Reading Stephen A. Smith’s “Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind”

1986 was a quite a while ago. It was the era of floppy disks, landline telephones, VCRs, and cable TV when Stephen A. Smith published his communication-studies book Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind. Smith was then a professor at the University of Arkansas who had also done some some political consulting and advising. The book studied Southern culture through a “scholarly analysis of the symbols of popular culture in the mass media environment.”

Only spanning about 150 pages, Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind  is definitely an academic book. Though Smith’s style is not burdened by heavy jargon or longwinded sentences, the writing is straight to the point and factual, though not unenjoyable.

Smith’s introduction, titled “A South of the Mind,” begins with editor Henry Grady and ends with editor Brandt Ayers while asking whether this “New South” of the 1980s is an actual New South. He briefly touches on the “great diversity of thought and mythology in the region” but also posits “that mythological analysis is a most productive way to understand the ‘collective imagination.'” Near the end of his four-page intro, Smith gives us his thesis:

Mythology will continue to influence behavior through its control of the perception of reality, but in my view it need not have the same limiting effect it has exhibited in the past.

Limiting? How could a culture built on reverence for an imagined past be limiting, I wondered. (Not really.)

In his first chapter, “Old Times There are Not Forgotten,” which of course is a line from the song “Dixie,” Stephen Smith gives us a tour de force through the main myths of the South.  He begins by reminding readers that the (white)  people he’s writing about have a chip on their collective shoulder and a “romantic Southern world view.” Basically, (white) Southerners won’t willingly accept their historical defeat in the Civil War and are also overly sensitive about being poor and have a wild imagination to boot, which is a pretty strong recipe for a mythmaking culture. What we’ve got here is . . . a “cosmic conspiracy against reality.” Smith also cites John M. Anderson, who wrote that Southerners have suffered for a century and a half from “a misidentification of the political order with a part of the social order.” So what are the main myths? First, “the Old South Myth” of the region as a successor to the high-minded and noble cavaliers in England. Second, “the Southern belle,” the untouchable, ideal woman, the perfect counterpart to the noble “Southern gentleman” from the aforementioned myth. Next, “The Rhetorical Myth of the Confederacy” as a principled stand for a righteous cause. And finally, “The Myth of the Lost Cause,” which “allowed Southerners to reaffirm the alleged superiority of their culture by declaring that it had been an antebellum golden age of chivalrous gentlemen planters, magnolia-scented ladies, and plantation mansions.” So, Smith asserts, the South missed its opportunity (during Reconstruction) to re-define itself in national terms but chose instead to harken back to good ol’ days that weren’t all they were imagined to be.

Instead of choosing a forward-thinking path, the South chose a “defensive mythology,” writes Smith in chapter two. After the Civil War was over, after Reconstruction had failed to reconstruct, and as a state of poverty persisted, a variety of characters tried to use the mythology to recast the vision. The New South types tried “defining the future” with industrialization and boosterism, the Populists tried “redefining the past” as a time when everyone had it good, and later, the Agrarians tried to hunker down on “a past that never existed and could not be created now.” By the middle twentieth century, the Dixiecrats in 1948 and the Brown decision in 1954 were dealing with a stolid mythology that had persisted for generations. The result: 

The South’s controlling mythology, its rhetorical vision, had become increasingly unrelated to reality and useless as a means of organizing, interpreting, and understanding contemporary events.

Smith’s third chapter deals with his modernity, during the period after the Civil Rights movement and after the old mythology had failed to explain what was happening. He writes, “Nothing, it seems, was so impotent as a cultural myth whose time has passed.” The facts had not supported the myths, and the result was a time of change. Historians like C. Vann Woodward and George Tindall were writing. Black candidates were getting elected to public offices. College football teams and audiences were integrating. And Smith places himself at the center of the task to interpret it:

In such periods, between the death of a controlling mythology and the birth of its replacement, the communications scholar has an unusual opportunity to observe the reciprocity between mythos and logos. The death of a mythic vision leaves a society consciously seeking definitions of appropriate behavior and unconsciously struggling to find or create a new mythology, to generate new symbols, and to define new goals.

Which leads us toward the heart of his book, his three themes: equality, distinctiveness, and place and community.

The next three chapters deal with one theme each. While I don’t want to spend as much time dissecting each chapter, I do want to write a few words about each theme, which Southerners who are at least middle-aged will recognize. The first, “equality,” involves the ideas that we would finally get it right and form a “biracial egalitarian South.” This was evidenced by using Brown and the movement as a “creation myth” and by the black-white Democratic coalitions of the 1960s and ’70s. Second, “distinctiveness” reminds the reader the Southerners still think of ourselves as unique, as living in a place (the South) within a place (America). Whether food, speech, architecture, sports, or lifestyle, there are things that are Southern. Finally, in “The Theme of Place and Community,” Smith lays out his viewpoint that we see ourselves as being in-this-together. In a time after legalized separation, our spirit of community and of a collective destiny would have to be a part of our future, even after urbanization had decimated the small-town/rural-farming culture of sitting on front porches and gathering at general stores. This holdover from bygone days – an insistence that this is who we are – would then inspire tourism, media productions, and other commodified nostalgia.

Stephen Smith’s seventh and final chapter “The Meaning of Myth” gives us his summation. This new mythology, of a South that wants equality while remaining a distinctive place, is what would get perpetuated by the media in speeches, songs, magazine articles, and more.  This is the image that would get shared, repeated, and perpetuated by “new mythmakers” from a “younger generation,” many of whom were “upper-middle-class professionals.” And though he was writing in 1986, thirty-four years ago, his ideas sound familiar today:

The power of cultural myths, then, is demonstrated by their ability to define reality. Since individuals usually form their self-perceptions and pattern their behavior within a social context, the generally held perceptions of social reality become instructive in determining the individual’s attitudes about events and institutions, the values which they cherish, the terms on which they interact with and respond to other members of society, and the social and political discourse in which they engage and to which they respond. The mythic narrative presents normative roles which serve as models for appropriate behavior by demonstrating approved group values, maximizing individual rewards, and achieving group integration. The new Southern mythmakers thus gained new adherents and supporters while simultaneously discrediting their opponents who clung to the old vision by suggesting that disciples of the older were nonconforming deviants.

Smith was writing that in the mid-’80s, but I was reading his book in late 2020. Though I don’t know that he was spot-on to the extent that one could make a manifesto of this book, he did get a lot of it right. About the “defensive mythology,” Southerners do bristle at insinuations that we’re inferior or backward, even though the facts related to most standard-of-living measures say that we’re both. About the notion that the movement story constitutes a new “creation myth,” that narrative is seeing daylight— Look who we are now, it goes. Our new myths about what is “appropriate behavior” have the past’s hate and violence collected, organized, and commemorated in museums and “interpretive centers” for visitors to survey, while current country music offers its listeners plenty of homogenized imagery of trucks, beer, back roads, fishing, and of course, the Grampa we miss very much.

Looking at it from a current perspective, what Stephen A. Smith’s Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind foretold was two faceted: first, the selling of Southern-ness as still charming but not frightening anymore, and second, the willingness of this conservative culture to latch onto anything that claims it can take us back to the good ol’ days. Though Smith doesn’t mention either: Designing Women premiered the same year that Smith’s book was published, and Lewis Grizzard was in national syndication. Both Southern, neither threatening. By the 1990s, we had the Oxford American on newsstands and Paula Deen on TV. These days, whether its home makeover shows or t-shirts with block-lettered slogans, the new myths and narratives have a lot to offer enterprising minds. And, on that second one, there’s the politics of the family-values, Christian conservative, whose coded language offers a vague vision of bringing things back to the way they once were . . . They just need your vote, and they’ll do the rest.

Reading Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind, I kept thinking, Things change, but they also stay the same, too. The propensity for strong beliefs, myths, and narratives is alive and well in the South. In 1986, when Smith was writing, Alabama was closing a chapter in its history when George Wallace, a master of myths and narratives, completed his fourth and final term as governor of Alabama and retired. However, other beliefs, myths, and narratives came to fill the void. It seems appropriate to mention that two Alabama men received national attention in news related to the storming of the US Capitol on January 6. Connor Sheets, a reporter for al.com, produced an article about one of them, and more broadly about political shifts in north Alabama, titled “How an Alabama man went from Obama supporter to dying in the Capitol insurrection.” By contrast, equally firm beliefs in other narratives about our political process led Georgia to record-breaking voter turnout, while their secretary of state had to stand his ground against a publicized narrative of election fraud. Finally, over in Mississippi, a new state flag emerged earlier this month from another longstanding Southern debate involving beliefs and narratives about the meaning and placement of the Confederate symbols. As the South proceeds with a less Confederate modus operandi, people invested in “the old vision” may be called out as “nonconforming deviants,” but let’s don’t assume that those myths and narratives will ever be dead and gone. 


 

One thought on “Reading Stephen A. Smith’s “Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.