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A Reconstructed South

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

Culture in the South. Edited by W. T. Couch. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $3.50.

The sceptical reader, vainly trying to dodge the endless barrage of “important” and “significant” books hurtled almost hourly at his head, may be pardoned for wincing at the claim that “Culture in the South,” edited by W. T. Couch, is an exceedingly important book. The reader will just have to wince: only a stupid periphrasis could prevent his hearing the word once more, and now. Mr. Couch has miraculously succeeded in getting between the covers of one volume thirty-one essays by as many writers, dealing with thirty-one aspects of human existence in the Southern states. Pretty much every activity to which human beings are addicted has been discussed, with varying competence. Most of the contributors are Southern-born and speak whereof they know; and the others, whether American or foreign, have had excellent opportunities for fruitful observation. No jingo has been allowed to participate, and there is an attempt in every article at intelligent analysis and criticism. It must be evident to the reader by this time, first, that such a joint enquiry has been long overdue; secondly, that it has hitherto failed to appear; and thirdly, that “Culture in the South” is likely to remain for years a point of departure for any future discussion of the theme with which it deals.

This book is overdue chiefly, one suspects, not because nobody perceived the need for it, but because of the unusual difficulties involved in getting it decently done. Even now it is bound to meet a good deal of the criticism that withers without fructifying. There will be the Unreconstructed Southerner, suspicious of any discussion of Dixie that does not glorify its subject. More difficult to cope with, there will be the Unreconstructed Northerner, willing to forgive General Lee his little four-year faux pas but impatient with Southerners who think there is something that distinguishes the Southern states from other states. One is inclined to prescribe for the Unreconstructed Northerner a dose of American history—until one remembers what a large proportion of American history has been concocted by persons suffering explicitly from his disease. The dangers of reinfection appear to be too appalling to contemplate. Personally, I incline to triple the dosage and make the prescription read European history. That might do some good, and would certainly do no harm.

But it is a, persistent disease and it is going to cut down the sale of this book. The Unreconstructed Northerner 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” it in civilization. The European traveller continues to exclaim over the cultural chasm we call the Potomac and to accept as a valid shorthand transcription the explanation that the South is the only portion of the Great Republic that has known overwhelming and bitter military defeat, a victorious Army of Occupation, tribute, and the hypocritical cant to which the vanquished are always treated and presumably will always be treated. Once possessed of that information—and there are Americans who lack even that modicum—the European can understand and pity the South even when he finds it giving itself more pity than it can intelligently make use of, and he finds it easier to understand and pity the South than to understand the Northerner’s failure to understand.

But the Unreconstructed Northerner may yet be reconstructed by events: that is, he may yet be forced to board the Mayflower on an eastbound passage and recognize more completely than he now can, the ties that bind him to the inheritance of tragedy which the “American dream” has denied. This volume on the South can await his reawakening. The Unreconstructed Southerner offers still less obstacle to the task assumed by Mr. Couch. In his more ordinary form, he is doomed to bore himself to death. The real obstacle to any such enterprise as a survey of “culture” in the South, is that apparently it must perforce be carried on by Reconstructed Southerners—that is, by Southerners who have “reconstructed” on their own soil the uncritical progressivism of America instead of reconstructing their own tradition under the limitations imposed by the machine. That Mr. Couch found himself forced to depend on the progressives, is apparent in “Culture in the South.” Except for John Donald Wade’s chapter on “Southern Humor,” which is full of insight and free of literal-mindedness, Josephine Pinckney’s chapter on manners—”Bulwarks Against Change”—and Clarence Poe’s intelligent discussion of “The Farmer and His Future”—except for these and a handful of others, this symposium on culture in the South suffers from having been written by persons without any very extensive culture. The evidence that they lack an extensive culture is to be found, on the one hand, in the fact that the most egregious failures in the book are the chapters dealing with such topics as religion and the fine arts—subjects, that is, which cannot profitably be “surveyed” without the aid of a first-rate idea or two—and in the fact that most of these essays are marked by undistinguished, and even by mediocre, writing. Nor can this defect be discounted as inherent in the subject matter, since Mr. Poe’s paper on Southern agriculture, while it bristies with figures and even charts, is excellently written. Its charm lies in those unusual traits, intelligence, judgment, good humor, and understanding.

Here, then, is a volume on a community’s culture, written by a number of writers, too many of whom are conspicuously lacking in culture. Can this criticism be reduced to a quibble on the title? To a certain extent. There would certainly be less point in the criticism if the exigencies of title-picking in the publishing business had permitted so chilling a title as “Social Survey of the Southern States.” But “culture” is a mighty word; and the Reconstructed Southerners who helped write this book apparently possessed too little conviction about the qualities proper to man, to do more than test their native customs and institutions by the only “objective” standard they knew, the standard set up by American sociology. This, I think, is why so many of these chapters could have found their way less blasphemously into a Survey. For communities deficient in culture, your Survey is the only proper solution, for Surveys do not require the sort of human wisdom which Mr. Wade, perhaps misled by the word “culture,” has gratuitously breathed into his comments on Southern humor.

The fact is, although your Unreconstructed Northerner has not yet heard about it, and would not understand if he heard, one can easily imagine a Frenchman of deep culture finding more culture in the South than in any other portion of the Re-United States, and more culture in Bulgaria than in any or all of these states put together. Mr. Lawrence Stallings once made this distinction, clothing his wisdom as usual in a perverse humor to protect it from the uninitiate— or to protect the uninitiate from his humor—when he said that Americans were wrong to think the South was quaint: it was America that was quaint; the South was merely Balkan. For the Balkans, though lacking in the high standard of living that characterizes an advanced civilization, obviously possess deep and rich cultures. But there! we Spenglerians should not allow terminology to get the better of us, but should admit that by our own canons New York is not only civilized but super-civilized; that Atlanta is doing nicely; that Charleston, South Carolina, though hauntingly beauti-j ful, is far behind but trying; and that Paris and Delhi take second and first booby-prizes respectively. All this by way of wishing vaguely that somewhere in this volume before me there had been an interesting definition—not necessarily Spenglerian, of course—of culture.

Nevertheless, if the reader is willing to forego the volume that still remains to be written on culture in that part of America which developed the plantation system on a slave basis, and wants some clear, level-headed reporting and analysis of how the average Southerner earns his living today, what his practical daily problems are, how his folkways compare with those of other American states, he will find no better guide than this book. It is usually empirical and inductive in its method, and extraordinarily informative. Since, like most natives, Southerners possess very little authentic information to temper the mythology they dish up for visitors, this volume may clear the air. When it comes to interpretation, its success is less striking. But one must begin somewhere. And this book is sure to stimulate controversial interpretation, which in turn is sure to lead to more induction, and to induction of a more imaginative and therefore more penetrating kind. “Culture in the South” is the best book on the contemporary South that has yet appeared. Its confusions are the confusions of the South itself. It is as good a book as we Southerners deserve.


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