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The South Astir

ISSUE:  Winter 1935

Between 1857, when Hinton R. Helper published “The Impending Crisis,” and 1909, when Edgar Gardner Murphy published “The Basis of Ascendancy,” there was hardly any free and rational discussion, in the South itself, of the fundamental Southern problems. To be sure, a touch of realism got into an occasional newspaper editorial, and once in a great while some unsuccessful candidate for office, his withers wrung, broke out with an uncomfortable truth, but these were only minor eddies in a torrential current, the flow of which was all the other way. During that fateful half-century the Southern people remained immersed in the psychological mists that had arisen from Appomattox. A few simple dogmas sufficed for their thinking, such as it was. Beyond the borders of those dogmas it was an indecorum to go, and even a kind of treason.

I do not argue that what they believed was always wrong; on the contrary, it seems to me that it was sometimes very plainly right, and that at other times it came close enough to rightness for every practical purpose. Plenty of examples will suggest themselves. Consider, for instance, the axiom that all truth, justice, and gallantry were on the side of the South in 1861, with its corollary that the Confederate Army was sans peur et sans reproche. It may be that both of these propositions were open to challenge on this ground or that, but if so their weakness was surely not grossly and instantly apparent. The South actually had an excellent case, both in law and in equity, and if the Confederate Army did not really break all known records for derring do, then it at least made a capital fight against formidable odds, and went down to defeat in the end without shame.

As much might be said for another salient Southern dogma: the one, to wit, to the effect that the blackamoor had to be kept in his place, and that his place was not in the seats of power. Some of the implications of this dogma were decidedly unpleasant, not only to its victims but also to its more delicate defenders, and if it were submitted today to any competent professor of ethics he would probably object to more than one of its premises. But at the time it was concocted it had the soundest of pragmatic sanctions, and one can scarcely blame the survivors of Reconstruction for accepting it without question. The South, in those days, faced a situation that was too menacing to permit any halt for metaphysical parleys. Something had to be done at once to save what remained of the old sub-Potomac Kultur, and when it was done, and appeared to work, the theory underlying it naturally solidified into a dogma.

Unfortunately, liquidating a dogma is always a very tedious and hazardous business. All the fools holler for it loudly, for it saves them the trouble of thinking, and the minority of prudent men find it difficult to think in the din. Such a hollering of fools, with no counter uproar by the prudent, gives the noisiest of the former the appearance of being leaders of opinion, and if they go on long enough that appearance is converted into reality. This is what happened in the South. If there had been only one dogma to liquidate, the prudent might have summoned up their wits and speech, combined against it, and so disposed of it. But the South had a long series of them, ranging all the way from the completely plausible to the downright insane, and it was an almost impossible task to grapple with the whole lot. So no gladiator attempted it, and for long years the fools had everything their own way. Unimpeded, they gradually converted Southern politics into a hollow jousting of mountebanks, reduced Southern economics to the barber-shop level, filled Southern literature with the scents of musk, magnolia, and Jockey Club, and brought Southern theology to such an estate that it began to be almost indistinguishable from voo-dooism. The nadir was probably reached toward the turn of the century. This was the dismal time which saw the emergence of such mephitic shapes as Vardaman and Blease, the stampede to Bryan, the triumph of sentimentality in Southern letters, and the heyday of the evangelist.

How and why such pestilences end is always a bit mysterious. All one can say with any assurance is that there seems to be a law of diminishing returns for imbecility, just as there is for taxes. Over a long stretch of years the general appetite for buncombe and banality looks to be quite without limit, and then of a sudden the byways begin to rustle with whispers of doubt. Such uprisings, of course, seldom if ever originate among the actual folk; they are the artifacts of minorities in the vague regions above. Who, precisely, constituted the minority that began the revolt in the South I do not know, and neither, apparently, does anyone else. Mr. Virginius Dabney has essayed to give some account of it in his excellent work, “Liberalism in the South,” but his narrative is full of obvious gaps, and leaves many questions unanswered. Perhaps the safest thing to do will be to think of it as a revolt of youth, which lives but a day and is almost always anonymous. After 1885 there were plenty of young Southerners growing up who had not suffered the tremendous surgical shock of the war, and were thus immune to its paralysis. Some of them had gone to school in the North, and others had picked up strange heresies out of books encountered in Southern seminaries. A large number, depressed beyond endurance by what they saw and heard all about them, cleared out as soon as possible, but many more had to remain at home, and some of those who cleared out returned afterward. From their discontent, at first so hazy, there arose by slow stages a general suspicion of accepted ideas, and with it a strange tolerance of new ones. People began to say things that had never been said before, and then to write them down and print them. All over the South this went on. In Alabama, as the new century came in, Dr. Murphy began preparing his notes for “The Basis of Ascendancy”; in North Carolina Walter Hines Page made the first draft of “The Southerner” and tried on the discreet false-face of Nicholas Worth; in faraway Columbia University a homesick Georgian, by name Howard Odum, wrote “Social and Mental Traits of the Negro”; and in Virginia a fair and saucy young woman, Miss Ellen Glasgow, heaved her bouquets and party-frocks out of the window, and sat down to anatomize the Tidewater aristocracy.

That this movement, once it got under way, tended to concentrate in North Carolina, was perhaps not surprising. The machinery for operating it happened to be there, and the man-power. North Carolina had a State university that had inherited a tradition of free speech from a forlorn and almost forgotten little Methodist college, and the State itself had long been notorious for its bellicose and often somewhat uncouth independence of judgment. It was less affected by the ancient Southern languors than any of its immediate neighbors, and it had more money than any of them, and hence more assurance. Moreover, it lay at a sort of cultural crossroads, halfway between Virginia and the Deep South, and it is always at such crossroads that new ideas are most plentifully hatched. Some day, I hope, some Southern savant will look into this matter more particularly, and tell us precisely how North Carolina attained to the leadership of the new movement, with a sufficiency of names and dates. For the present I can only note the fact. When Dr. Odum, after ten years of immolation in Georgia, went to Chapel Hill in 1920, and the university there began to publish its realistic studies of Southern problems, the change really got in motion. I remember well how astonished I was myself, and how delighted, when its first fruits reached me. One day virtually all the Southern writing about the South showed the flabby, timorous tone of an editorial in a third-rate newspaper, but the next day there was a flood of new and stimulating fancies, and the worn-out platitudes that had done service for so long began to disappear.

This frank and forthright, and, if you will have it so, iconoclastic attitude has been maintained ever since—not, of course, by all the publicists below the Potomac, nor even by the half of them, nor indeed by a tenth of them, but nevertheless by enough in numbers, and by more than enough in learning and dignity, to make a very respectable party. In brief, there is now in the South a minority of opinion that is quite as enlightened as that to be discovered in any other part of the country. To be sure, it seldom if ever prevails, at least on anything properly describable as a large scale, but that is only to say what is true everywhere else. The important thing is that it exists, and has managed to make itself heard, if not actually heeded. There was a time, and not so long ago, when the roving explorer would have hunted for it in vain, if in fact he could have visualized it at all, but that time is no more. The guardians of the old order, aroused by its challenge to their hegemony, roar violently against it, and all the ancient shibboleths are employed to refute it, but it still manages to flourish, and unless I judge badly, it will gain steadily in confidence and authority hereafter.


Unfortunately, free thought is not necessarily wise thought, and something of the sort, I fear, must be said against some of the ideas which now float about the South. Their proponents, having declared war to the death upon nonsense, begin to fire so wildly that in many cases they also do execution upon sense, and in consequence the strategic effect of their bombardment is much less than it ought to be. I point, for a sufficient example, to the case of the so-called Agrarians, a band of earnest young revolutionaries chiefly resident in Tennessee. There can be no doubt whatever of their good faith, nor of their possession of a certain kind of intelligence. They are patriots in the best sense, and they tackle some of the fundamental Southern problems with eager and adventurous minds, and state their conclusions with great assurance. But only too often, alas, what they have to offer is only a little less absurd than the old balderdash that they seek to supplant.

Their primary error is that of social reformers at all times and everywhere: they conjure up a beautiful Utopia, prove that life in it would be pleasant, and then propose that everyone begin to move in tomorrow. Carried away by their ardor, they overlook the massive detail that it really doesn’t exist, and cannot be imagined as existing in the actual world. How, indeed, could the South, even if it would, go back to the bucolic economy of the days before the Civil War, or set up any other economy of comparable outlines? It is tied to the industrial system so tightly that any cutting loose would have the effect, not of a mere revolution, but of a cataclysm, and out of that cataclysm nothing could emerge save chaos. Certainly it is impossible to imagine an orderly and self-sufficient society emerging. Did it do so in Russia? Far from it. In Russia the attempt to upset the industrial system produced so vast a congeries of evils that it had to be revived at once, and today it dominates the whole of Russian life in a way that would not be tolerated in any part of the Western World. It is childish to deny the existence of the thing itself because its name has been changed. The Russian who slaves away on those melodramatic power dams or in those endless foundries and rolling-mills is ten times the serf that any Southern linthead has ever been, and, since he has no voice in his own affairs, and may not even groan without risking his neck, he seems doomed to sweat in his chains until the megalomaniacal libido of his masters is satisfied, or another cataclysm somehow delivers him. He went into Utopia dreaming of forty acres and a mule, but what he has found there is only a forced job at meager wages, without any intervals for political campaigns, revivals, or strikes. Such is industrialism after it has been reenacted with Marxian amendments.

Certainly it would be silly to argue that the variety prevailing in the South is so bad, or even half so bad. That it needs an occasional overhauling is plain enough, and that it should be watched pretty sharply at all times is also evident, but that it is incurably inimical to the common weal and ought to be abolished forthwith is surely at least doubtful. Strike a balance between its costs and its benefits, and you will find that the latter overtop the former immensely, estimated by any rational standard. It may be, as the brethren say, that it tends to accumulate large and perhaps dangerous fortunes, to give money a preponderant influence in politics, and to foster the growth of a disinherited proletariat; but at the same time it must be manifest that it also tends, in spite of occasional depressions, to increase the general wealth, to set up salutary impediments to demagogy, and to offer a new hope to an already disinherited peasantry. Wherever it has got the firmest lodgment, as in the North Carolina Piedmont, you will not only find a higher level of physical well-being than in the agrarian areas, but also a higher tolerance of ideas. Even the Agrarian Habakkuks themselves are the clients of industrialism, which supplies them generously with the canned-goods, haberdashery, and library facilities that are so necessary to the free ebullition of the human intellect. Left to the farmers of Tennessee, they would be clad in linsey-woolsey and fed on sidemeat, and the only books they could read would be excessively orthodox.

Thus a note of falsetto gets into their revelations of the New Jerusalem. If they argued for the multiplication of subsistence farms in the South, and let it go at that, no one would challenge them, for it is obvious to all that tenant-farming is an unmitigated curse there, as it is elsewhere; but when they add their banal borrowings from the New Masses and the New Republic they greatly enfeeble their case. The New South can no more do without industrialism than the New Russia has been able to do without it. The only question before the house is whether it can be held under such restraints that it will stop short of its cancerous development in, say, New England, Pennsylvania, and the English Midlands, and along the great Russian rivers. It seems to me that there is no impediment to so policing it, given a reasonable revival of the old Southern skill at government. But if, as a part of some new and extra-fantastic New Deal, it is abolished altogether, then the subsistence farming that the young professors pine for will go with it, and the ideal planter of their dreams, sitting comfortably on his own land, will become a kulak hunted down by secret agents and reduced, when taken, to a kind of slavery that no white man in America has ever suffered.

This tendency to overlook obvious consequences and implications is characteristic of a great deal of the current discussion of public problems in the South, as it is of such discussions elsewhere, and it is especially characteristic of the writings of the younger and more radical publicists. They have made the fatal discovery that it is much easier to concoct Utopias than it is to polish the car or wipe the baby’s nose, and so they take a great many leaps into the empyrean, forgetting that what goes up must come down. Worse, they not only run to preposterous conclusions; they also have traffic with very dubious premises, and are not above pulling and hauling good ones to fit their uses. Here the advocates of Regionalism are especially peccant. That they are right when they argue that the South should grapple resolutely with its own problems, and try to solve them in accord with its own best interests and its own private taste, is something that no one will deny. But when they go on to argue, as Mr. Donald Davidson seems to do in a recent article, that it should cut itself off from the rest of the country altogether, then they come close to uttering rubbish. It can, in point of fact, no more cut itself off from the rest of the country than it can cut itself off from the industrial organization of Christendom. Its best interests are bound to be colored and conditioned, not only by the best interests of the North and West, but also by their notions as to what would be good for it, and what it deserves to have. And its canons of taste can no more be formulated in a vacuum than its principles of politics can be so formulated. As Haeckel—a foreigner, and hence a scoundrel—long ago pointed out, the cell does not act, it reacts, and that is quite as true of the cells in the human cortex as it is of the amoebae in a test-tube. When the flow of ideas from without is cut off, or hampered by filters and barriers, then the bubbling of ideas within slows down. That, in brief, was what was the matter with the South during the long half-century after the war. Too many cultural Tibets were set up, and too many survive to this day. Certainly it would be folly to try to get rid of them by surrounding the whole region with new Himalayas.

Mr. Davidson passes as an advanced thinker—and in many particulars his thought is advanced enough, God knows—, but whenever he observes an eye peeping over the Potomac his reaction is precisely that of the Mayor and City Council of Dayton, Tenn. That is to say, he simply throws up his hands, and yields to moral indignation. All Northern accounts of Southern folkways are no more to him than libels invented by atheists in New York, “with Europe beyond,” to afflict a Christian people whose only offense is that they are “believers in God.” It would be hard to imagine anything more naive—save it be some of Mr. Davidson’s grave retailings of the arcana acquired in Freshman History. He seems to believe in all seriousness that the Bryan obscenity at Dayton was a private matter, on which the rest of the country had no right to an opinion. What he overlooks is that it was made an indubitably and even vociferously public matter by the deliberate (if idiotic) act of the very “believers in God” he now defends, and that before it came to an end the whole world was looking on. Having been invited to the show, the world pronounced a verdict upon it, and what that verdict was he may discover by going to Capetown, or Samarkand, or Bogota, and telling the first literate man he meets that he is from Tennessee. Naturally enough, the atheists of New York were in the gallery too, and the accident of propinquity gave them front seats. They hold that vantage still, and there is no way to take it from them. They will be present until the end of the performance, and they will be heard from whenever it is bad enough.

In all the caveats to their catcalls that I have read, including those of Mr. Davidson and his friends, there is a sorry mixture of loose thinking and special pleading. On the one hand is the clear intimation that the New York Antichrists are trying to put down all such performances by a process of terrorization, and on the other is the hint that what they really object to is that the performers are “believers in God.” There is no truth in either theory. The opinion of New York, like that of any other cultural capital, is always immensely tolerant, and you will never detect in it any genuine missionary spirit. It may find the Hinterland, on occasion, uncouth and preposterous, but its disposition is to laugh, not to call the police. The currents of the uplift, in fact, all run the other way. The Hinterland was lately engaged in a grotesque effort to deprive the big cities of one of the immemorial consolations of civilized men, but so far as I can recall no city man ever proposed that it be forced on the Hinterland. As for the late Tennessee spectacle, it was viewed by the cities as a comedy, not as a matter for the grand jury or the Dominicans. Mr. Davidson, with his usual lack of humor, puts me among the New Yorkers, and it is thus probably fair enough, in answer to him, to assume that my position was theirs. If so, then they supported the clear right of the Dayton “believers in God” to give their show unimpeded, and to make fools of themselves as they pleased, I argued to that effect with great eloquence in an article printed in The Nation before the martyr Bryan came upon the scene, and when he arrived and read it, he, let it be known in the town that I was a publicist of high tone.

The fundamental trouble with the Regionalists seems to be that they do not differentiate between a civil right and logical rightness. Starting out from the sound position that any self-contained section of the country should be left as free as possible to frame its own institutions and develop its own folkways, they blunder into the imbecility of arguing that whatever it chooses should be beyond criticism. To be sure, they may not do this consciously, but nevertheless they do it, and the fact is sufficient proof of their general muddleheadedness. Nor do they make any better showing when they undertake to refute what they apparently hold to be the credo of the cities. Mr. Davidson, for one, constantly confuses the quackeries of Greenwich Village with the general body of urban thought. In one of his essays he makes a list of the horrors embraced by the intelligentsia of his imaginary Sodoms and Gomorrahs. It includes “German Expressionism, French Dadaism, the erotic primitivism of D. H. Lawrence, the gigantic fin de siecle pedantries and experimentalisms of James Joyce, the infantilism of Gertrude Stein,” and “all the choicest remains of the literary bordellos of the ancient and modern world.” As one of his chosen Gomorreans, I hope I may be permitted to recall that I was denouncing each and every one of these varieties of trash long before any news of them had ever penetrated to Tennessee, just as I was whooping for an unyielding Regionalism in my native Maryland.


It is not hard to see what ails these earnest but somewhat ridiculous brethren. They are intensely uncomfortable in their brummagem Zion, but they lack the skill and resolution to undertake its reform and sanitation, and so they seek relief for their troubled minds by discovering armies of enemies over the fence. But this is only a device of rhetoric, involving a tremendous begging of the question. The real business before the Southern publicists is not to drive the damyankee back to his theological speakeasies and “literary bordellos,” but to clean up their own dooryard. They are never going to get anywhere by deploring his atheism and immorality, for if he chose to defend himself he could answer very readily that even the naughtiest atheism is measurably more consonant with civilization than the demonology prevailing in rural Tennessee, and that nothing advocated by the customers of Lawrence, Joyce, and La Stein is half so barbaric as the public frying of blackamoors. It shows a poor hand at the dialectic to expose one’s self to such obvious ripostes, yet that is precisely what some of the more cocksure young men are doing all the time. In brief, their ideology is hard to distinguish, in its more lyrical moments, from that of the incense-swingers they have presumably displaced. They show the same old petulance with outside opinion, and the same incapacity for turning it to profit.

Fortunately, these Utopians are by no means representative of the New South. I think they have done some good by urging its fundamental right to solve its own problems in its own way, but when they go beyond that they quickly depart from the visible world, and have nothing to offer save the highfalutin dream-stuff that young college professors are always confecting. What the South needs is not a Brain Trust, but a steering committee of sensible men, and I believe that such a committee is in process of formation. It may never sit down in formal and plenary session, as the Agrarians and Regionalists appear to sit down, but all the same it will function. Indeed, it is functioning already, and by that functioning the old delusions are being forced gradually into the backwaters of the Southern domain, leaving the centers of enlightenment to the free play of newer and better ideas. Such movements always stir the literati before they seize upon men of practical affairs, and it has so happened in the South. No one can fail to note the great change that has come over Southern writers during the past dozen years. At the turn of the century they were still composing librettos for fairy operas, but of late they have been turning with sharp eyes to the actual Southern scene, and some of their reports have certainly not lacked candor. That candor becomes contagious. There is a new spirit all over the South, and it begins to come to grips with reality.

The chief impediment to its proliferation, it seems to me, looking on from a nearby Vienna, is the curious Southern tolerance of theological buncombe and pretension. This tolerance is visible even in so frank and courageous a discussion of the Southern situation as that which one finds in “Culture in the South”; it amounts to a kind of timidity, and to find its match anywhere else in the United States would be difficult. Surely the ecclesiastical mountebanks who led the South into the corral of the Anti-Saloon League and were responsible for the Dayton clown-show hardly deserve any tenderness from rational men; nevertheless, they are treated very tenderly by those whose peace they chiefly disturb. It would be hard to discover any precedent for this attitude in the Great Tradition. Its heroes were mainly skeptics, as skepticism was understood in their time, and they wasted no benignity on sacerdotal privileges and prerogatives. At the close of the Revolution, indeed, the South seemed destined to lead the whole nation toward rationalism. New England, having sickened of Calvinism, had substituted Unitarianism, but something of the old Puritan odor hung about it, and so the Southern intelligentsia would have none of it. But in rejecting this refined and denaturized Puritanism they only brought down upon themselves the pure article, for when the Calvinist revivalists began to be hooted in the North they turned to the South and West, and presently they were doing heavy execution upon the lower orders in both regions. The rise of those lower orders in the South, following the crippling of the aristocracy by the Civil War, is probably to be blamed for the present state of affairs. As they gradually gathered political and social power they amalgamated the various evangelical sects into a sort of state church, and it still flourishes as such in all parts of the South save Tidewater and a small section of Louisiana, and is everywhere full of the impudence and obscurantism that state churches always disclose.

My belief is that bringing it within bounds is the chief job before the leaders of the South today, and that if they proceed with sufficient resolution they will be able to do it. The church itself shows some capacity for moving with the times, and its power at any given moment is probably a great deal less than most civilized Southerners appear to assume. The common people do not respond to its exhortations as docilely as they used to, and its endless exactions and extortions begin to weary them. It still produces enough demagogues to make it a nuisance, but it is also beginning to develop more seemly leaders. I suspect that if a headlong attack upon it were launched, it would quickly suffer a shrinkage of its influence, and very likely break into two discordant halves. Its cargo of worn-out and doltish theology, by Calvinism out of the cults of the jungle, would be unloaded on Mr. Davidson’s “believers in God,” and whatever is plausible in its doctrine and polity might be fashioned into a faith for the more delicate, comparable, say, to Congregationalism. As it stands, it is a hopeless compound of hog-wallow superstition and pseudo-intellectualism, and no one can be polite to it without falling into Mr. Davidson’s difficulty, and appearing to connive at notions and practices that all civilized men abandoned years ago.

Helping to get rid of this incubus is the first task of every enlightened Southerner today. It stands in the way of every free functioning of the mind, and is an impediment to all genuine progress, on whatever plane. I’ll begin to believe in the prophets of Regionalism when I hear that they have ceased to fever themselves over the sins of New York, and applied themselves courageously to clearing the ground in their own Region. Let them begin at home. Prophets have no honor there, but they have a tremendous use.


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