Posted: February 7, 2014
racy Thompson, a very savvy Southern journalist, has written The New Mind of the South, a title that echoes W.J. Cash's classic The Mind of the South (1941). Cash's graceful and memorable book was distinguished by its audacity in presenting the South's mind as a single and relatively unchanging entity. It was published two years after historian Perry Miller's equally unprecedented The New England Mind. Those two "minds," one aristocratic, romantic, individualistic, hedonistic, and socially irresponsible and the other intensely egalitarian, reformist, religious, idealistically repressive, and public-spirited, are the two extreme forms of American self-consciousness. Americans at their best draw from them both.
The best criticism of Cash's book is that it was not about the mind of the South at all. He quoted Henry Adams with approval: "Strictly, the Southerner had no mind, he had temperament." So he ignored the best Southern minds—from Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun to William Faulkner and many others—as irrelevant exceptions to the temperamental rule of disdain for real thought, and of being easily seduced by Romantic and violent rhetoric. By contrast, the Southern writers who, in 1930, published I'll Take My Stand, an apology for the South and the agrarian tradition, saw in the Southern love of leisure an inclination to find time and space for intellectual achievement and real culture. So Cash's view of Southern continuity was often really a condescending view of the incapacity to change, including the South's passionate aversion to real political deliberation. One piece of evidence that Cash at least exaggerated Southern irresponsibility is Thompson's observation that, despite it all, the South has changed quite radically and quite consciously over the last several generations, and so the mind of the South today is much newer than Cash would have imagined. Amid all the change, Thompson wonders, what has been preserved and what is worth preserving about Southern intellectual identity and imagination?
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Thompson grew up in Georgia and now lives outside of Washington, D.C., and her book ranges easily from memoir to perceptive reporting, with plenty of moral reflection thrown in. She writes against "the Southern genius for living in an imagined past" or its penchant for being ridiculously sentimental in bemoaning the death of chivalry. She sees the antebellum South's admiration of Greek and Roman culture—reflected in architecture especially—as nothing but a way of justifying slavery. She employs some excellent pop sociology in the service of purging the Southern imagination of racism, aristocracy, and misguided individualism.
She does equally well in describing the "slow-motion catastrophe" that continues to destroy the economic and traditional infrastructure that supports civilized decency in the rural South. If the "mind of the South" is basically all about being immersed in the agrarian way of life and having an attachment to particular small towns, then it really doesn't seem to have much of a future. But she denies, not without reason, that "clinging to some particular tract of real estate" is at the foundation of Southern identity. It is, instead, a kind of selective nostalgia for a shared Southern past. In that respect, being Southern is now not about "agrarian culture"—but "agrarian values" detached from that culture. Nostalgia, she notices, is what moves people who have been uprooted and disoriented; there is no Amish nostalgia.
From that point of view, Southern values—found, for example, in I'll Take My Stand—are "a radical challenge to the American worship of technology, progress, and personal fulfillment." These conservative values came from a "complex web of community" that was short on "breadth," but strong on "supplying an overall sense of order and belonging." Though these values are, in truth, "a feature of agrarian life in all societies," they persisted in the South longer than in the rest of the country. Thompson now sees hope that they can be translated to an urban context. These values, after all, also display the ecological concerns of post-materialistic, sophisticated youth, who want to reach a "truce with nature" and free their lives from "a vicious cycle of production and consumption." And it's those "agrarian values" that supply the key part of her criticism of the "aggressively pro-business class" that now dominates the South.
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She also embraces one aspect of Southern aversion to public life or big government. The Southerner finds his place, his social life, at home. And it is the reconstruction of home as "the most ancient foundation of community" that is the promise of the South. So the peculiar tradition of Southern individualism is one reason why the "business first" mentality has produced so much recent prosperity—the individualism was liberated from its agrarian context and tribal and racial prejudices. But another result of this individualism is "suburban sprawl," which is no fit home for anyone. Thompson hopes for a new public approach "to land planning and conservation that draws on concepts of community familiar to an older, agrarian South." One can't help noticing how un-Southern it is to make "home" a public concern, but the virtue of selective nostalgia is the ability to appropriate parts of the past to justify the concerns of the present.
The one good thing Thompson has to say about the antebellum South is that rich and poor, black and white lived in "close proximity." And one good thing about Southern individualism and lack of public spirit is the absence of zoning. Here, in Floyd County, Georgia, it really is true that mansions and trailers are often found side by side in rural areas. Today, however, the suburban South is increasingly full of gated communities, and the rich and smart have fled from rural areas. It's "global capitalism," not political choice, or race, she emphasizes, that's at the foundation of the new residential segregation in the South. The enemy of home—to living as a person whose identity comes from being at home with an extended family embedded in a particular place—is now, more than ever, capitalism. Nobody's bemoaning the effect of "suburban sameness," of commodification and homogenization "on the character of, say, Des Moines." It's the South that stands against the depersonalization that comes with the erosion of community, place, and belonging.
With all due respect to Thompson's observational and rhetorical skills, her defense of public-spirited urban planning and environmental sensitivity seems more liberal or progressive than particularly Southern. It is Southern, on the other hand, to be deeply critical of the vulgarity and other materialistic excesses of middle-class life. And there is a way to view Thompson's sociology from a more political, philosophical, American perspective on the South's defense of human particularity, of the individual, place, home, family, and the personal God.
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To what extent does it make sense to speak of "the mind of the South" as something distinctive—and so better and worse—in our country? To begin with, the South isn't primarily a cultural phenomenon. It has political boundaries, if not exactly a single political boundary. The South is composed of those states whose laws sanctioned race-based slavery in the years prior to the Civil War. Secession occurred on a state-by-state basis. And the states were received back into the United States on a state-by-state basis, if not on their own terms. The South is not that "region" of the country that once called itself the Confederacy, though it is true, of course, that the second political fact that gave "the South" an identity—a mind—was the Confederacy and its defeat.
That defeat was military, but not so much intellectual or imaginative. The "lost cause" isn't really lost; the struggle continues. To be Southern is somehow to be both an American patriot and a rebel, a dissident. Taking a rebel's stand as an honorable—and, if necessary, violent—individual is distinctively Southern. So, as Thompson, says, it's the "obstinate insistence in maintaining a dual citizenship in a nation and a region" that makes a Southerner a Southerner. A Southerner has two political—as opposed to merely cultural—identities.
We can say, following Alexis de Tocqueville, that the South is distinguished by being a huge exception to the generalization that ours is a middle-class country. The American, in general, is a free being who works. But the Southern master prided himself on his leisure, on the freedom given to him by the work of the slaves. And the black slaves, of course, lacked the freedom to work for themselves. Insofar as the South has a distinctive "mind," its foundation is the experience of the aristocratic master and the oppressed slave (oppression, of course, that continued in part under legal segregation). That "mind," Thompson is correct enough to say, is found in people whose bottom line isn't money. The aristocrat believes he is too good to give money a second thought, and the slave has to live with having no hope of ever earning any significant amount for himself.
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From the perspective of the Declaration of Independence, those are experiences to be gotten over. They certainly have nothing to teach us about either prosperity or justice. Air-conditioning and integration, it's often said, have made the South the most livable part of the country. Atlanta became "the city too busy to hate," too busy making money to have time to be guided by the South's prejudiced past. Thompson criticizes Atlanta for its forgetfulness, but isn't that what is required for whites and blacks to come together as members of the middle class? Certainly she mainly criticizes the whites of Atlanta for forgetting to be ashamed of who they were, and middle-class blacks for being too satisfied with who they are.
Tocqueville in Democracy in America means to arouse in us a kind of selective nostalgia for aristocracy. He tells us that the Southern masters had the vices and virtues of any aristocracy. Despite their monstrous injustice, they had the virtue of proudly and generously reminding us that we are more than beings with interests. Neither Tocqueville nor anyone else predicted the way the Civil War would play out, but he did predict, in effect, that one result of the abolition of slavery would be the insistence on segregation. Thompson aptly quotes Tocqueville to the effect that the legal eradication of race-based slavery will be forever insufficient to remove all traces of its existence. Voting in the South can still be explained to some large extent as racial identity politics: the overwhelming majority of whites (in most places most of the time) vote Republican, and almost all blacks vote Democratic. That's despite the many points of personal identity middle-class, evangelical, and Southern blacks and whites share in common.
Right at the Civil War's end, the unjustly neglected Yankee American Catholic Orestes Brownson laid out his version of the contribution of the South to the future of the American mind. The Northern or Puritanical excess, he thought, was in the direction of an abstractly abolitionist humanitarianism, one tending toward the pantheistic deconstruction of all the distinctions that constitute the political, familial, and genuinely religious nature of human beings. The Southern excess was in the direction of a selfish, often apolitical, secessionist, tribal particularism at odds with the truth about the equality of all persons under God. So the individualism of the Southerner is multidimensional and polymorphous; its anti-abolitionism, Brownson writes, is on behalf of securing all particular human places from humanitarian projects to abolish them. It goes without saying that identifying the abolition of slavery with other forms of pantheistic deconstruction humored the pride and served the self-interest of the Southerner. But Brownson was deeply anti-slavery and still saw his proudly secessionist point.
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The Northern and Southern excesses are already present in Tocqueville's account of America's two first foundings—in New England and in Virginia. New England was settled by educated, middle-class family men (who brought their families with them) in the service of making a religiously-inspired egalitarian political idea real. Their achievements on behalf of democratic institutions, universal political participation, provisions for the poor, and universal public education were, Tocqueville reports, both unprecedented and unprejudiced. Much of Thompson's criticism of the South's lack of devotion to egalitarian political reform is Puritanical, which is not to say it's completely wrong. The South really is weak when it comes to public education and indispensable social services.
The Puritans were animated by an egalitarianism without condescension based on the insight that every person is not merely a being with interests, but a being with a unique and irreplaceable soul. The downside of Puritanical idealism was a kind of intrusive idealism that makes every sin into a crime and tramples politically on liberty of conscience. America's high-minded egalitarian idealism from the time of the abolitionists until now is indebted to the Puritanical mind. But so too are all our puritanical, prohibitionist, and progressive excesses—all our politicized moralism that opposes itself to personal freedom and individual rights. Egalitarianism without condescension readily morphs into condescension toward ordinary private lives. No politicized Pilgrim can admire those who are happy merely being at home.
The founders of Virginia, by contrast, were selfish men on the make, without families or class or educated enlightenment, out to get rich quick. They were lovers of individual liberty, to be sure, but not the political liberty of the Puritanical participatory idealism. So it's not surprising that race-based slavery took root there—a get-rich plan that worked. Virginia became dominated by an aristocracy based on slavery, one that included, of course, George Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison.
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Tocqueville reports that it was a lucky break that our leading founders were aristocrats, who limited the intrusive, democratic power of government with individual liberty in mind. Jefferson, of course, held that all human beings had rights, but that didn't inspire in him the egalitarian idealism of the Puritans. He hated, in fact, all forms of Calvinist political moralism, and he opposed to it liberty of conscience and liberty of minds. So even Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, we might want to say, was inspired by the perhaps exaggerated individualism of Virginia. But that draft was improved, of course, by the residually Puritanical members of Congress, who reconfigured "Nature's God" as the providential and judgmental God of the Bible. The Declaration harmonized, so to speak, Virginia's proud and selfish particularity with the personal universalism of New England Christianity. And so the Declaration goes beyond John Locke in its display of a people's political responsibility under God. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln's affirmation of our political Fathers' devotion to natural rights as an anti-slavery creed would have been, by itself, insufficient to end slavery in our country without the neo-Puritanical egalitarianism of the abolitionists. And Lincoln's dedication of a nation to the egalitarian proposition was meant to bring together what's best about the Puritans and what's best about Mr. Jefferson. The Civil War turned out to be victory for New England (and radical Republicans) over Virginia—a victory too temporary and incomplete, however, to free Southern particularity from its distortion by racism. But the good news is that it also failed to destroy what's good about Southern particularity.
After the war, the aristocrats returned to power for a while, but they were displaced, even in their own minds, by manipulative, racist, populist demagogues who were, in turn, often manipulated by Northern oligarchs. Walker Percy, in his remarkable "Stoicism in the South," describes the Stoic Southern mind of these aristocrats, the mind formed by devotion to the classical virtues of magnanimity and generosity, by being a member of a class distinguished by virtue both moral and intellectual, by knowing, as a result, who you are and what you're supposed to be as a free man responsible for yourself and others. A Stoic does right by others not out of love or charity, but so as not to compromise himself by being ungracious to others. The Southern Stoic, Percy claims in quite the Aristotelian fashion, displayed a kind of rare natural perfection in our hemisphere.
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Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.
Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee's character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus's virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn't defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.
And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There's one who becomes "a man in full" by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There's also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor's very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe's novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern "class," but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.
Wolfe, by reminding us that it's barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.
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Cash's The Mind of the South has often been read by Northern liberals as evidence of Southern gullibility and prejudice, as echoing the views of literary hero H.L. Mencken. And Cash does incisively present plenty of evidence along those lines. But his critical analysis is from a Southern and aristocratic perspective. Consider the wonderfully eloquent conclusion to his book, which is often viewed, with good reason, as the whole Southern mind in brief:
Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible, in its action—such was the South at its best. And such at its best it remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism—these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today.
Cash agrees with Tocqueville that what distinguishes the temperament of the South has to do with the virtues and vices of any aristocracy. That means slighting the bourgeois virtues, which are realistic, unsentimental, averse to cruelty, just, and tolerant. The "exaggerated individualism" is what we see in the South in the absence of Stoic responsibility. But there's also something legitimately Puritanical in the just criticism of the Southern states, even or especially today, for not taking social or political responsibility—not taking good government—seriously enough. And the preference for feeling over thought, "the incapacity for analysis," is what you have in the absence of both aristocratic education and middle-class discipline; but Cash is wrong to think analysis and calculation are the whole of thought or spiritual life. So the newly prosperous South is in some ways an improved South, but not improved in every respect. And we can't forget, of course, that urban/suburban prosperity has been at the expense of what has always been good about the rural South.
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Cash did follow Mencken—and Southern Stoics such as the poet William Alexander Percy—in having a very poor opinion of the uneducated individualism and raw emotion of Southern religion. It was, as Will Percy said, for "white trash" and for "Negroes" incapable of ruling themselves. Neo-Puritanical liberal Protestants justly criticize Southern fundamentalism's disconnection of religion from any sense of social responsibility. And the last Puritanical invasion of the South might be considered the civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, having being educated in a liberal understanding of the connection between Christianity and social justice. Cash doesn't try to do justice to Southern black Christianity, and the place of churches and preachers in leading local communities. The "Negro spiritual" always had the double meaning of longing for both spiritual and political salvation.
Puritanical faith lost that double meaning over the years, and religion became associated with solely a sophisticated devotion to social justice. Lost was the "otherworldly" understanding of Christianity as being about the drama of salvation of particular souls. Liberal Protestantism became nothing more than a branch of progressivism—and a particularly condescending and imprudent one. The exaggerated individualism and deep emotionalism of Southern religion has the advantage of focusing on the singular destiny of each of us. It is about personal—not political—salvation. The focus on a salvation that depends on faith and not works is a kind of self-obsession, one particularly repulsive to thoughtful and meritocratic Stoics. But it's one that has kept the focus on the particular connection between the personal creature and the personal Savior, and so it is an antidote to the kind of self-obsession that comes with believing that one's fate is solely in one's hands. It is also an antidote to materialistic self-obsession in emphasizing that the key personal quality is love or charity.
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Unlike the proudly particularistic Stoic, the Southern Christian believes that we're all uniquely and irreplaceably equal under God. And this belief is most fully lived out in the lowest of Southern churches—the holiness church and the Assembly of God (see the Robert Duvall film, The Apostle). One answer to the Puritanical, or progressive, criticism of the South for being weak on public welfare is that it compensates personally by being strong on private charity. Southerners are often astoundingly indifferent to the quality of their public schools, but they lavish loving attention on "Sunday school" and increasingly on (Christ-centered) schooling at home.
So the Southern mind is singularly alive to the personal truth of Christianity. It is home to the religion that Tocqueville hoped would be the foundation to our common morality and a brake on egalitarian hopes for what can be accomplished through social reform. Thompson and Cash both assume that the progress of business and urban sophistication in the South will eventually mean the withering away of fundamental or evangelical belief. They are both biased by the certainty that no enlightened person could believe Christianity is literally true. Thompson predicts, the "old fusion of evangelical religion and Southern culture" has about run its course, which is not a prediction that does justice to the way displaced persons find homes in suburban, untraditional, and aesthetically challenged mega-churches. Still she is right to add that one of the pathologies of the increasingly precarious existence of the lower middle-class in the rural South is the disconnection of persons and broken families from "church homes." And she is right to question the effects of media-driven sophistication on the future of evangelical belief in general.
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Thompson does overlook rather rapid growth in the membership of "orthodox" churches in the South—Catholics, Anglicans (or dissident Episcopalians), and even various "national" (for example, Russian) orthodox churches. For me, a key moment in the development of the Southern mind was Walker Percy's discovery of a kind of American Thomism—through a combination of the Stoic criticism of middle-class materialism, and the Christian criticism of Stoicism (and partial affirmation of the justice of middle-class life). I'm in a position to see a good number of evangelicals experiencing basically intellectual conversions—based on the truth as they see it. This kind of conversion remains, of course, mostly a fairly elite phenomenon. Still, it's possible to see in the South some evidence to support Tocqueville's prediction that the Protestant, evangelical position is an unstable mixture of emotional individualism and personal authority, and so eventually most Americans will become either Catholics (or orthodox/authoritarian/high-theological in the mode of Catholics) or pantheists (see Ross Douthat's book Bad Religion ).
Cash is especially good in seeing how the proud aristocratic manners and morals of the South were, in fact, remarkably democratized. Part of the Southern mind is the mixture of Stoicism, Protestantism, and liberty-loving, place-loving patriotism found in country music (from a narrative view, America's best music). The struggle of democratic gentlemen to have a real future is displayed in the TV classic Friday Night Lights and the recent film Mud. It's very true that I've slighted the contribution of blacks to the Southern mind. But it's not that different from the contribution of the Southern Stoic-Christian generally. President Barack Obama was elevated recently, for example, by having to speak the language of a "Morehouse Man," who is so proud nobody can tell him anything, fearlessly devoted to his duty, and educated to assume a position of leadership in service within his particular community. If you want to find a particularly admirable mixture of Southern Stoicism and Christianity, look to the Morehouse men.
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For Correspondence on this review, click here.