How far could one get on money alone? Not very far—in the first generation, that is, in the circle of the reigning aristocracy; but, outside, there are circles and circles, all thriving and pretentious, all stepping stones to a holier hundred. It is not to be expected, of course, that taboos, social or otherwise, should remain static. The protective coloration of one generation will not suffice for another, and the emphasis upon money in a rising industrial society is only the initial attempt at separating the sheep and the goats. The South, in her present prosperity, while discrediting much of the old, has not yet evolved a more heroic criterion. It requires three generations of gentlemen to make an aristocracy!

Meanwhile the uplift attacks the business of education, the last stronghold of Southern conservatism. The old aristocrat, connoisseur though he may be, is no longer secure in his learning. Education—learning if possible—is a matter for democracy, whereby a man may attain a certain social status through his rights rather than his lights. Eligibility has ceased to be a prime requisite in the call to Service. State universities, State normal schools, State institutions of every denomination are turning out ready-made aspirants by the thousands whose social dignity is past inference. The learned aristocrat of the type of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet is counterfeited today by a legion of proud graduates, as little differentiated one from the other as Ku Klux in a parade. What is their ambition, or, more accurately, their Selling Talk? It is to “go big: to rate a million!” They are not so much bent on enjoying the delicacies of this life as they are on acquiring them. Knowledge is pulling power. So the cultured gentleman of the past has given way to the all-around man, the experteer, the specialist, end-products of the higher learning in a democracy. . . . Specialization is the trend of education everywhere, but in the South it is particularly noticeable because it has killed a type that was indeed an ornament to society. Culture, in the old days, far from implying a limitation, evinced an enthusiasm for all learning, all creeds, all sciences. It was not a special technique for go-getting, but an attitude of mind, an unquenchable curiosity, a catholicity of interests. It endowed a gentleman with scepticism and charm. It was his most passionate ego. . . .

Alas, the crusade for right-thinking and education in the South today is producing a very different flower! The old Southern aristocrat, cultured gentleman that he was, has fallen by the way, or rather, he has retired, as a gentleman should, in compliment to his betters. In his stead swarm the getters, the climbers, the good citizens, the boosters, the experteers, the uplifters—all zealous young men—aristocrats of the future. For who, in a just and true democracy, is not of the flowerhood?


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