The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 1935
Realists Are Haunted
By Personal Devils
By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: This is the first regular book-page contribution by Cash to the News--contributions which would continue through May, 1941 when he departed for Mexico. While doing these early freelance book reviews and occasional editorials for the News in 1935-1937, he was paid, according to managing editor Brodie Griffith in February, 1967 letters to Joseph Morrison, $3.00 per book review plus a free copy of the book reviewed and $2.50 to $10.00 per editorial used. Cash would not rejoin the staff of the News, however, for two more years until October, 1937 and continued to live in Shelby, mainly occupying himself on the manuscript for The Mind of the South.
Cash is using here, in wholesale fashion, his ideas on the inherent predisposition to excessive romanticism of Southerners and even--no matter how apparently objective the artistic rendering--Southern writers, set down nearly verbatim, from portions of the manuscript, starting to become well-formed by this point in 1935. (See e.g., The Mind of the South, Book I, Chapter III, section 9, pp. 84-87; Book II, Chapter I, section 7, pp. 122-123; Book III, Chapter III, section 10, pp. 376-379) Commentary on Cash has suggested that Cash, too, was not immune from this charge of excessive romanticism in the process of rendering analytic realism. Yet, most of the same critics are rightly not loathe to point out that Cash at least could see beyond his own inherent tendency, invert the image, and view himself more or less accurately from the other side of the mirror. Whether this observation of Cash is accurate or whether Cash was simply using his writing art to attempt through persona to embrace and ingratiate the broader mass of readers to his point as any good teacher does with the brighter, though yet callow, student--to place the new more sober view of the surroundings in a familiar rhetorical setting to make it less enigmatic and hence more acceptable--is of little consequence. The benefit derives from Cash's insight, regardless of how the insight came to be. Conjecture on the origins of its being, while stimulating in its own right, appears to grasp for largely unfathomable regions of the individual human mind and the specific environmental influences which produced it--usually not even fully understood by the rendering artist, let alone by observers and critics of the artist's work.
It is of interest in this regard to speculate whether there is more than coincidence of language between William Faulkner's musing on Southern imagination--its wistfulness and terror acting in subtle combination--in his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust and Cash's nearly identical preceding statement in this 1935 Charlotte News article and similar language in the later book. Faulkner wrote: "For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863 ... it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin... This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain." (Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner, New York, 1948, pp. 194-195). Compare this to the earlier Cash article below with attention to the fact that it cites Faulkner as prime example of his point despite his view that Faulkner was a leading exponent of Southern realism. (See W.J. Cash: A Life, Bruce Clayton, L.S.U. Press, 1991, pp. 120-121)
And compare both passages to Cash in The Mind of the South: "Every boy growing up in this land now had continually before his eyes the vision, and heard always in his ears the clamorous hoofbeats, of a glorious swashbuckler, compounded of Jeb Stuart, the golden-locked Pickett,and the sudden and terrible Forrest (yes, and, in some fashion, of Lord Roland and the douzepers) forever charging the cannon's mouth with the Southern battle flag. And so he demanded more imperatively than ever that those who levied on his admiration, those who aspired to lead him when he became a man, should be like that; and so more surely and more eagerly than ever he set himself to be as much like that as possible." (The Mind of the South, Book II, Chapter I, section 7, pp. 122-123)
Did Cash's favorable commentary on Faulkner in The Mind of the South, and earlier, as in this piece, at some point attract the notice of Faulkner and then cause him years later to offer a kind of silent elegy to Cash through imitation? Did--as the danger presides over any artistic endeavor (just consider George Harrison and Jagger-Richards)--Faulkner quite unwittingly call from his sub-conscious his earlier reading of Cash? Or were these two minds so ineradicably struck from the same South they examined that the innate influences on them tended inexorably toward the result of nearly identical description of the matter? Ah well, the answer appears like those personal devils which haunt quite unsympathetically--unfathomable. (For other Cash commentary on Faulkner, see "An Epithet: Oh, So Sad" - April 5, 1936 and "Not Like an Angel" - November 8, 1936.)
Of all the poor devil-haunted souls who ever sat themselves down to the dismal business of concocting fiction, probably the worst devil-haunted are those young men of the South who are currently performing in what is called the realistic manner.
In sober fact, the only one among them who has a claim to being realistic in the fundamental and thorough-going fashion is Erskine Caldwell--and of Caldwell himself there is more than one doubt. All the rest are, in effect, simply so many schizophrenics, so many disillusioned romantics at eternal war with themselves, the emotions ranged on one side and the intellect on the other.
That they should have been romantics was inevitable. All of us who grew up in the South in the first two decades of the 1900's--in that South with its heroic rhetoric, its gyneolatry, its continual flourishing of the word noble, and the constant glorification of its past--were foreordained to the thing. All of us learned to read on "The Three Little Confederates," all of us framed our hero-ideal out of Stuart and Pickett and Forrest--on the dragoon and the lancer--ten thousand times, in our dreams, rammed home the flag in the cannon's mouth after the manner of the heroes of the Rev. Tom Dixon, ten thousand times stepped into the breach at the critical moment on that reeking slope at Gettysburg, and with our tremendous swords, and in defiance of chronology, then and there won the Civil War; all of us learned to choke for "The Conquered Banner" and Southern womanhood--to think of women in terms of some enhaloed vision compounded out of the fair-haired Helen, the lily-white maid of Astolat, and the hunting goddess of the Boeotian Hill; all of us, in a word, lived absolutely under the sway of what Cabell calls "Domnei," of glory, and of patriotic worship of the idea of the South.
And by so much as these future novelists were more gifted with the fatal gift of imagination, they surpassed all the rest in their susceptibility to it all--in the degree to which this romanticism was developed.
Well, but when they had got to be men, these romantics went to college; some of the older ones went to war; and those who did not go to war had none the less to run the hazards common to the "flaming youth" generation. They read Freud and Watson; they read Dreiser and Anderson and Joyce. They encountered biology and necking-parties; they came upon the novel notion that, whether or not woman is a star and a jewel, she is indubitably a woman, with passions most prosaically like man's own. They encountered history--and blood and lice and bad smells and shattered nerves; and so discovered--or thought they discovered, as the case may be--that glory was mainly applesauce. Yes, and they encountered sociology--found out that there was more than one spot on the perfect face of the South; that the land was not altogether the completely happy idyll they had once believed.
In brief, the whole vast intellectual content of the modern mind and all the terrific experiences of the years between 1917 and 1930 rolled in on them with irresistible power, smashing their illusions, teaching them the dread habit of analysis, and bearing their conscious minds completely out of the old pattern.
But not their emotions--not their emotions, you may be sure. Today they remain, tomorrow they will remain, essentially what they were when they were 15: completely and incurably romantic.
The results in their works are immensely curious. Take--for the single instance we have space to examine--the very head and front of them all: William Faulkner. Indubitably, it is his conscious purpose to write as realistically as Dreiser himself. And indubitably, he not only succeeds in investing his tales with a general air of realism, but also he succeeds in getting down much that is truly realistic. Those Southerners who tell you that his descriptions of the kind of houses the poor-whites live in, his renditions of the character of the poor-white himself, are unreal and untrue are simply blind: they have never really looked about themselves at all.
Nevertheless, the romantic stuff which is the primary Faulkner will not be denied--is always breaking through and having its way. Thus his fundamental pattern is in every case extravagant and melodramatic--which is to say romantic. But the South itself is extravagant and melodramatic? Of course, it is. But the extravagance and melodrama here goes far beyond what is merely necessary in order to render the land accurately. It exists, in large measure, and plainly, for itself--but of a naive delight in hearing the horses gallop and the guns bark.
And if that is not enough--well, has nobody ever observed that the motive which most obsesses Faulkner is, of all the fish that fly, precisely that pre-eminently Southern and romantic one: honor? To be sure, our Mr. Faulkner will point out all his hero's warts; to be sure, he is very likely to make him drunken and futile and most absent-minded about the seventh commandment. Nevertheless, the obsession may be traced in virtually everything he has done--including exactly that terrific book, "The Sanctuary." Strip Horace Benbow of all the things his creator has hung upon him to hide the resemblance, and he might almost pass for a member of the House of McGehge--a house created, you remember, by a professed Neo-Romantic. Nay, he might do very well for a grandson (a natural one, anyhow) of old Marse Chan himself! The thing that makes the wheels go round in all three cases is essentially the same.
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