Some 20 years ago in these pages George B. Tindall, in an essay entitled “The Benighted South: Origins of a Modern Image,” discussed the growth in the 1920’s of the “neo-abolitionist” image of a backward, violent South. In the twenties, as he demonstrated, the South put its ills and prejudices on display for the nation to observe—in lynching bees and Ku Klux Klan activity, hookworm and pellegra and child labor, in the Scopes evolution trial of 1925, the anti-Catholic demagoguery of the Al Smith presidential campaign of 1928, the Gastonia textile violence of 1929—and Northern journalists and sociologists flocked south with both messianic mission and devilish glee to tell the rest of the nation about the horrors of life below the Potomac and Ohio. Southern journalists also got into the act, with the result that five crusading editors won Pulitzer prizes between 1923 and 1929.Tindall’s essay was a venture into Southern mythology —which, as he announced in another essay published the same year, was a “new frontier in Southern history.” That frontier had had its early explorers—Francis P.Gaines and, somewhat later, C.Vann Woodward among others—but in the early 1960’s it was still largely open territory. In the 1980’s it is pretty well settled: William R.Taylor and David Bertelson joined Mr. Tindall in the 1960’s as early homesteaders, and since that time Paul Gaston, Michael O’Brien, Richard King, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Daniel J.Singal, and other historians have taken up residence. So have numerous Southern literary scholars, sociologists, and journalists.
I would like to return, however, to Tindall’s insightful essay on the benighted South, for it seems to me that one might view the subject of Southern benightedness somewhat differently in the mid-1980’s than one could in the mid1960’s. When he wrote in 1964 of a benighted South, Tindall was still, to some extent, an inhabitant of that South. The 1960’s was another neoabolitionist decade, with journalists again rushing south—and television cameras, too, this time— to document Southern crimes against progress and humanity. The year Tindall published his essay, 1964, was a particularly violent year—the year of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, of three civil rights murders in Neshoba County, of demonstrations, burnings, and bombings across the Deep South.
In 1985, however, one considers Southern benightedness largely as an historical phenomenon. The South has presumably come up from savagery, and one views the Southern past from the vantage point of Southern equality to the rest of the nation, if not presumed superiority in many areas. The South emerged from the dangerous days of the 1960’s better than it entered, and it has been in a frenzy of self-congratulation ever since. It now looks disdainfully on the old and decaying cities of the once-superior North—now dismissed as the Rust Belt, the Frost Belt. All the derisive belts once belonged to Dixie—the Bible Belt, the Hookworm Belt, the Chastity Belt, all products of Mencken’s imagination—but now Dixie is in the Sun. The South, its numerous champions hold, is the place where America might finally work: an unspoiled land of success, optimism, harmonious race relations and shining new cities. Whether one believes in the new supremacy of the Sun Belt (or whether one even believes that the Sun Belt really has much to do with the traditional South) is not precisely the point. The point is that this new Southern success, even if much of it was imported from the North and West—together with substantial gains in race relations of which the Southern states can justifiably be proud—gives the South a new confidence, makes it define itself in a somewhat different manner. It’s a long way from the Savage South to the Superior South.
And not only does this newest of Souths view itself as superior in many ways—some Southerners have always done that—but even outsiders often judge it to be superior. One recalls the “cultural indexes” used in the 1920’s by Mencken in the American Mercury: the Southern states finished dead last in nearly every category. Statistically—it was documented, scientifically—the best Southern state was a worse place to live than almost any state outside the South. But now look at the surveys and rankings emanating from New York and Chicago. According to Rand McNally, Greensboro and Knoxville are among the very best places to live in the United States. In other surveys, Raleigh-Durham, Winston-Salem, and Atlanta come at or near the top. Brevard, North Carolina, was recently proclaimed the best place to retire to in America, Chapel Hill the most educated American city (with 70 percent college graduates), and so forth. Boosterism is not new to the South—in the 1920’s Dothan, Alabama, pronounced itself the American city of the future—but the difference is that Yankees, using those social and cultural indexes with which they once damned the South, are making these most recent judgments. Dixie is deemed to be warm and pleasant and prosperous: a land of oil, aerospace, agribusiness, real estate, and leisure. It is modern—with shopping malls, amusement parks, chain restaurants and motels, and acres of resort condominiums—but it is modern with the Southern accent: it is reputed to be less frantic, more open and honest, and more genuinely religious than the rest of America. It has symphonies, art museums, ballet companies, repertory theaters—and, since 1966, major league sports.
One should not, in fact, underestimate the power of sport in image-making. Ever since antebellum Southerners George Fitzhugh and Daniel Hundley claimed that the South produced better sportsmen than the North, Southerners have believed that is true and, in the 20th century, have fought some of their most memorable regional battles in stadiums and coliseums. They have won most of those battles. To the television-addicted American who forms images through witnessing crucial victories in prime time, it is clear that Southern universities are the best universities. They produced NCAA football champions in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1983; and, more important as a sign of higher civilization to some of us, college basketball—once an urban game, dominated by St. Johns, CCNY, and Philadelphia’s Big Five and enshrined in Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, and the Palestra—was until this spring ruled by Southern teams. Southern universities were national champions in 1980, 1982, and 1983, and Houston and Virginia reached the Final Four in 1984.True, Georgetown and the Big East dominated collegiate basketball this year, but the South—particularly the Atlantic Coast Conference South—is expected to rise again in 1986.And if Northern imports and black Southerners are the stars on most of these Dixieland teams, that would seem to strengthen further the case of the Southern apologist: Northerners want to come here, and blacks want to stay here.
To contend that the new Southern image is misleading, that it is based on superficiality, is to miss the point. Football standings, not graduate-program rankings, define universities in the public eye. Skyscrapers are more eye-catching than laboratories and library stacks; and when one approaches Atlanta on 1—20 from the west and sees its shining towers 15 miles away, he believes he has seen Byzantium. Certainly, the new image is misleading and attributes to the South a sort of virtue and energy that it does not fully deserve. I do not know who invented air conditioning, but I would contend that he, as much as anyone else, is responsible for the new image of a superior South—and I would bet that he was not a Southerner. Indeed, the South still fares poorly in many of Mencken’s social and cultural indexes, ranking high in poverty and homicides and infant mortality, low in the number of volumes on library shelves. In that state, North Carolina, rated the best place to live, the politics of racism endures. In that city, Greensboro, that Rand McNally ranked the most livable place of all in 1984, the Klan still resorts to violence— although now on city streets, not in cow pastures.
But in a larger sense, Peachtree Street has replaced Tobacco Road, and one cannot deny the power of public relations. Southern is chic, as we are constantly reminded: it is associated with authenticity, unpretentiousness, country music, good times, a slower pace of life. What once was avoided is now embraced: several are the Yankee-born-and-bred Ph. D.’s I know who have taken academic positions in Dixie, fallen in love with its folk culture, and, within a year or two, are not only eating cornbread and black-eyed peas but saying “fixing to” and “might could” and “hey” instead of “hi.” And most of my Southern-bred students at the University of Alabama—the campus where, just 21 years ago, George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door—don’t even know they are supposed to be from a benighted land. They know only that they are from a state that is among the best at what America, circa 1985, seems to prize most—football, religion, beauty queens, and patriotism.
It is, then, this loss of the consciousness of being benighted—or being considered benighted by outsiders; or, in some cases, of ever having been considered benighted—that intrigues me. It is in this way that the Southern temper has radically changed. I am not so foolish as to proclaim on this account the end of Southern distinctiveness. Historical graveyards are full of those who have prophesied in such manner, have insisted that this time we truly do have a different South with us. Hardly are the words out of one’s typewriter than any number of South-watchers (and all of us have a professional interest, after all, in seeing that the South remains distinctive) are reminding us that the prognostication is, at best, premature. So it is not the loss of Southern distinctiveness I am talking about, but rather the demise of one powerful Southern image, the savage or benighted. As that image fades, it is time to take stock of it, time for a summing up, or at least (as this essay proposes to be) a preliminary inquiry. Just as—Richard M.Weaver once wrote—one writes an apologia for a culture and an era just as that era draws to a close, perhaps one should also investigate the origins and long endurance of a powerful perception just as that perception is diminishing.
The image of Southern benightedness did not begin with the abolitionists. It is as old as the South itself, older in fact than any region known as “the South”—and thus two centuries older than William Lloyd Garrison. From the earliest days, the Southern colonies were perceived as being more primitive and violent and (as David Bertelson has shown) lazier than the other American colonies. By the 1630’s it was generally assumed, and not only by New England Puritans, that the settlers of Virginia were deficient in morality and in piety. One early writer attributed the problems of Jamestown to the fact that many of its founders had not “been reconciled to God,” but rather were “most miserable, covetous men. . . murderers, thieves, adulterers, idle persons. . . .” By the mid- 17th century Virginia and Maryland were so often maligned that John Hammond was moved to write Leah and Rachel (1656) in order to refute the assumption that the two colonies were a “nest of rogues, whores, dissolute and rooking persons.” But even Hammond, Hugh Jones, Robert Beverley, and other apologists for the Southern colonies conceded that the early colonists were guilty of sloth. Jones contended that Virginians were “climate-struck.” And William Byrd, writing in the next century, agreed that the Jamestown settlers “detested work more than famine.”
One must begin, however, by acknowledging a certain irony of colonial Southern history: that the slothful, irreligious, and dissolute Southern colonies began as a Southern Eden—a garden which, because improperly tended, proved to be more curse than blessing.”Earth’s only paradise,” Michael Drayton had written of Virginia in 1619; a “Garden of Eden,” William Symonds had proclaimed in a London sermon in 1609, and early visitors to the colony—not always promoters—had described it in similar terms.(New England, by contrast, was often described as a barren wilderness, sometimes—as in Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation—a “hideous and desolate wilderness.”) But in the Virginia Eden lay the seeds of a barbarous South, for the fertile soil, the warm climate, and the long growing season contributed to that idleness about which observers complained, and idleness provided time for dissipation, vice, and violence. Numerous colonial writers found other disadvantages in Virginia’s apparent assets: the warm climate brought “cruel diseases, as swellings, fluxes, burning fevers,” and the prosperous plantation economy soon called for the importation of black slaves. By 1730 slaves made up at least one-third of the population of the Southern colonies.
When visitors in the early 18th century remarked on the great number of Negroes in the Southern colonies, however, it usually was not slavery to which they objected—but rather the slave. As Winthrop Jordan and others have shown, 18th-century Europeans, following Linnaeus’s studies in classifying man, placed the Negro at the bottom of the earth’s people, nearest the beasts. Other commentators, more given to religion than to science, solemnly affirmed that the Negro was the descendant of Ham and bore his curse. In either case, the Negro was assumed to be vastly inferior to the white European and his concentrated presence in the Southern colonies was said to degrade the entire Southern civilization. By the mid-18th century, then—even more than in the 17th—the Southern colonies were associated widely with irreligion, licentiousness, and sexual indulgence. The South was indeed assumed to be savage.
It was not until the 1750’s and 1760’s that writers in any numbers, usually Quakers, began to assert that slavery itself might be immoral—and that the region in which the vast majority of slaves were held was even more benighted for that reason. To these writers, slavery was not simply harmful for the civilization that possessed it; rather, to them, slavery was sin. John Woolman recorded in his Journal his impressions of a journey in 1746 to Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina: “I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this slave trade and this way of life, that slavery appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequences will be grievous to posterity.”
Most Americans, it goes without saying, did not read Woolman and the Quakers, and most in the late 18th century were little disturbed by slavery. But the image of a savage South controlled by dissolute planters was nonetheless becoming prevalent, and that image was increasingly at odds with the mythology of a new nation which had fought a revolution to attack aristocratic privilege and establish a representative government. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not only Northern writers—who were often something other than dispassionate observers during an era when North and South struggled for control of the new nation—but also English and European travelers and residents remarked on the primitive quality of Southern life. Crèvecoeur, Tocqueville, Thomas Ashe, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, Mrs. Trollope—most, particularly the English—found fault with American life in general, but all were critical, often harshly so, of the American South: its violence, cultural backwardness, and general shabbiness and disorder. In Letters from an American Farmer (1782) Crèvecoeur spoke of South Carolina as the richest province in the Northern hemisphere, with “inhabitants. . . the gayest in the hemisphere”: “The rays of the sun seem to urge them on irresistibly to dissipation and pleasure.” Yet, “while all is joy, festivity, and happiness in Charles Towne, would you imagine that scenes of misery overspread in the country? Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, hear nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves. . . .” Crevecoeur then presented a devastating picture of the slave South, a picture harsher by far than those painted by 18th-century New Englanders.
Thomas Ashe, an Englishman traveling along the Western frontier in 1806, found a different sort of benightedness. Southern society was in a state of “shameful degeneracy” and was guaranteed to produce “turbulent citizens, abandoned Christians, inconstant husbands, unnatural fathers, and treacherous friends.” Martineau, in Society in America (1837), similarly painted a picture of a primitive, violent South, degraded by “that tremendous curse, the possession of irresponsible power (over slaves). . . .” Two years later Mrs. Trollope spoke of Southerners as a “people so besotted by their avarice as to be insensible to the sure approach of the vengeance which all others so plainly see approaching them. . . .” Three years later, Dickens wrote of his thoughts as he traveled through Virginia: “where slavery sits brooding. . . there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system. . . . Gloom and dejection are upon all.” Tocqueville, writing about the same time, was in some ways kinder to the Southern states but still could not escape the conclusion that the American South was a doomed civilization: the “evils” of slavery and the “indolence of the inhabitants of the South” were so ingrained that there appeared to be no solution (not even emancipation) for the Southern dilemma.
Demonstrably, then, there existed a powerful and prevailing image of a savage South long before and apart from Garrison and the militant New England abolitionists. That image was deeply rooted before they began to raise their voices in the 1830’s. No one can deny, however, that the anti-South invective was carried to a new level by the abolitionists, whose number, modest before the congressional debate over the Missouri Compromise in 1819 and 1820, began to swell not long after that. Garrison pictured a “blood-stained” South guilty of “driving women into the field, like a beast, under the lash of a brutal overseer. . . stealing infants. . . trafficking in human flesh.” Wendell Phillips described the South as “a daily system of Hell,” Theodore Weld as a society given to “dissipation, sensuality, brutality, cruelty, and meanness. . . .” To the New England abolitionists, as to the 18th-century Quakers, slavery was sin. How would Southern slaveholders and their apologists, asked Garrison, “be able to bear the awful retributions of Heaven, which must inevitably overwhelm them, unless they speedily repent?”
If the voices of Garrison, Phillips, Weld, Lewis Tappan, Gerrit Smith, and other leaders of the abolitionist movement were heeded by few Americans in the 1830’s and 1840’s, and the antislavery newspapers The Liberator and The Emancipator were not widely read, the works of more popular writers—Lowell, Whittier, Harriet Beecher Stowe—carried greater influence. The vivid description in Lowell’s Biglow Papers of the “grasping, over-reaching, nigger-drivin’ States”—or Whittier’s indictment of a Southern system which held “two millions of God’s creatures in bondage,” or Stowe’s depiction of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—moved readers as Garrison and Phillips could not. So did narratives by Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, James W.C. Pennington, and other ex-slaves which became best sellers in the mid-19th century. What reader, in an age of sentimental novels, could fail to be moved by stories of family separation, kidnapping, and beatings—or fail to indict the civilization that sanctioned such horrors?
Another of the many ironies of Southern history is that the Northern perception of a savage South was modified by a war in which Southerners killed and maimed more than a hundred thousand Union soldiers: Southern defeat in the Civil War led to the mythology of a Southern Lost Cause—the death of a noble and gracious civilization—that by the 1880’s and 1890’s was embraced by the North as well as the South. The perception of Southern savagery was not altered immediately, of course. Shortly after Appomattox, the Northern reading public turned eagerly to harshly anti-Southern books by Whitelaw Reid, Sidney Andrews, and J.T.Trowbridge, as well as to numerous articles on the barbarism of Southern prisoner-of-war camps, bitter anti-South essays in Harper’s Weekly, and, somewhat later, Sherman’s Memoirs (1875). But by the late 1870’s, one finds the beginning of an era of regional good feeling, characterized by relative harmony in politics and business and by local color in literature. If this good feeling was occasionally disturbed by Thomas Nast’s cartoons and by the novels of Albion Tourgée and, later, Charles W.Chesnutt (and one can hardly calculate the damage done to Southern pride and honor by Mark Twain), such anti-South expression between 1877 and 1915 was the exception, not the rule. As the plantation school of Southern fiction became popular, the South came to assume the role of a pastoral never-never land in the eyes of a rapidly growing and industrializing North.
North-South hostilities resumed shortly after World War I for a number of reasons. The war opened up the South, and Northern soldiers and reporters who traveled through or were based there returned home ready to talk and write of it. The tenor of the iconoclastic 1920’s—an attack on the provinces that also extended to the Middle West—played a major role in the Southern assault as well. But, most important, the South, through a series of events and atrocities, called attention to itself in so dramatic a fashion as to provoke the wrath and ridicule of Northern reporters and writers. Events such as the Scopes trial were nearly prototypic, bringing to the surface tensions between the South and the outside world and dramatizing what the Northeast considered to be Southern benightedness. As a result, Mencken and the American Mercury, W.E.B.Du Bois and the Crisis, Frank Tannenbaum and Walter F.White (in books entitled Darker Phases of the South and Rope and Faggot), and numerous writers for the Nation arid the New Republic (in essays such as “Mississippi: Heart of Darkness”) reintroduced the notion of Southern savagery. For the first time in great numbers, Southerners joined in the attack. Journalists such as Gerald W.Johnson of North Carolina, Grover Hall of Alabama, and Julian and Julia Harris of Georgia followed the lead of Mencken, and novelists such as T.S.Stribling of Tennessee emulated Sinclair Lewis and ushered in what might now be called the short, touted reign of Southern realism.
When one examines the neoabolitionist assault on the South in the 1920’s, both from within and from without, one finds a curious phenomenon: after a 40-year respite from Northern slings and arrows, the nature of Southern benightedness had appeared to change. The South from its beginnings to the Civil War had been considered benighted because it was reputed to be irreligious, sexually promiscuous, and given to strong drink and inadequate moral seriousness. But in the 1920’s Southern benightedness assumed a different, even antithetical character: to critics such as Mencken, Dixie was benighted, in large part, not because it was irreligious but rather because it was excessively religious; not because it was given to strong drink but rather because it was prohibitionist; not because it was sexually indulgent but rather because it was sexually prudish (in literature as well as in life); and not because it was lacking moral seriousness but rather because it, more than any other American region, possessed a life-denying moral seriousness which refused to acknowledge the aesthetic or any other approach to life. The South, formerly the home of the Cavalier, was now presumed —and not only by Mencken—to be the home of American Puritanism. To what extent had the South in fact changed (certainly somewhat through 19th-century religious revivals and the rise of genteel Victorian culture), and to what extent the point of view of its detractors? What, after all— beyond violence and racial oppression, which were constants both antebellum and post-bellum—constituted savagery or benightedness? Was it a quality to be measured solely through social indexes, and standards of high culture?
This is one of many questions surrounding the perception of Southern savagery, and before bringing my discussion to that second decade of neoabolitionism, the 1960’s, I should like to consider the motivation of those writers who, from the 17th century on, have pronounced the South savage. For one must assume that the reasons for the Southern indictment have gone beyond a hatred of slavery and racial oppression, or even indignation over poverty and anti-intellectualism— since racial oppression, poverty, and anti-intellectualism have flourished outside the South as well. The motivation of black writers—Douglass, Du Bois, Walter F.White, Richard Wright—might appear to be relatively clear: one considers the rage, but also the fascination, of the oppressed for the oppressor. The motivation of English and European travelers might seem equally clear: no matter how intrigued by America, these writers felt culturally superior, particularly to those sections that failed to live up to their idea of civilization—that is, particularly the still largely frontier South.
Even with New England and other Northeastern writers, the question of motivation can be answered at a certain level: the South and New England were economic and political rivals from the beginning, and regional criticism often served larger political ends. And beyond that, has not the Northeastern disdain for the South, at least since 1800, been in part simply an example of the almost universal disdain felt by the populated, industrialized, moneyed, and sophisticated part of any nation for its provinces, its hinterland—the disdain of the Parisian for the rest of France, of the Prussian for the south of Germany, or the Londoner for Scotland or Ireland or the north of England? Such an assumption is complicated, of course, by competing Southern claims to superiority, for many antebellum Southerners in fact considered themselves superior to their Northern rivals, a sense of superiority that, at first at least, was something other than a defense mechanism. Indeed, claims of cultural superiority by antebellum Southerners such as George Fitzhugh and Edmund Ruffin served to infuriate Northern detractors who believed that Southern claims were clearly fraudulent. Southern pride had always been a target for Northern critics. In 1746 John Woolman, on his trip into Virginia and North Carolina, remarked on the “unseemly pride” of the Southern slaveholder. Later commentators from Mark Twain to Mencken liked nothing better than exposing shams and frauds, and they believed they found no greater frauds than in the South. Any civilization that made exaggerated claims for itself exposed itself to charges from without.
But one must consider other factors in the making of the Northern perception of a savage South. To what extent did tensions in Northern society at particular points of social and cultural transition cause Northerners, particularly New Englanders, to look south for targets? To what extent did the image of a cruel, despotic South that emerged in the North in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s rise from the fact that the North, if it was to fight a war, had to convince itself that it was undertaking a holy crusade to rid the republic not only of slavery but also sin and corruption? Finally, to what extent has the South served as scapegoat for the nation’s sins? New England traders, after all, had brought slaves to the American South; New England industrialists and merchants had profited from slavery; New Englanders as a people were hardly immune to racial prejudice; and, in the 1830’s and 1840’s, a condemnation of Southern chattel slavery helped to draw attention away from the “wage-slavery” of Northern factories. One has always looked abroad for ills to be remedied, heathen to be converted: in the early 20th century, at a time when Northern reformers and teachers and public health workers were heading south, the Southern church was sending missionaries to China.
Most important, one must ask to what extent and precisely how the Puritan legacy of New England—in evidence at least as late as Henry Adams—has affected its attitude toward the South: its attitude toward Southern indolence (since, to the Puritans, sloth was sin); toward the lack of regard for community in the colonial South; toward Southern disorganization and social fragmentation; toward a Southern life lived in the country amidst lush nature (since, to the Puritans, towns and cities contained civilization); toward the Southerner’s professed love of leisure and frivolity; toward his tendency to prize piety less than sociability and intellect less than the habit of command; and, finally, toward the Southerner’s presumed inability to put reins on appetite and emotion? To what extent did the Puritan’s horror of sexual license enter in? Was the South, in the antebellum New England mind, tainted both by the presence of debauched, lascivious planter and virile, libidinous Negro? To the antebellum Northern mind, particularly the New England mind, was the South simply impure, unclean?
Remarks by outsiders up until the time of the Civil War would suggest as much. Numerous colonial observers wrote harshly of Southern miscegenation.”The enjoyment of a negro or mulatto woman is spoken of as quite a common thing,” wrote one Northern traveler in 1773.”No reluctance, delicacy or shame is made about the matter.” The rhetoric of those latter-day Puritans, the abolitionists, suggests a preoccupation with the carnality of the South.”One great brothel,” Wendell Phillips called the Southern states. Garrison complained of the “incest, pollution and adultery” in the South, and blasted the slaveholder as “the remorseless scourger of Woman of the South.” Lowell spoke of “the selling of Christian girls for Christian harems.” And so forth. What the abolitionists wrote of the South in the early and mid-19th century was not far removed from what William Bradford, in the History of Plymouth Plantation, had written about the hedonists of Merry Mount. It was not slavery alone to which the abolitionists objected.
But, of course, what I have written above assumes that Puritanism was always in the North, irreligion in the South, whereas, as we have seen, the roles were widely assumed to be reversed in the 20th century. In fact, however, Mencken’s charge that American Puritanism had moved from New England to the South by the 1920’s is suspect—for Mencken never really understood Puritanism, and what he and his fellow South-baiters saw when they looked across the Potomac was hardly the rigorous, intellectual Puritanism of the early Massachusetts Bay but rather, in most cases, a sort of raw Southern Calvinism masquerading under that name. For this reason the revelation of Mencken’s disciple, Wilbur Cash, that Puritanism and hedonism ran parallel in the Southern character is not really so striking as it might at first appear—for the emotional Southern Calvinism of which Cash wrote, a religion of camp meetings and emotional conversions, was really another form of hedonism in itself.
In any case, the 1920’s assumptions about Southern religion, race, and general benightedness remained in force for nearly the next half-century, the difference being that after the 1920’s it was chiefly Southern writers, not Northern ones, who reinforced and popularized the image. After reading T.S.Stribling, Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner, Gerald Johnson announced in the Virginia Quarterly Review of January 1935 that he had witnessed a “Horrible South”: “these are the merchants of death, hell, and the grave, these are the horror-mongers-in-chief.” The new Southern fiction, full of murder, suicide, rape, incest, lynchings, castrations, miscegenation, and insanity, presented a South even more savage than that the abolitionists had described in the 1840’s or the sociologists had turned up in the 1920’s, and Caldwell and Faulkner were hailed in national magazines as Southern “realists.” Thus Southern Gothic had its birth, and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor—and in a quite different way, Lillian Smith—became its leading practitioners in the 1940’s. McCullers and O’Connor relied chiefly on imagination. But when Richard Wright wrote of the horrors of Dixie, in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and the autobiographical Black Boy (1945), he was, to a great extent, writing realism.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s one found much outside Southern fiction to support the perception of Southern benightedness, although it was not until the early 1960’s that the South found itself again in the national spotlight. If at first one sees the 1960’s as a replay of the 1920’s and 1930’s—with Birmingham, Selma, Oxford, and Neshoba County assuming the earlier roles of Dayton, Gastonia, Elizabethton, and Scottsboro—one soon discovers that there was one distinct difference: this time the white South was taking its last racial stand, was about to change for good. Atlanta, a hundred and fifty miles east of Birmingham, recognized the poor public relations of racial savagery and, in conscious reaction to the old image, proclaimed itself “The City Too Busy To Hate.” Hollywood filmmakers in the sixties, however, were still more intrigued with Southern savagery than Southern harmony, and so were most Southern writers. If the 1960’s repeated the 1920’s, Jesse Hill Ford and William Bradford Huie assumed the roles of Stribling and Clement Wood. Ford’s The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones (1965) and Huie’s The Klansman (1967) contained all the old ingredients— murder, rape, miscegenation, lynching—played out against the background of the civil rights movement.
Ford and Huie wrote a sort of neo-Southern Gothic, and that tradition was to continue in the 1970’s and 1980’s in the work of Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, and Barry Hannah. A work such as McCarthy’s Child of God (1973), a tale of murder and necrophilia more lurid than anything Caldwell ever invented—or, in a more contemporary vein, Hannah’s Ray (1980)—assure us that the Savage South still lives in imaginative literature. The problem for the neo-Gothic novelist is that Southern social reality, representative reality, no longer supports this fiction. It never did fully, of course. Even in the 1920’s the South was not so violent, or at least not in the same proportion, as the fiction of Stribling and the early Faulkner suggested it was. But in the 1920’s and 1930’s the writer, observing life around him and himself feeling the pressure of what Cash later called the savage ideal, could easily imagine a South that, in one of its moods, was as savage as the fictional world he created. The 1960’s—with bombings and beatings, Klan rallies and civil rights murders—is the last decade of which that could be said. After that, Southern savagery in literature appears, if not contrived, at least removed from the social base which gives rise to the fiction.
But what has succeeded Southern savagery? “In fact,” George B.Tindall wrote in 1964, “it must be said that the twentieth-century South has not produced a positive and viable myth of its own identity powerful enough to challenge the image of a benighted South.” Has it still not produced that myth? It has not, if we perceive that “positive and viable myth” to be the myth of Sun Belt success—for the Sun Belt mythology, as we have seen, is more imported than indigenous. Neither Donald Davidson nor Wilbur Cash would recognize it. But the South has perhaps produced a powerful positive myth if that myth is, as Leslie Dunbar expressed it in 1961, the promise of the world’s “finest grand example of two races of men living together.”
I move to final considerations. Just what change has the transition from savagery to presumed superiority worked on the Southern psyche—the psyche of a region that had been conditioned by shame and guilt and failure and defeat but is now suddenly considered a success? Is there a kind of benightedness, or at least implied inferiority, in Dixie’s current preoccupation with self-congratulations and positive public relations? Or has the South, in its passion for promotion, simply come full circle? The Southern colonies began, after all, as a paradise for promoters, John Smith chief among them. Now, nearly four centuries later, has the American South—liberated by air conditioning from the heat and humidity which 17th-century observers saw as the source of most of its woes; liberated from its other curse, slavery and racial segregation, by external interference and internal good will—has this South now become the good land its earliest boosters promised it to be? Of course it has not fully. Just as it was never as bad as advertised in its days of benightedness, it is hardly as good as advertised now.
It may appear of little consequence to anyone but Southwatchers, filmmakers, professional Southerners, and readers of modern Gothic fiction, but I am moved to ask a final question: can a superior South be nearly as interesting as a savage one? Can a land of shopping malls, amusement complexes, and resort condominiums hold the fascination that a land of demagogy, night-riding, and lynching bees held? It was surely not a freshly scrubbed South of racial harmony, clean industry, and agrarian piety that Shreve McCannon had in mind when he exclaimed to Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, “Jesus, the South is fine isn’t it? It’s better than the theatre, isn’t it? It’s better than Ben Hur, isn’t it?” Did the mystique of the South rest on its danger, its theatricality, its racial intrigue, even violence? To black Southerners and others whose lots have improved in proportion to the decline of Southern savagery, this would appear to be a frivolous question indeed.