The Charlotte News



Southland Turns to Books With Full Vigor

By W. J. Cash

The goodly crop of Southern writers energized by the taunts of Mencken, Cash thought, were still too restricted in subject matter. In wondering, near the end of this article, why no Southerner had yet written a good novel of the Old South or of the New South, Cash was really proposing himself as candidate. He projected an Old South novel in his Guggenheim-fellowship application of 1936, and in 1940 he proposed writing a novel about the New South (the fellowship was granted in 1941).

--Note from W.J. Cash: Southern Prophet by Joseph L. Morrison
(This article appeared in the Reader section of Prophet.)

From being virtually sterile so far as the production of anything that could rationally be called a literature was concerned, the south has passed in the last two decades to an almost frenzied activity in the field. Today it is grinding out new books faster than any other equal portion of the United States, and a new writer bounces on the scene at least once in every thirty seconds or so. Indeed, in view of the fully geometrical rate at which these new writers are multiplying, and in view of the fact that every freshman of my acquaintance who is making "A's" on his college themes confides in me that he intends to junk the old man's furniture business and pursue a literary career, I estimate that in another ten years at least three-quarters of the (more or less) literate southern population under fifty will be engaged in the production of beautiful letters.

All of which, and though it naturally generates some gloom in me anent the prospects for my own bread and butter (are the damn-yankees going to be able to buy all these books? )—though it sometimes moves me to wish a little that my countrymen did not insist on doing everything they do in quite such a large and extravagant fashion—is no doubt sound ground for the jubilation which it has set off in all proper patriotic quarters. I have to confess, in fact, that, in my less purely personal moods, contemplation of the thing excites me in a dizzy glow faintly reminiscent of those gorgeous days along back in 1916 when I was watching the Rev. Tom Dixon's Ku Kluckers l do execution on uppity coons and low-down carpetbaggers, and alternately bawling hysterically and shouting my fool head off. Besides—it proves an old theory of mine. As long ago as my collitch days, I was arguing that Henry Mencken had taken, with his "Sahara of the Bozart," the one certain way to really get the south at the practice of literature in a big way—that whatever its native reluctance, it would never in this world lie under such dirty Yankee words as that. And was I right or was I right?

None the less—. For all my quiet genuine pleasure in seeing the old country thus turn in the wholesale to activities which have always appealed to my private prejudices as desirable and important, I must in my unfortunate and destructive way, report that the scene does not yet seem to me to offer justification for complete and unadulterated jubilation—that, for all its gratifying features, it is still open to certain critical objections of the first importance.

The principal thing I have in mind and the only one which I shall attempt to touch on here is that all this writing is already showing a tendency to fall into a few extremely rigid and very narrow patterns. Thus there is the Faulkner-Caldwell pattern—the grand prevailing one at the moment; there is the Maristan Chapman-Paul Green pattern; there is the Peterkin-Heyward pattern; and, though we have as yet had little of it, I have no doubt that there is in the making a tremendous Thomas Wolfe pattern—that in the next ten years we will be deluged with not less than fifty mighty odysseys of the lonely souls of tortured young men in the south. Set aside Cabell and Miss Glasgow (both of whom have done their work ), Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, and perhaps Stribling, and there is hardly a writer—hardly a young one at least—in the south who does not fall fatally under one of these headings.

I do not mean that I object to any of these writers per se. William Faulkner is not the transcendent genius or the "angelic" writer which Arnold Bennett made him out to be. But he does write with gripping power, and his single primary theme of violence is authentically a part of the southern scene. So are Caldwell's appalling poor whites automatically a part of that scene, a big part—and the fellow is a magnificent reporter and increasingly a master of drama. If Chapman and Green are engaged in the curious enterprise of reducing the old local color stories of thirty or forty years ago to a kind of faunish realism and at the same time dressing them up in a poetic prose out of John Millington Singe—well, the result in their hands is more pleasing than not. I like Mrs. Peterkin's black men, and if Wolfe is only telling us his own story, I incline to believe that, in the last analysis, no man does more.

What I do object to is the apparent conviction of all the rising young men that there is no way to glory but along the channels marked out by these. I am getting mortally tired of seeing William Faulkner or Mrs. Peterkin multiplied by ten. I am pretty sick of detailed photographs of nigger lynching which are exactly like the other 211 I have read. I'd like to see my poor whites through some other eyes than Caldwell's—and I'd like to see the country represented as being populated by somebody besides these poor whites and the coons. Between Green and "The Playboy of the Western World," I get about all the poetical prose I can absorb. And if every man can tell only his own story, there are a million other ways to do it than through the autobiographical novel, a form already worn so threadbare that only the exceedingly great talent of Wolfe can redeem it from banality.

I think, in short, that there is no reason for the paucity of themes and the poverty of treatment which is on view. There are plainly other—and often bigger—themes lying about untouched. Thus, for one thing, there is no good story of the old south in existence—no true picture of what life in it was like. ( I forgot Stark Young and "So Red the Rose"? Far from it. The story is a compound of the old sentimentality and movie melodrama, which not even its excellent writing can save from the oblivion which is already descending upon it. ) For another, no one has adequately told any part of the story of the great dream of progress, now ringing slowly to its end—of the rise of mills and towns in the hill-country of the south and its repercussions in the lives of men and women.

And as for treatment—in the absence of any tradition to trammel and bind, treatment ought clearly to be almost infinitely varied.

1 The reference is to the notoriously racist motion picture The Birth of a Nation, first shown in 1915. Historians credit it with having helped to influence the birth of the modern Ku Klux Klan in that year and with stimulating race riots in the North and Midwest for a decade. (Note by Professor Morrison)

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