The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9, 1938
Shades Light and Dark:
Perspectives of the South
--A Viewpoint, by W. J. Cash
I HAVE exactly no sympathy with those people who, when they read a novel by Mr. Faulkner or Mr. Caldwell or Thomas Wolfe, or a running account of the Southern scene like Jonathan Daniels' "A Southerner Discovers the South," bob up to tell you brightly that they think it is unfair because it "only gives one side of the picture, and doesn't give us credit for anything nice." I know those people. They used to make life miserable for me back in the days when I wrote articles for Mr. Mencken's Mercury and my hide had not yet grown so tough as it now is.
It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that anybody with a grain of sense should know that 50 years of writers devoted entirely to "the darker phases of the South" could not begin to balance out the effect of the 50 years that went before the Faulkners and the Daniels, (in my usual modest fashion I omit the Cashes)--50 years entirely devoted to identifying the South with Cloud-Cuckoo land and to shouting up the superiorities of that fabulous realm. The whole history of the literature of the South from the Civil War down is the history of a propaganda, designed to bolster up the ego of the South against its own qualms and the assaults of Yankeedom. I am not angry at it. I think, indeed, that it may have been what it was for good and necessary reasons. To survive under the conditions of Reconstruction, political and economic, the South needed every whit of support it could get. But it is none the less true that this sort of literature has bred a tradition in the South which makes it exceedingly difficult for us to face facts and deal with the problems of our time that increasingly and perilously demand to be dealt with. And so I think that the land should have no rest from tomes full of dark colors until it rids itself of this tradition and admits--what it still goes on refusing to admit--that it has got to quit playing the ostrich.
YET, when all that is said, I still confess that I think these people--as much as I dislike them--have some little justification for their criticism. At least they have had. For the simple fact is that most of the men who are now in their thirties and early forties turned to hating the South, or rather to thinking they hated it, in their first post-adolescent reaction from the sentimentality and South-worship to which they had been trained as boys. I know that I myself, who at fourteen regretted only that the Civil War had come before my time and that I could never bleed and die for Dixie, was full of bile toward the land at 25. And Thomas Wolfe reported the same thing of himself--Wolfe whose love of the hills and forests and rivers, the men and women of Dixie, spills out over all of his pages--Wolfe whose gorgeous rhetoric was born straight out of the most secret heart of his country and its people. Faulkner, so far as I know has never confessed to any such thing. But he doesn't need to; it is written on every page of his earlier books. Nor does Caldwell need to confess, either.
It is dying now. You can see as much in Jonathan Daniels' book. The Jonathan who wrote it is a very different fellow in his viewpoint from the Jonathan who was commenting on the South a decade ago. I can see it in myself. And it shows plainly enough in the changing tone of Faulkner and Caldwell.
But a few years ago--.
If the Southerners writing in that time imagined that they hated the South, they were none the less sons of the South. Which is to say that inevitably they were extravagant fellows, when it came to expressing their passions. And so they laid on their dark colors with quite as heavy a trowel as ever Thomas Nelson Page used in laying on his rosy ones. The result was a little startling and melodramatic, and entirely Southern. I do not think it did any harm. On the contrary, I think it was very useful at the time, in that it shocked the smug and made them begin to take a little notice even when their wills said no. But the effect was not always strictly accurate, and it is that and only that which seems to give any justification for the people who criticise the Faulkners and the Wolfes.
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