Reading Jack Temple Kirby’s “The Countercultural South”

In his 2009 obituary in The New York Times, Jack Temple Kirby was described as “a historian who decried stereotypes of the American South and traced the ways its people and landscapes have shaped one another.” Unfortunately, decrying stereotypes about the South can be a Sisyphean way to spend one’s life, but I’m glad he did it. I can’t remember when I read his book Rural Worlds Lost, the American South 1920 – 1960, but it has influenced my thinking about my home region, especially his thesis that what many people call “the South” ended around 1960 and was replaced by something else in the evolutionary chain of modern cultures. If the rural worlds were lost, then what came next?

So, when I was searching for books about the South that would coincide with this project’s focus on beliefs, myths, and narratives, his 1995 book The Countercultural South stood out. The book, which was published by the University of Georgia Press, is barely a hundred pages long and contains three essays about working-class Southern men, both black and white. Its length – an academic history under 400 pages! – made it appealing for one reason, but its subject was more important to me for personal reasons. That Times obituary also shared, “In movies, for example, he said, the South has been trapped by clichés of racists, graceful landed gentry, poverty, homespun rural values, stock-car racers and moonshiners.” As a kid, I grew up basking the glow of Walking Tall, Smokey and the Bandit, and The Dukes of Hazzard, then witnessed as a barrage of Civil Rights movement dramatizations appeared in the 1980s. So, I couldn’t agree more that we are often “trapped by clichés.” In this book, published as the fin de siecle of Y2K approached, Kirby was discussing blue-collar men not using the lens of violence, machismo, cars, alcohol, or racism, but instead through union membership, land management, and the effects of capitalism.

Right away, on the first page of his “Introduction,” Kirby lays out his thesis “that a not-quite-measurable but substantial minority of southerners are countercultural. Some resist in peaceful and conventional ways, such as labor union activism. Others avoid contact so far as they can, sustaining existence on a shrinking margin of society.” He then adds a distinction about one key difference: “Black workers are progressive, historically evolved as it were; whites are not.” This, he posits, is why the biracial working-class can’t seem to get together politically. They may be in the same boat, but they’re rowing in different directions.

The term “counterculture” carries a lot of weight. Most people would think of hippies when they hear the word, but the two are not synonymous. A counterculture is a subculture that runs counter to the mainstream, usually through a set of fundamental values that can’t be reconciled.  Some subcultures, like antique collectors and dog-show types, co-exist just fine within the mainstream. Others, like neo-Confederates, not so much. And in the South, we’ve got plenty of notions that don’t jive with common American ones. Kirby acknowledges that, too:

The bourgeois hegemony in the South is fairly recent. [ . . . ] For the antebellum South was primarily a civilization based upon noncapitalist – indeed anticapitalist – labor and social relations, and its people were shamelessly devoted to leisure and indiscipline, maddeningly indifferent to technology and growth.

If that’s where the roots are, you can’t make the branches grow where the trunk isn’t. You’ve got the makings of a counterculture. Over on the next page, he conceptualizes three powerful myths about Southern culture:

This countercultural South is widely acknowledged and almost totally (and perhaps willfully) misrepresented as superficial, curmudgeonly regional male style: southerners (read “white middle and upper classes”) are archconservative politically, dangerously aggressive in pursuit of violent sport, and excessively familiar in social relations. Southerners (read “rednecks” and “hillbillies”) are quaint premoderns, prone to taking the law into their own hands, but entertaining despite their doleful delinquencies of discipline and taste. And southerners (read “the black poor and working class”) are lazy and immoral, our principal criminal population. 

About the counterculture, it wasn’t the first of those three that the nation worried about. It was the latter two. What do you do with people you can’t control or assimilate? They’re  frightening and confusing, and our nation has pared both down to their worst qualities, making them into comic buffoons and irredeemable villains. 

Here, Kirby does better than that, beginning with the tendency to “negotiate” within black working-class culture to seek solutions to their problems. In this first essay, he builds his discussion around the Mississippi John Hurt song “Stagolee” and a then-new book by Nathan McCall called Makes Me Wanna Holler. McCall’s autobiographical work confronted systemic racism in the mid-1990s, and Kirby uses it as a contrast to “my own white working-class neighborhood, about fifteen years earlier and hardly a mile and a half away, in the very same Portsmouth.” McCall had also come from a suburban background, but had made “choices” – an idea whose validity Kirby questions – that eventually put him in prison, yet he later ascended to become a truth-telling journalist and writer. Kirby asserts here that racism necessitated that African Americans, especially men, constantly had to “negotiate” social terrain full of near-impossible hurdles. 

Kirby then does what historians do: analyze the past.  Using this theme of negotiation, he moves quickly through slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and reminds his reader that “sharecropping, credit, and the expanding railway system” played major roles in how the working lives of Southerners were shaped. The factor of money changed everything. Previously, slaves had been paid no wages, the hands that produced the crops had no role in selling them, and later, wages to sharecroppers and millhands were often “paid” in company-store credit. Landlords and “furnish” merchants also managed to turn debt into wage slavery. Kirby uses the story of Ned Cobb and the almost-biracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union as his example for how those unjustly treated laborers negotiated the circumstances. 

About the two-thirds of the way though, Kirby takes us back to Nathan McCall and adds another now-familiar figure, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  For Kirby, Gates exemplifies something altogether different: an African-American man who has had “success in accommodating himself in mondo bianca.” McCall’s story shows one trajectory, and Gates’ another. Both men had then-recently published memoirs, and  Gates’ book Colored People told of growing up in the Piedmont area of West Virginia. Taking a distinctly different approach, “Gates extends black experimentation with the language of identity with a view to reconcile black folks not only with themselves but also with all us whites who may be willing to read, to listen.” Unlike McCall’s surroundings in Virginia, where blacks were a significant group numerically, Kirby’s explanation has the Gates family living in a tight-knit black community where their numbers were small enough not to be threatening to whites. This, of course, yielded differing courses for two young men who would become leading intellects.

Next are the white working-class men, who for obvious reasons took other routes into modern culture. In an essay titled “Retro-Frontiersmen,” Kirby begins with VS Naipaul’s A Turn in the South, published in 1989, and in particular, with a guy who Naipaul interviewed about rednecks. I had read Naipaul’s book fifteen or twenty years ago, so the passages were familiar to me. The guy had a lot to say, and most of it would make sense if you’ve known rednecks, but probably wouldn’t if you haven’t. Kirby uses the “colorful” descriptions to veer his way onto the subject of land management, more specifically forests, even more specifically the intentional setting of forest fires.  

Carrying us backward to the time of Frederick Law Olmsted, Kirby threads a narrative that we don’t normally hear, one in which the white working poor were affected by and reacted to modern land-use practices. While modern people might look at rural Southern whites in the mid-nineteenth century and see only desperate poverty, Kirby reminds his reader that forests, left untended, provided many of their basics needs: wild hogs for meat, edible plants, wood for shelter. Initially, we learn, farmers fenced their crops to keep wild animals out. They handled farming with a method that mixed field rotation with slash-and-burn, and they grazed livestock on common land. Then, the paradigm changed to fencing in the animals, not the crops, while fertilizing and reusing existing fields. This shut many people out of the wild places that sustained their lives. Thus, a massive group of non-landowning, mostly white frontiersmen were turned into an antagonistic social force when they were shut out by “progress.” Then came deforestation by the paper and lumber industries, which was enabled by railroads. Later, when rural whites turned to setting forest fires as a means of revenge (or as they saw it, justice), county extension agents were put in place to see that “modern” agriculture methods were being used by all, instead of the old free-range ways that were being forcibly left behind. 

Increasingly unable to scrape out a living, poor and working-class whites who didn’t own land had to join the wage-earning world where every option meant being controlled by the system. There was sharecropping and also alternatives that involved hard labor for low pay: factories, mills, lumber camps, and work crews. This way of life ran directly counter to the self-reliant freedom offered by subsistence farming, free-range grazing, hunting wild game, and foraging in forests.  Here, Kirby returns once again to the habit of setting forest fires as a reaction to a system that forbade many from accessing the abundant resources. The way Kirby puts it in The Countercultural South, where African-Americans resorted to negotiating within their circumstances, for whites, there was nothing to negotiate. Powerful forces aligned against them to gather resources into a few hands, and there was little they could do— except burn it down.

The third essay in the collection, “‘Redneck’ Discourse,” offers Kirby’s culminating discussion with references to everybody from  WJ Cash and VO Key to Ellen Glasgow, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Erskine Caldwell. He also spends a few pages on country music, mentioning clean-and-acceptable singers like Randy Travis and Reba McEntire as well as David Allan Coe’s “Longhaired Redneck” and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Redneck Mother.”  Toward the end of the essay, Kirby shifts our attention to a series of lesser-known writers: Harry Crews, Harry Leland Mitchell, Linda Flowers, and Constance Pierce, so we can see how much the South has changed since the rural worlds were lost. By the mid-1990s, women were becoming prominent writers and were taking part in politics as delegates to conventions. Earlier in the chapter, he had given a page or two to the ways that Southern middle-class men were taking on the affectations of being a Bubba. By the end, Kirby is marveling at how even the Jaycees in the South had let women in. “So Dixie was a little behind, as usual, but not by much and not for long,” we read. For this new epoch, our trails wouldn’t be blazed by mythic noblesse oblige aristocrats. This time, it would be “realtors and developers, sellers of insurance (among many other things), members of learned professions,  and striving occupants of the lower and middling levels of corporate infrastructure.” 

As with the first two books I read for this fellowship – Rosenzweig’s The Presence of the Past and Wilson’s Judgment & Grace in Dixie – I finished The Countercultural South thinking, I should have read that years ago. The book was published when I was a junior in college, studying English, not history, but Kirby was writing about the world that I had experienced in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. I’ve long been privy to sentiments that people with money and power don’t do right by the working classes, many of those grumbling utterances coming from white men. These days, there’s not much sympathy for the plight of white men, especially when the group turns Kirby’s countercultural frustration into the notion that white men are victims of discrimination. However, it is also widely acknowledged that frustrated, white, working-class men identify heavily with widely held belief that social and political forces align against them. 

About Kirby’s discussion of black men, it is either incomplete or it is simply left to stand on its own. He acknowledges in the “Introduction” that the essays are not meant to make up a cohesive whole, but the second and third essays do go together.  He makes some solid points about “negotiation,” but focuses a good deal of attention on McCall specifically, where the latter two essays cite wide-ranging examples from white culture. 

For my part, Kirby’s book lends a bit of credence to the date I’ve chosen as a starting date for this project: 1970. My idea is that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was a something like a mini-medieval period, with what came before being distinctly and obviously different from what came after. Kirby wrote in that third essay, 

By about 1970, the “modernization” of the rural South was more or less complete, [Hank] Williams was long dead, and the country music audience was vastly transformed. The southern industrial working class was enlarged; and as we have already observed, the country population, while shrunken, still included the largest population of rural poor in the nation.

Basically, the region was different . . . but still the same, too.

In The Countercultural South, Kirby writes mainly about change, because that’s one of the markéd features of the post-movement era: constant change. Kirby uses examples like country music to show that evolution. He also discusses land being rented to outsiders for hunting. The example I use, which fewer people think about, is air-conditioning, which changed the way houses were built, eliminated a main reason to be on the front porch, and caused people to start closing their windows. Even if the Civil Rights movement had never happened, air-conditioning by itself would still have altered the social and cultural fabric of Southern culture indelibly. Change was coming, no matter what.

I want to end with the question I began with: If the rural worlds were lost, then what came next? I get tired of those who would say, “There’s no such thing as ‘the South’ anymore.” On the flip side, efforts to preserve in amber some mythic thing called “the South” seem just as futile as declaring it “dead.” The boosterism and consumerism of the new middle-class seem, to me, to want to commodify the whole thing by discarding the unpleasant parts and accentuating the charming parts. That sanitized version might work for a feature film or a home design show, but in real life, it doesn’t. So what is like, really, amid these changes? With any change, the people who get left behind and pushed aside aren’t going to like it, which does not make them villains, and if there’s a cohesive argument there, a counterculture will result. In the South, we can look at angry, disaffected people with chagrin, saying, “Why don’t they stop acting like that and saying those things?” Or we can be people “who may be willing to read, to listen” to understand what our systems and institutions are doing to their lives.


 

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