Skip to main content

The Southern Mind

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

The Mind of the South. By W. J. Cash. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.75.

DURING the last several years I have heard at times that Mr. W. J. Cash was writing a book on “The Mind of the South.” I confess I have never believed anybody could say anything worth saying on a subject so complex, so obscure, so apparently hopeless. Who could believe there is any such thing, much less write a book about it?

Southern customs and traditions have been treated in more or less segmental and fragmentary fashion in numerous books, The frontier, the plantation, aristocrats, yeoman farmers, poor whites, and Negroes—all have received attention in Southern history and biography. But whether there has been a more or less commonly shared and continuous mental pattern throughout Southern history no one until now has attempted to say. The existence of a Southern tradition has been asserted, but only asserted. Never has a tradition or a “mind” been set forth in its origins, its contradictory phases, its transmutations—ever-changing yet forever remaining recognizably the same, Mr. Cash has set out to do this job, and in my opinion he has done it with brilliant success.

Time, geography, climate, staple crops, the Negro, the actual experiences and the legends of the frontier and the plantation, the conflict with the Yankee, industrialization and education in the New South—all have given the Southern mind qualities peculiar to itself. It may be said that basically there is no difference between the Southern and the New England or any other American mind, that given the same environments all will respond in the same way. Clearly there is much truth in this view. For individuals it can be proved to have happened over and over again. But even if this is admitted, it does not in the slightest affect the validity of Mr. Cash’s argument. He, I believe, would be the first to admit that if the constellation of time and circumstance in the South had been different, the Southern mind would be something else, not what it is.

I shall try here to summarize Mr. Cash’s representation of the Southern mind. I find this difficult to do, and to me it is significant that this should be so. I cannot bring myself to quote the summary Mr. Cash gives at the end of his book of the best and worst qualities of the Southern mind—some-how it does not do justice to his discussion. The real difficulty is that no one, not even a Southerner, not even a professional one, can believe in the thing baldly stated. It must be seen little by little in detail, otherwise it is not merely somewhat silly but utterly impossible, The first settlement in Tidewater Virginia was a primitive backwoods community, with all the hardships and hazards of the frontier plus those of a totally unknown world, an environment wholly unsuited to the talents of the gentry, one in which only those who were able and willing to do constant and hard labor could fare well. Aristocracy in any real sense did not develop for a hundred years, and then it was formed by the families of those who had been able to do successfully the harsh and bloody tasks of the first settlers. Among these were the families of common laborers, redemptioners, and convicts, as well as the more fortunate. Families in the coastal area stemming from the gentry were negligible in number. Even fewer in number were those members of the gentry that followed the frontier as it moved inland.

But if the extent of the Southern aristocracy is mostly legendary, who and what was the Southerner? “Strike the average,” says Mr. Cash, “and you get as the basic Southerner, or, rather more exactly, as the core about which most Southerners of whatever degree were likely to be built, an exceedingly simple fellow—a backcountry pioneer farmer or the immediate descendant of such a farmer.” The dominant trait of his mind was an intense individualism. He would set up government wherever he went, but then he would limit its powers to the barest minimum essential to the existence of the social organism. He had to be self-reliant, and his success in self-sufficience bolstered his feeling of lordly self-certainty.

When he acquired a plantation, he also acquired quickly, easily, and naturally the manners and habits associated with aristocracy, and his sons and daughters would discover they had always belonged and thus would enlarge, elaborate, and propagate the legend of Southern aristocracy. Those who were not so fortunate accepted their lot as in the nature of things, but without regarding themselves as of lower caste. The traditions of the frontier saved them from this. Personal courage, physical power and daring were more valued than wealth and rank. The same plantation that brought distinctions of wealth and rank also brought the slave, that “vastly ego-warming and ego-expanding distinction between the white man and black.” Not only was the common white “not exploited directly, he was himself made by extension a member of the dominant class.”

Nor was the feeling of closeness to the inhabitants of the big house entirely unfounded in reality. “The very marrow of this tradition of the backcountry,” says Mr. Cash, “was a sort of immense kindliness and easiness . . . of men who have long lived together on the same general plane, who have common memories, and who are more or less conscious of the ties of blood.” This feeling led to development of the paternalistic pattern in which “Yeoman and cracker turned to the planter, waited eagerly upon his signal as to what to think and do . . . because he was their obviously indicated captain.”

The individualism of the backcountry and the plantation world led to a “bald, immediate, unsupported assertion of the ego,” to “great stress on the inviolability of personal whim,” to “chip-on-the-shoulder swagger and brag,” to “its corollary . . . the perpetuation and acceleration of the tendency to violence which had grown up in the Southern backwoods as it naturally grows up on all frontiers.”

From the Southerner’s extreme simplicity, Mr. Cash shows other characteristics flowed: tendencies against realism and toward romanticism, hedonism, devotion to rhetoric and oratory and splendid gesturing. And along with all this the Southerner also was likely to be a Puritan. Argument with the Yankee, war, and Reconstruction served to raise these qualities into sharp relief in Southern character, and to give them tremendous vitality in legend as well as in reality.

After Reconstruction, Southern leaders saw the necessity of industrialization and education. These could be expected to work against or at least to alter most seriously the leading qualities of the Southern mind; but in spite of all fears, industrialization, education, Progress have been assimilated, have been fitted into the pattern which remains essentially the same.

It would be possible to argue with Mr. Cash at almost any point in his book. But the whole thing to me is convincing, even though the validity of details here and there may be subject to serious question. My guess is that this book will afford material for discussion for years to come. And that, too, will have its effect in fixing and continuing the pattern. I doubt whether the thing can be ended by anything short of a cataclysm that will engulf the South and all Southerners.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading