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The South - Changing and Static

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

The Changing South. By William J. Robertson. New York: Boni and Liveright. 311 pages. $3.00.

In the last few years, what with the Fundamentalists busy by day and the Ku Klux Klan fairly active at night, the South has been much in the public prints and that not always to her credit. There have been reports of Bible Leagues, movements to make the world safe for orthodoxy, drives against modern science, and so on and so on.

I, for one born below the Potomac, have found all these phenomena immensely amusing. Here to my mind has been buffoonery so rich, so rare, so beautifully, raised to its highest conceivable amperage, that I can scarcely understand how any civilized Southerner in reasonable health could have failed habitually to laugh himself to sleep at night. Of course civilized Southerners understand these things—know that they are the work of fanatics (little groups, for the most part) who have taken alarm over the fact that the South is being penetrated by modern ideas. Thus, in one sense, the “monkey bills” lately passed in Tennessee and Mississippi were really an evidence of progress: twenty years ago country lawmakers in these states had not heard of Darwin! But to one unfamiliar with the South, such phenomena may require interpretation. What mean these things, an outsider might ask, unless it be that the South is backward, benighted, culturally barren, Cotton Matherish?

Obviously a new book was needed—a book which should sketch the historical background of the Solid South, describe the civilization of the South as it actually is, and give an account of the social forces now making for transformation. This Mr. Robertson has endeavored to do. The result is a book platitudinous in spots, inadequate in some respects (especially the chapters on “Education” and “Literature”), but on the whole accurate, informative, outspoken, and written from a liberal point of view.

Economically and industrially, Mr. Robertson finds that the South has abundantly recovered from the wrack of the Civil War and Reconstruction and built for herself a territory that begins to compare with the best favored sections of the country. But what of the South’s politics, her religion, her educational status, her literature—in short, what of civilization below the Potomac?

Well, as Mr. Robertson sees it, civilization in the South is distinctly undergoing a transformation. True, the South is still static politically, owing to the fear (well grounded in some states) that a local Republican victory would endanger white supremacy. True also, the masses of the Southern people have made little progress in sloughing off their mediaeval theology. But in most respects the South is progressive. She now spends over seventy per cent more per year on public schools than the whole country spent for this purpose in 1900. Money as never before is available for high schools, colleges, and universities. Native critics of the current mores and folk beliefs begin to speak out without hesitation. Never before have winds of doctrine in the late Confederacy blown so freely. Even morons and movie fans are beginning to suspect that the earth may. have been longer a-making than Holy Writ affirms. It is just because of this—just because a spirit of liberalism is getting abroad—that certain old-fashioned orthodox divines have been clamoring for a theological censorship of schools, lest Southern youth be taught to reject the biology of “Moses” and thus sink wholesale into hell. But such Fundamentalist dervishes can no more stay the intellectual advance of the South than Mrs. Partington’s mop could push back the Atlantic ocean.

In short, aside from her political fixation, the South is fast losing the provincialism that has long been hers and becoming an integrated, if indeed not a standardized, part of the American scene.


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