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GENESIS OF THE SOUTHERN CRACKER
Site Publisher's Note: In this final, short Mercury article, published in May, 1935, Cash set down a quick synopsis of an expansive theme regarding the development of the poor white in the South--a theme which would ultimately occupy nearly a third of The Mind of the South and spread from beginning to end of the book. By this time, Cash had gotten the book to begin flowing the way he wished, and while still discarding heaps of pages of writing in favor of the perfectionist's delight in one pure page of drama and poetic prose, he was on his way to getting the manuscript in form for the Knopfs and was beginning to send copy which, with little change, ultimately went to print in 1941. This article is really an extension of "The Mind of the South" article from '29, abstracted to the point of better absorption, with no emphasis on example or cultural development of the broad South to distract from the simpler premise--that the common white developed from the same lot as the "dandy" in the South, almost, if not in fact, related to him by blood. Cash touched on every aspect of this development in just three pages of text, concluding with the simple but historically accurate explanation for the feelings of white superiority in the common white, the need to feel superior to someone after being shoved down by infertile land, hostile climate, self-propelled indolence, ruthless creditors, and the big plat owners who enabled sharecropping and tenant farming.
Cash had now come full circle in the writing of the articles, had dealt with every aspect of Southern life, politics, economy, labor, religion, heritage, culture--or the lack of it--, and, of course, uppermost in each article--racial violence and discrimination. Having informed himself from this Mercury writing with the fodder of research for the book, It was time to stop and simply let the book now continue to flow. It was not long after this, too, that his friend, Cameron Shipp--who would ultimately in early 1938 introduce Cash to Mary Bagley Ross, whom Cash married in late 1940--would offer him an associate editorship on the Charlotte News, adequately occupying his "leisure" writing time for the next five years. Moreover, after Mencken's retirement from the magazine in 1933 and the beginning of the 15 year reign as editor of Lawrence E. Spivak (later, in the Fifties and Sixties, the moderator of "Meet the Press"), the Mercury had favored less the employment of Southern writers, as its circulation, steadily on the rise, was primarily now in the North.
All things pointed to the
notion that it was time for Cash to move on from the Mercury
writing and thus he would never again offer a piece to it; the
parting was sweet, however, and Cash always cherished his
association with Mencken and the magazine as having provided him
the start and ultimately made the connection with the Knopfs
which enabled the book in the first place. Mencken died in 1956
at the age of 76. The Mercury faded to
limited circulation and far more conservative viewpoints in later
years after Spivak's departure.
John Singer Sargent's painting of Frederick Law Olmsted who tromped the South in the 1850's and reported his conclusions in a three-volume work, The Cotton Kingdom; Olmsted, though from New England, comes closest to being a true predecessor of Cash in trying to analyze at length Southern culture and mores. (The painting hangs in Biltmore House, the Vanderbilt summer mansion built in the 1920's in Asheville, N.C and vacation spot in the '20's and 30's to such literati as F. Scott Fitzgerald; the reprint appeared in National Geographic, August, 1941, "Tarheelia on Parade", by Leonard C. Roy)
Four National Geographic pictures from August, 1941 "Tarheelia on Parade" article by Leonard C. Roy; the photos suggest generationally passed skills and traditions of farming, hunting, and handicrafts which still persist today probably in greater quantity in the South than in any other region of the country despite modernization. The photo immediately above is captioned: "Kilted Lads and Lassies Relax in a Fayetteville Churchyard", as they prepare to commemorate the first Scotch settlement in North Carolina in 1739. Such events as the annual Highland Games in the mountains of North Carolina still celebrate today centuries-old ancestry among Southerners. But regardless of country of origin, from whence did the average white Southerner's ancestors actually originate? Clansmen, semi-royal Lords and Ladies, Yeomen, or Crackers?
GENESIS OF THE SOUTHERN CRACKER
BY W. J. CASH
FOR years it has been the fashion with historians to explain the white cracker of the South as simply the product of degenerate blood-strains from Europe--the progeny of the convict-servants and redemptioners of Old Virginia. But the theory defies logic and the known facts.
Actually, the source of the cracker is identical with that of
at least 90% of all other Southern whites. He stems, mainly that
is, straight from the common Scotch-Irish, English, and German
stock which from about 1740 on was slowly filling up the huge
Southern wilderness lying between
THE AMERICAN MERCURY
the thin sliver of coastal civilization built on tobacco, rice, and indigo. And in that backwoods of the eighteenth century, he was so little set apart from his neighbors that he married very much whom he pleased, became by 1800 related to nearly everybody within a radius of thirty miles about him, and so today boasts exactly the same names as the most pretentious Southern families.
What differentiated him, what created the type, was the invention of the cotton gin and the spread of the plantation to the back country. The plantation was inordinately greedy of land; the acreage adjudged suitable for the growing of cotton was limited; the number of possible units was small. And in the fierce competition thus engendered (a competition complicated by wildcat finance), these prizes fell swiftly and mainly to the strongest among the population; the weaker elements were driven back to the rejected lands and the estate of either the yeoman farmer or--on swamp and sand lands and in the pine barrens and red hills--of the poor-white. Nor were they only driven back. Because of the peculiar static quality of the Southern order, they were locked up and closed in--completely barred from any economic and social advance as a body.
The life to which the cracker was thus condemned was one of constant impoverishment. The plantation and his own waste had presently destroyed the forest. The hunter who had formerly foraged for the larder while his women hoed the corn now spent most of his time on his back, disdaining to do work which habit had fixed as effeminate, and consoling himself for the poorness of the shooting with a jug of what he himself had named "busthead." His diet sank to a routine of cornpone, hog, and turnip greens. Nutritional disease, hookworm, malaria, indolence--all these joined hands to accentuate the lankiness, the boniness of head and feature, which the backwoods had already stamped upon him; conspired with the blistering sun of the land to give him the marked swarthiness or the odd colorlessness of skin and hair which distinguishes him.
But more important still was the fact that the plantation contrived, not deliberately, not consciously, yet with a great effectiveness, to see that he developed no ponderable resentment against his fate. Thus, if it had robbed him, the plantation had nevertheless nearly everywhere left him some sort of land, and, having no use for his labor, it nowhere directly exploited him His independence was untouched. Thus again, if it had blocked him off from advance en masse, it had not closed the door on him as an individual. Always it was possible for the strong, sturdy lads, who still thrust up from the old root-stock, to make their way out and on. Thus once more, if it had introduced distinctions among white men, the plantation had also introduced that other all-dwarfing distinction between the white man and the black--at the very moment of the poor-white's degradation, it had elevated him to a tremendous superiority that, come what might, he could never publicly lose. And finally, the coming of the plantation had definitely created the celebrated Southern manner--a genial, expansive, hand-on-shoulder manner which would be ideally calculated to draw the sting from the rising contempt for the cracker.
The upshot was certain. The cracker almost completely
abandoned economic and social focus, failed wholly to develop
class feeling, and, in the great leisure that was his, gave
himself up cheerfully to elaborating the old backwoods pattern of
amusement and distinction--became in his fashion a remarkable
romantic and hedonist.
GENESIS OF THE SOUTHERN CRACKER
To fiddle, to dance all night, to down a pint of raw whiskey at a gulp, to bite of:f the nose or gouge out the eye of a favorite enemy, to father a brood of bastards to fight harder and love harder than the next man, to be known eventually far and wide as a hell of a fellow--such would be the pattern he would frame for himself. And if this left him a little uneasy, if it bred in him a sense of sin, well, there was escape in orgiastic religion.
But after the Civil War--in which he fought manfully to keep things just as they were--the cracker's world was to be rudely upset. For the South, bled white and needing money imperatively, was to turn with increasing passion to the pursuit of that fata morgana, cotton. From 1870 to 1880 it doubled the production; in the next decade it tripled it. And that, mind, primarily by falling back on the lands which had once been held as of no account for the staple--the lands of the yeoman and the poor-white.
Growing cotton on such lands, however, required fertilizers. And to provide fertilizers there arose the credit-merchant, who normally demands 40% (sometimes 80%) interest for his services, an exaction before which the poor-white was hopelessly lost. Literally by the thousand he attempted to grow cotton, failed, and was sold out. Nor was he alone. Hundreds of those who had been yeoman farmers met the same fortune.
So there grew up in the South the white cropper and the white tenant--the head and font of the poor-white in our time. And this, of course, might naturally have been expected to restore economic and social focus and to beget class consciousness in him. For here, plainly, was an end to his freedom from direct exploitation and to his independence.
It was not to be, however. At the moment when so much of his heritage was crumpling, the remainder of that heritage was being greatly enhanced in value. Everywhere the South was engrossed in its great fight for white supremacy, everywhere preservation of superiority to the Negro was becoming the first thing. And in the poor-white, who had no other superiority to lose, this feeling was most intense of all. Hence, when he found himself falling to the status of cropper and tenant, what held his gaze to the exclusion of everything else was the spectacle of the grinning face of the ex-slave rising into his own.
Conceivably, of course, this fixation itself might have issued into hatred for the plantation order, in revolt against the whole social arrangement. But the cracker was habituated to thinking of his masters, not as antagonists but friends. And now these masters, seeing that there would not be room on the plantation for both the blacks and all this increasing crowd of whites, terrified at the imminent prospect of a life-and-death conflict between the two groups, a conflict that might easily upset the entire Southern fabric--now at last these masters were concerned with what was happening to the poor-white and were moving heaven and earth to find at least a partial sanctuary for him. Out of that, as much as anything else, came the Southern cotton mill.
Thus, the cracker, seeing hands everywhere reaching down to bear him up, seized them eagerly, grappled back with the pathetic passion of his heritage, and gave himself over fully to the purpose, not of making his own way up but of keeping the black man down. And there to this day he still stands, helplessly caught in his obsession.
Through the years, his status has swung steadily downward.
Industry, if it saved
THE AMERICAN MERCURY
him racially, has elsewhere merely heaped evil on evil. With its consort, commercialism, it has piled the banker on the credit-merchant and begot the cracker an army of new masters. Widening opportunity for a moment in the beginning, it has now all but closed it up. Spawning towns and shifting the center of social gravity, it has introduced and made well-nigh universal the vicious wrong of absentee landlordism. And in rolling up relatively immense wealth at the top, it has infinitely broadened the social gulf.
All of which means eventually that the cracker has been increasingly despised. Only the politicians treat him to the old easy manner now. For the rest, the treatment meted out to him daily assimilates itself more and more closely to that meted out to the black man.
Does he fail wholly to see this? Of course he doesn't. It has been eating into him for years, making him bitter and sullen. But there is nothing he can do about it. For at the end of every possible road lies this implacable fact: to succeed in revolt he must join forces with the Negro. And rather than do that, he prefers to starve and to rot.
Accordingly, the cracker goes on steadily tumbling down the
slope into degeneracy, waxing ever more shiftless, and perforce
discharging his energies, in so far as they are not squeezed out
of him, in the old channels--in striving at once to console and
to amuse himself, to achieve dignity and value, by playing the
hell of a fellow. In dancing and fiddling when his ministers will
let him, in fantastic religion, in hard drinking and hard
fighting and hard loving, but above all in violence--above all,
in violence toward the Negro. And perforce, too, the ennui, the
bitterness, the viciousness, bred in him by the always-narrowing
conditions of his life, pour over to the elaboration of this
pattern, to making him at his worst a dangerous neurotic, a hair-trigger
killer, a man-burner, a pig quite capable of incest--in brief,
everything that William Faulkner and Erskine
Caldwell have made him out to be, and perhaps something more.