The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, AUGUST, 22, 1937
Mirror To The South
-- A Reflection, by W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: A familiar theme often set forth in The Mind of the South and in the earlier Mercury writing, the predisposition of Southerners historically to feel rather than think. Did this tendency arise as a result of the absence generally prior to the Twentieth century of educational institutions in the South which challenged its students to think? Or were the causes more subtle?
In the course of the chapter in his "Education" on Harvard college, Henry Adams delivers himself as follows:
"Into this unusually dissolvent medium, chance insisted on enlarging Henry Adams' education by tossing a trio of Virginians as little fitted for it as Sioux Indians to a treadmill... One of these Virginians was the son of Colonel Robert E. Lee, of the Second United States Calvary; the two others who seemed instinctively to form a staff for Lee, were town-Virginians from Petersburg.
"Lee, known in life as 'Rooney,' was a Virginian of the 18th century, much as Henry Adams was a Bostonian of the same age... Tall, largely built, handsome, genial, with a liberal Virginia openness toward all he liked, he had also the Virginian habit of command and took leadership as his natural habit... For a year, at least, Lee was the most popular and prominent young man in his class, but then came slowly to drop into the background. The habit of command was not enough, and Virginians had little else. He was simple beyond analysis; so simple that even the simple New England student could not realize him. No one knew enough to know how ignorant he was, how childlike; how helpless before the relative complexity of a school. As an animal, the Southerners seemed to have every advantage, but even as an animal he steadily lost ground.
"... Strictly, the Southerner had no mind, he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two, but in life one could get along very well without ideas, if one had only the social instinct."
And in her "The South in History and Literature," published in Atlanta in 1906, Mildred Rutherford had to say:
"It is true that the civilization of the North did differ and still differs radically from that of the South. The civilization of the South was diffusive, and tended to agriculture and the development of the individual, and to the guarding of his rights. The civilization of the North was cohesive, and tended to commerce; it subjected the individual to authorized powers, spiritual and temporal."
The two quotations, it seems to me, go pretty well to the bottom of the difference which Miss Rough Rutherford recognized, which we all feel as still existing, despite those superficial people who want to have it that, since we have got some factories and Rotory, we are become quite indistinguishable from the Yankee--the difference which has led Allen Tate to call the South "Uncle Sam's other province."
The Roony Lee described by Adams at once sums up what all the forces, physical and social, with which we have had to do have tended in general to make us, and represents the type that we have most admired, most willingly followed, and most eagerly sought to be like. The South, in its history, has produced many men of fine presence, a great personal dignity, and of the habit of command. But typically speaking, none of them until recently have been given to thought in any strict sense of the word. We have not chosen to accept it as it was and is, and to enjoy life in it as well as we might. That philosophy, in its heyday, produced an indubitably charming way and form of living on the higher levels. But it was associated, too, with the slow downgoing of the masses until they wound up as tenants and sharecroppers. And our failure to think about the process while it was in its earlier stages has finally left us with a loadof grief which seems to have no possible solution--and which still must somehow have a solution if we are not to be engulfed in ruin.
And as Miss Rutherford says, we are pre-eminently the individualists of the world. I have no space to go into it here, but I think it can be proved that while the North has for a hundred years and longer been rapidly drawing away from the individualism which is native to the frontier everywhere and which was particularly highly developed on the American frontier, all the historical forces operating in the South have conspired to keep us, as it were, frozen in that mould. I said just now that we have not thought about our world, that we accepted it--but in strict fact, we may be said hardly to have recognized that there was a world, a social medium which conditioned us at every turn. We have habitually felt of ourselves that we were separate and completely free nomads, and have done our thinking in purely personal terms. It is that, really, which lies at the root of our failure to take thought about the social milieu and all the consequences of that failure.
We are beginning to get away from these things plainly. Southern professors and writers are as busily engaged in examining the structure of the Southern world and its history as any in the world. And these are beginning to have their effect on the body of the people. As Gerald Johnson was saying in the Virginia Quarterly not long ago, our long absence of social consciousness and conscience is coming pretty rapidly to be remedied. Nevertheless, this is the historical pattern, and it is the prevailing pattern even yet--a fact which I set down out of no malice.
Links-Date -- Links-Subj.