The Charlotte News



Notes On A Subject
For Southern Novel

By J. W. Cash

[Note: "J.W." was the by-line originally printed on this article, no doubt causing some laughter at the irony from Cash who had reversed his initials earlier in life to avoid confusion with his father John W. Cash]

Site ed. note: The language and theme of this 1935 piece pass on through in more elaborate treatment to a main theme in Cash's commencement address at the University of Texas in 1941.

I often wonder why it is that the novelist has never given us any thoroughgoing study of what seems to me to be the single most obvious thing in connection with the South--the influence on the land of the notion of class.

The late John Galsworthy used to like to argue at great length that class and the notion of class is one of the most powerful forces with which we have to deal in life. And quite correctly, I believe. The thing, indeed, is, in its fashion, fully as mighty, as all-embracing, and as indefeasible in its effect, as sex itself. And nowhere is this more true than in the South.

The Notion of Class

There is a distinction which is necessary--here, certainly. With class and the class idea in the widest sense--with the notion of class as involving the division of society into irreconcilable warring economic and sociological groups--we, like Americans in general, have had little to do. Indeed, we have had even less to do with it than any other Americans at all. It is beginning to appear among us, to be sure--has been slowly swelling into view for the past twenty or thirty years, and steadily gathering headway--as witness such phenomena as the rise of Huey Long and the uproar at Gastonia in 1929. But it will be some time yet, the prophecies of the more hopeful young university graduates to the contrary notwithstanding, before we shall genuinely have a great deal to do with it.

But when it comes to class and the notion of class in the narrow sense, we have not only had more to do with it than Americans generally (and Americans generally have had a great deal more truck with it that is commonly recognized), but even as much, in our peculiar way, as any of the Old world people themselves.


The central reason for this, of course, is our inheritance of the idea of aristocracy from the Old South. I say the idea of aristocracy rather than aristocracy, itself, because, as is more or less commonly known nowadays, the number of realized aristocrats in the Old South was extremely small--was confined almost entirely to the people who had risen to power in the old colonial areas of the eastern part of Virginia, the coast of South Carolina, and the country about Savannah and New Orleans; to people who dated back far beyond the invention of the cotton gin and the spread of the plantation to the hinterland.

But all those people who came up with cotton fixed hotly on these realized aristocrats as their model. All of them with any considerable holdings in land and niggers had the notion: all of them aspired to be aristocrats; and most of them, in fact, and for reasons that I cannot go into here, set up more or less explicitly as being more or less aristocrats on their own account.

The Frenzied Obsession

That obsession sets its stamp upon every man born in the country. If he is born within the pale, he is steeped from childhood in the belief and, after that, the feeling, that so and so is "not our kind of people" or "not nice" or "common" or--the final terrible judgment--"white trash." And if he is born without the pale, he grows up under the dreadful shadow of being any or all these things. Everything we do--and no matter how little snobbish, how independent, we may be for conscious purposes--is tremendously influenced by the operation of it in our very blood and bone.

Oblique Approach

And yet--as I say, nobody has ever got down any full-bodied account of it in a novel, or indeed in a book of any sort. Ellen Glasgow and Cabell, indeed, dealt with it to a certain extent--but mainly in oblique fashion and incidentally to other ends, and almost entirely in regard to the actual aristocrats of Virginia: essentially another case, as I infer, from what I have in mind. Paul Green comes closer home in his play, "The House of Connelly," and his novel, "The Laughing Pioneer," but again the approach is rather oblique than direct, and the matter dealt with is a mere fragment of the whole. And very much the same report must be made of any of a dozen other books, such as Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" which touch upon the question. Nowhere is the thing made the primary concern and nowhere is it dealt with in any full fashion.

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