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A Southern Chronicle

The Virginia Quarterly Review and the American South, 1925–2000

ISSUE:  Spring 2000


Since the founding of The Virginia Quarterly Review, one topic has turned up again and again: the journal’s native region. The culture, economy, past, and future of the American South have presented the Review with a constantly changing and yet stubbornly persistent set of anxieties and hopes. To survey the essays on the South that have appeared in these pages is to survey much of the region’s history in the 20th century.

The authors who have written on the South in the Review have been, almost without exception, prominent white liberal Southern male journalists and academics. The adjectives could be rearranged, but they would still describe the same sort of person: a man who occupies a position of cultural authority in a society about which he has some misgivings but to which he remains devoted. Every essay conveys its affection for the South even as it upbraids the region for one fault or another. That sense of complicity and engagement makes the essays humane and modest, passionate and conflicted. It also keeps them compelling after all these years, long after the specific situations they address have faded.

The Review has always counted a reckoning with the South as part of its mission. Its inaugural year of 1925 coincided with the Monkey Trial in Dayton and still echoed with H. L. Mencken’s withering fire on the South. The region was not at its worst off in the 1920‘s—indeed, the First World War had raised cotton prices, towns and textile mills were going up, and the Great Migration was giving a hope to black Southerners they had not experienced since the days of Reconstruction—but the cultural ferment of the 20‘s hit the South hard. The conflict between town and country, evangelical and agnostic, and drinker and dry put the rural, religious, and teetotaling South on the defensive. The fascination with movies, automobiles, jazz, and youth made the South seem farther removed from the mass culture of America than before 1915.The Ku Klux Klan flourished across the country but still retained a Southern cast. The South was moving, but not fast enough and not always in the direction liberals hoped; the place seemed to be defined by its shortcomings. That was why Stringfellow Barr, assistant editor at the founding of the Review, sought “at least one article provocative of intelligent interest in Southern problems on the title page of each issue.” Over the next 75 years, the Review attained close to that average.

The man who wrote the first important essay on the South for the Review embodied much of what would follow. Gerald W. Johnson served as the editor of the Greensboro Daily News and as professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina. He brought a wry skepticism to everything he wrote, a persistent doubt that most people could understand their own best interests much less act on them. Fittingly, he titled his contribution to the first volume of the Review “A Tilt with Southern Wind-Mills.” The essay asked a fundamental question: what could the South do to remove itself from the political inconsequence in which it had drifted since Reconstruction? Johnson’s answer to that question reflected the accepted wisdom of white Southerners in these years. “Of course, all Southerners know what has happened—we have traded in our political principles in return for the privilege of maintaining a white man’s government unmolested by attempts to enforce against us two constitutional amendments adopted in wrath and as irrational as the enactments of furious men always are.” In the eyes of this most modern of Southerners, the 14th and 15th Amendments, guaranteeing the right to vote and civil liberties to all Americans, were simply perverse legacies of Reconstruction. Johnson, like many white intellectuals across the country in the 1920’s, had little faith in democracy in general and no faith at all in democracy for black people. The white South, he thought, faced a stacked deck.

Johnson, however, refused to accept the status quo as inevitability. He noted that the massive migration to the North by black Southerners was changing the national political equation and that “the development of the Negro race itself in intelligence and in social and political capacity” would change other things in time. “But both these forces are in large measure beyond the control of the Southern whites,” Johnson admitted. “Is there nothing we may do toward our own liberation from a position that is, to say the least of it, humiliating?” His answer was dangerous in some corners of the South in the 1920’s: whites should do better by their black neighbors. “Every unnecessary hardship inflicted upon the black South postpones the day when the white South can resume its full membership, political, moral and intellectual, in this union.”

Like the white men who followed him in the VQR over the next 40 years, Johnson called for the white South to change itself from within by treating black people with greater civility. Like many of those men, too, Johnson spoke in a patronizing language of “assisting” the “weaker race to achieve competence in that civilization.” He put the burden on individual whites. “It is conceivable that the Southern states, as political entities, may within a comparatively short time be discharging their duty to their negro inhabitants so conscientiously as to disarm every honest criticism from the North and West,” but even when that era of fairness did come the true problem would remain: “how are people to be made to live up to that ideal in their individual contacts with the negro?”

The standard that Johnson set was so high that it could never be reached. For the South to rise beyond reproach the white Southerner must “become something far exceeding the Californian in tolerance, in sympathy for the weak, in intelligent dealing with the mentally limited, in higher aspiration, in clear vision, in unbreakable resolution, in generosity, in self-sacrifice.” In short, Johnson argued, “if he is not to become a barbarian, the Southerner must needs become something not readily distinguishable from the saints in glory.” Gerald Johnson had established one of the great themes of the VQR’s essays on the South in its first four decades: a longing for a more humane racial order, generated from within the South itself, overseen by enlightened white liberals emulating “saints.”

The other great theme of the Review—the conflict between an emerging modern social order and Southern distinctiveness—appeared in the next major essay on the region. Broadus Mitchell’s “Fleshpots of the South,” published in 1927, addressed two interrelated issues that would preoccupy many subsequent VQR writers: the economic development of the South and the disappearance of the South as a unique region. “It is universal knowledge that the South is making spectacular strides economically,” this native Virginian teaching economics at Johns Hopkins observed. “The question now is whether these great industrial developments will banish the personality of the South as we have known it.” In a tone characteristic of so many of the Review’s Southernists, Mitchell thought the worst could be avoided, that the South could enjoy the best of both worlds. Industrial society would mature and “bring up with it the whole of the South—calm, matured, and, be it hoped, resourceful—for the first time established as a part of the American achievement.” The South could have it both ways; it could be modern and Southern at the same time. Mitchell, like Johnson, thought the key lay in self-awareness and enlightened leadership.

The most heated intellectual debate in the region in the 20’s and 30’s turned around this tension between modernity and tradition, change and stasis. In a much-discussed 1930 volume, I’ll Take My Stand, the Vanderbilt poets and academics who constituted the “Agrarians” called for the South to resist industry and regain the virtues of living close to the land in the Southern tradition. The VQR consistently sided instead with the Regionalists in North Carolina, who emphasized social science and economic development as paths to Southern progress. Gerald Johnson used the Review to level fire at the Agrarians. “Have they never been in the modern South, especially in the sections still completely ruled by agrarianism?” Johnson asked incredulously. “Have they been completely oblivious to the Vardamans, the Bleases, the Heflins, the Tom Watsons, who are the delight of Southern agrarianism? Are they unaware of pellagra and hookworm, two flowers of Southern agrarianism?”

Stringfellow Barr encouraged the North Carolina regionalists three years later with a warm review of their thick collection on The Culture of the South. Like Johnson and Mitchell, Barr criticized the South but resented the North. The South faced two great enemies, Barr thought: the Unreconstructed Southerner, devoted to the Lost Cause and the Klan, and the Unreconstructed Northerner, devoted to notions of moral superiority above the Mason-Dixon Line. “The Unreconstructed Northerner,” Barr noted with undisguised sarcasm, “is able to discuss, though not with much penetration, the Irish problem of the last century, the problem of Ulster today, the Catalonian problem, the Italian Risorgimento, or even Greater Serbia; but he sticks to his point that the only distinctively characteristic things about the South are that it lies south of the North, and is ‘behind’ in its civilization.” Such people would do well, Barr thought, to read the essays on Southern literature, folklore, daily life, and the like in The Culture of the South. Southerners needed to read it as well, however, since they “possess very little authentic information to temper the mythology they dish up for visitors.” Barr spoke with the same self-critical tone so characteristic of the other Southern essays in his journal. This somewhat disheveled book on Southern culture, marked by confusions and vagaries, “is as good a book as we Southerners deserve.”


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