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The South Faces Itself

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

An American Epoch: Southern Portraiture in the National Picture. By Howard W. Odum. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.50. King Cotton Is Sick. By Claudius T. Murchison. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $2.00. The Industrial Revolution in the South. By Broadus Mitchell and George Sinclair Mitchell. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. $2.75. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. By Twelve Southerners. New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.00.

Dr. Louis R. Wilson, that compiler of sombre statistics relating to the reading habits—or, rather, the almost total lack of them—of Southerners, “sings to one clear harp in divers tones” that the fundamental trouble with the South is that she has never learned to use books as tools. He toys with the idea in many ways. He compiles it into tables of statistics, he illustrates it with graphs and charts, he composes it into monographs and lectures, but the idea is always the same:— books, for the Southerner, are the companions of leisure hours, never the equipment of a workshop. And since Dixie, notwithstanding the widespread impression to the contrary, is a hard-working land, it follows that her reading is strictly limited, both in range and in volume.

Measured by this standard, the four volumes under consideration here, although they are by Southerners, are distinctly not for Southerners. Each of them, in one aspect or another, is charming, but not one of them is light. They represent four attempts to contribute something to the thought of the South, four viewpoints of Southern problems so difficult that they are not even to be approached, much less solved, without hard work. The Southerner who persists in regarding books as toys should hastily draw aside from these. They are not for him.

But for that number—not great, perhaps, but increasing—of Southerners who have learned that books are tools, here are four volumes of enthralling interest. They represent four different lines along which the thoughtful South is fumbling toward a solution of its great and manifold difficulties, four voices speaking out strongly in a land too long dumb. The mere existence of the books would be encouraging, were their quality far below its actual level, for the intellectual effort that went into their production serves to correct the impression that the Confederacy surrendered its mentality along with its arms at Appomattox.

The most striking, although I should hesitate long before saying the most important, of the four is undoubtedly Odum’s “An American Epoch.” This book defies classification, although one reviewer made a neat effort in that line by, calling it an encyclopaedia. What the man has done is to set himself the appalling task of painting a picture of the South as it existed in four successive generations. Dr. Odum is by trade a sociologist; and disguised in the formidable panoply of this arm of the scientific service he has almost entirely escaped detection as the artist he really is.

But in this book he gives himself away. No man who is exclusively the scientist would ever have undertaken so prodigious a labor; and no man who is not an artist, and a fine one, could have come a tenth as near succeeding. The book is in the form first of a dual, and later of a multiple, biography. It begins with two Southerners, one an aristocratic officer in the Confederate service, the other a soldier in the ranks; and it follows the fortunes of the two and their descendants to the fourth generation as they were acted upon by the forces that have tossed and buffeted the South since 1865.

But Odum, the artist, is forever accompanied by Odum, the scientist, the man who took a doctorate in psychology under G. Stanley Hall and then, apparently just for fun, did two brilliant projects, either of which would have deserved a Ph. D., under Franklin Giddings. So the portraiture of the book is punctuated by sudden explosions of statistics, geysers of figures spouting prodigiously; and every line of the portraits is not only, struck in by the swift, sure hand of the artist, but later most scrupulously measured with callipers and micrometer by the scientist. That is to say, although the book is fictional in form, every statement of fact in it is backed up by a mass of documentary evidence formidable enough to overwhelm a jury of twelve good men and true, every one named Thomas Didymus. It is an amazing book.

And now that I have described it with the utmost care, I have, as reviewers not infrequently do, completely omitted all reference to the feature that makes the book. This is the leashed and restrained, but surging, passion of the thing. Here is no product of the laboratory method, in spite of the statistics and documentary evidence; here is no precise, unemotional, cold, scientific study. With no word of exhortation, no word of direct appeal, here is a powerful, impassioned defense of the South by one who loves her greatly because he knows her well.

In striking contrast with this is “King Cotton Is Sick,” by Claudius T. Murchison. The title of Dr. Odum’s book suggests the scientific treatise, Dr. Murchison’s the fantasy. But the truth is the reverse. Murchison is purely the scientist, considering a problem in the science of economics in a perfectly cool, detached, unemotional way. He is aware, keenly enough, that upon the solution of his problem depends the solution of enormous social and personal problems. He knows that the illness of King Cotton has involved bitter tragedy to thousands. But these are not what he has set himself to consider; so, except for passing acknowledgments of their existence, he gives these problems no attention at all.

But what he has undertaken to do he has done remarkably well. In less than two hundred pages he has set forth an exposition of the present condition of the textile manufacturing industry, specifically cotton manufacturing, which is a model of clarity. And an appalling exhibit it is. Without rancor and without enthusiasm, without blame and without praise, he brings into the light of his sharp scrutiny each of the hazards and uncertainties, the illogical organization and unsound practices that have made the industry since 1923 a losing enterprise. In the end, he makes the countless difficulties against which the cotton manufacturer struggles so plain that one is amazed, not that the industry is in a bad way, but that it has survived at all. And his solution is as merciless as his examination of the problem. He believes that the cotton mill man, as we have known him, is done for, and that individual mills must survive as each part of an organization which shall perform, under one management, every operation between the gin and the merchant’s shelves.

No man, in the South or out of it, ought to presume to discuss the problem of the cotton mills until he has read this book. That is my considered opinion of its importance.

The Mitchells present, in “The Industrial Revolution in the South,” a collection of papers written at different times and dealing with various phases of the enormous subject. They are keen observers and excellent writers, and what they have to say is always worth hearing. But their work in this volume is mainly historical, with only an inferential bearing on the future. For the most part, it deals with the problems faced by the operatives in Southern factories; but it is obvious that the solution of these problems must depend upon, not to say wait upon, the problems that threaten the very life of Southern industry.

The most curious production of the four is the symposium called “I’ll Take My Stand,” to which twelve Southerners have contributed. They are John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Gould Fletcher, Lyle H. Lanier, Allen Tate, Herman Clarence Nixon, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, John Donald Wade, Henry Blue Kline, and Stark Young. Most of these belong to what has come to be known as the “Nashville group” more or less closely, affiliated with Vanderbilt University. Except the venerable Stark Young, who has attained the patriarchal age of forty-nine, they are young men; and for that reason what they have to say is worth particular attention, as it might be expected to echo the voice of the South during the next twenty years.

What they have to say is various, as it must be when twelve men are expressing each his own views. But in the Introduction, to which, we are informed, “every one of the* contributors in this book has subscribed,” appear these ideas, which apparently are fundamental in the thinking of the authors of the book:

The evils of our time may or may not be remediable by the methods proposed. But they would not have come into existence except as the consequences of an uncritical industrialism. The obvious way, to remedy them is to call a halt upon industrialism, or even to turn the clock of industrialism backward.

Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian, which does not stand in particular need of definition. . . . The theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.

In other words, Bceotia every, time as against Athens. Tarascon in preference to Paris. Gopher Prairie above New York.

It is no wonder that young men, especially if they are at all sensitive, looking at fairly close range upon such horrors as Gastonia and Marion, should be revolted. Indeed, the barbarities that those two names of infamy recall to mind have turned many pretty tough stomachs. Industrialism as exhibited in Gastonia and Marion deserves every epithet that Bishop Ernulphus and Lars Porsena combined could plaster upon it.

But that the Twelve should turn to agrarianism as a remedy would seem to indicate that their sole knowledge of the South has been gleaned from the pages of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page. Have they never been in the modern South, especially in the sections still completely ruled by agrarianism? 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? Have they never been told that the obscenities and depravities of the most degenerate hole of a cotton-mill town are but pale reflections of the lurid obscenities and depravities of Southern backwoods communities?

If the things that happen under their noses are unknown to them, it is hardly worth while to point out that the fine civilization of the ante-bellum South was already falling into ruin in 1860, and was merely given the coup de grace by the Civil War; and that it was falling into ruin because no purely agrarian polity can maintain a fine civilization for any great length of time.

The best answer that can be made to the authors of “I’ll Take My Stand” is to advise them to read “King Cotton Is Sick.” There they will find that the bogy of industrialism devouring the South is a figment of the Imagination. On the contrary, the slight industrialization which has somewhat relieved the worst horrors of the agrarianism that thirty years ago had all but thrust the South back into the jungle, is itself in a bad way; and the best efforts of civilized Southerners are needed to save it from a long period of bankruptcy, if not from partial extinction.


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