Reading “Myth and Southern History,” Volume 2: The New South

The Myth and Southern History series jumped right out at me when I was looking for books to read for this project, and it was Volume 2: The New South that seemed most relevant. This second edition, published in 1988, meant that all of my reading so far has been from the 1980s and ’90s.

I have to say first: it’s hard to write succinctly about a multi-author essay collection. The first two books I wrote about for this project were single-author collections – by Wilson and Kirby – so there was the cohesion of responding to one thinker. The second two were single-author works, by Smith and Lamis. This time, it’s a different matter. And I’ll add this confession second: I did skip a few of the essays. Two of them covered historical subjects that were too far back in time for the fifty-year span of Nobody’s Home. Beyond those two, one was an excerpt from a book I’d already read (Gaston’s The New South Creed), and another was an essay I’d already read in another collection (Potter’s “The Enigma of the South” from The Idea of the South).

Of course, Myth and Southern History opens with an introduction – in this case, two of them since it’s a second edition – and the editors use the space to remind us about how myth relates to the study of (Southern) history. Among the definitions they provide are from Thomas A. Bailey, Henry Nash Smith, and Mark Schorer. Bailey’s goes like this: “a historical myth is . . . an account or belief that is demonstrably untrue, in whole or substantial part.” Then, Nash’s: “an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into image.” Finally, Schorer’s: “a large controlling image that give philosophical meaning to the facts of ordinary life.” My understanding of myths leans more toward the latter two. Sure, some myths are easily debunked with clear, inarguable facts, but that matters very little to people who believe in or rely on them to make sense of the world. This recognition doesn’t mean that I endorse or condone a reliance on falsehoods. I simply accept the faulty nature of the mythic imagination as fact.

Here, I need to move away from Southern history for a moment so I can indulge my literary side. Where the mythic imagination involves mixing fact and fabrication,  creative nonfiction – this project’s genre focus – does, too. The uninitiated might guess that the term means a mixture of fact and fabrication as the writers sees fit. Yes and no, and this is where it gets tricky. On the one hand, no— a writer shouldn’t just make things up when writing nonfiction. On the other hand, yes— because the “facts” that the writer pulls from memory are probably somewhat distilled, filtered, and interpreted. The tightrope that must be walked means that the writer of creative nonfiction shouldn’t knowingly make stuff up. Historians, whose business is the collection and interpretation of facts, can get a little miffed with creative writers over this. I understand that and accept it, too. It’s questionable advice to follow the writerly maxim: “Never let the truth stand in the way of good story.” It might make some fact-minded people angry, but the fact remains: we all do it, whether we want to or not. 

Getting back to this collection, it begins with George B. Tindall’s “Mythology: A New Frontier in Southern History.” Originally published in Frank Vandiver’s seminal 1964 essay collection The Idea of the South, Tindall’s essay is the rock on which this house is built. And Tindall seems to be on my side: “To place the ideas of the South in the context of mythology, of course, is not necessarily to pass judgment upon them as illusions,” he writes early on. Then he follows that statement with the assertion that “myths have a life of their own” outside of “empirical fact.” Tindall goes on to explain that the South had long been a “seedbed for the proliferation of myths,” which has made the region what it is— both within it and outside of it.

(I skipped Gaston in this reading, but I do want to mention him. I was fortunate to work at NewSouth Books when we published the 2002 reprint edition of The New South Creed, and I got to meet Dr. Gaston when he came to office. His amiable demeanor combined with the high praise for the book prompted me to read it. I was in my mid-20s, an English major with a bent toward counterculture writers, and The New South Creed (along with a few other books I read around that same time ) steered my thinking away from the bohemian past and toward my home region.  Gaston’s book was one among my introductions to idea that there was much to explore in the South. Maybe, I realized, I wasn’t living in the Sahara of the Bozarts, after all!)

Following Gaston’s and Potter’s essays is one by the editors. Their subject is the Northern view of the South. Though the author-editors didn’t put it exactly this way, I would propose that a subtitle for this essay could have been “The South as Villain.” Here, we encounter the notion that the white people in the victorious Northern states aided in producing a mythology of the South by creating myths of their own. Using the region’s slaveholding past to direct attention away from or even nullify their own discriminatory habits and practices, the North was able to say, “Look how they act!” Here, Gerster and Cords, writing in the late 1970s, remind us that three of the most recognizable works to craft a certain image of the South were created by Northerners: the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Connecticut native Harriet Beecher Stowe, the song “Dixie” by Ohioan Daniel Decatur Emmett,  and the song “My Old Kentucky Home” by Stephen C. Foster from Pennsylvania. Here, we get a sense that, yes, Southerners may have been engaged in purposeful mythmaking . . . but others outside the region were also contributing their own ingredients to that stew.

Skipping two essays on the Progressive Era and the 1920s, respectively, I came to the essay by John Hope Franklin, “The Great Confrontation: The South and the Problem of Change.”  I was surprised by the scope of this essay, which narrates large swaths of Southern history. Franklin notes events from the early period up to, for him, modern times – the essay was published in 1972 – but what impressed me was his theme, condensed into this passage, which I want to quote in its entirety:

It is not the interracial confrontations, important and tragic as they were, that are of prime significance in this discussion. It is the South’s confrontation with change, its response in defending what it regarded as a perfect society, that is instructive. The massive resistance, the fire hoses, police dogs, and electronic cattle prods were, in a real sense, a desperate but futile confrontation with the inexorable forces of change. It all added up to the hopeless defense of a position that, in terms of the nation’s laws and its expressed social philosophy, was illogical and indefensible.

The futility of this defense lay in the failure to take into account the myths and fallacies that were the basis of the white South’s conception of the perfect society.

A reasonable person (or people) should, we would think, look at things that don’t make sense, be willing to acknowledge that wrongheadedness, and ultimately do something else, preferably something that does make sense. Instead, John Hope Franklin points out adeptly, the South – that is to say, Southern whites – chose to resist change, rather than acknowledge that their established way was “illogical and indefensible.” When that is the case, why would any reasonable person expect it to turn out well?

It would be possible to pause and dwell on that question alone for quite some time, but the collection moves on to another giant of Southern history C. Vann Woodward, so I will, too. Woodward’s essay piggybacks on Franklin’s point: where the rest of the United States was built on forward-looking prosperity, Southern culture was built, at least in part, on the “‘un-American’ fate of defeat, poverty, and guilt.” In “The Search for Southern Identity,” published in 1960, he gets into that question of whether the South was really the South anymore, after the World War II-era boom and “Bulldozer Revolution” that improved the economy and raised the standard of living. His question is a longstanding one and related to Paul Gaston’s discussion of the “New South”— It’s new this time— no, wait, I thought it was new last time— Well, sort of, but it’s really new this time . . . Ultimately, Woodward acknowledges the changes that occurred in the 1940s and ’50s, but has this to add:

If Southernism is allowed to become identified with the last ditch defense of segregation, it will increasingly lose its appeal among the younger generations. Many will be tempted to reject their entire regional identification, in the name “Southern,” in order to dissociate themselves from one discredited aspect. If agrarianism has proved to be a second lost cause, segregation will likely prospect for a third.

He spends the rest of the essay warning that the South’s myths will be torn down if the region attempts to resist and maintain its old ways. He couldn’t have known it in 1960, since several major Civil Rights events (and the reactions to them) were still to come, but he lived until 1999, so I guess that he saw: what he warned against happened.

Following historians Franklin and Woodward is Fred Hobson, an English professor, with another major Southern theme: “The Savage South.” I was familiar, before reading this book, with Hobson from two of his books that I’d already read: But Now I See about white conversion narratives and Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain. This time, he’s writing about the mythic image of the “Benighted South” as a dark and dangerous place. The essay was published in 1985, well after the movement and its aftermath, so there’s more historical room for looking back. The Civil Rights movement had shown the nation just how ugly things could get in the South, and now, “[f]ootball standings, not graduate-program rankings, define universities in the public eye.” Yet, there is the “power of public relations” to create new narratives, and Hobson tells us:

It is in this loss of the consciousness of being benighted – or being considered benighted by outsiders; or in some cases, of ever having been considered benighted – that intrigues me. It is in this way that the southern temper has radically changed.

Like a good English professor, Hobson mentions his students (and their ignorance of the past) and also some “neo-gothic” Southern writers and a few Civil Rights-era films, like The Liberation of LB Jones and The Klansman. Ultimately, he writes, the South became less scary as it morphed into the Sun Belt, where air conditioning and strip malls became more prevalent than racial violence.

As the collection winds down, we then encounter Sarah M Evans’ “Myth Against History: The Case of Southern Womanhood,” which was published in 1979. This essay is comparatively brief and not as substantial, though it does raise important issues, prime among them that women played significant roles in Southern culture but were not accorded significant rights, privileges, and standing. Evans remarks on the fact that “[f]ew Southern ladies actually lived the life of” a Southern belle, then spends some time on the contributions of African-American women: from laboring in subsistence agriculture to working for freedom as activists. At the risk of being overly critical, there’s not much here; the essay begins on page 150, and I was surprised, given its subject, to see it end on page 154. (The other essays averaged twelve to fifteen pages in length.)

Then, Charles Roland’s “The Ever-Vanishing South” closes it out. Like the “New South,” this is a lingering and omnipresent issue: is there any such thing as the South anymore? Writing in the early 1980s, Roland has a lot at his disposal for examples. He mentions the shifts from an agriculture-heavy way of life to a more modern, industrialized way. He cites the dire poverty in Mississippi prior to World War II, then alludes to the massive amount of progress to remedy such conditions. But, there are also the unchanging Southern views on “family, history, race, religion, and a sense of place, of concreteness, and of the imperfectability of man.” Roland concedes that the South’s greatest cultural contribution may be its literature, but by contrast, the region “still has the highest rate of illiteracy in the nation.” Toward the end of his essay, he writes:

It would, of course, be foolish to deny that southern attributes are being diluted or diffused at a steady rate. Many of the changes are, of themselves, good. Who would complain over the recent increase in southern productivity and prosperity? Someone has said we ought not be so fond of our disabilities that we are unwilling to give them up when the time comes. But we also ought not forget that every gain has a price.

There’s no afterword or epilogue in Myth and Southern History, so that’s where it ends.

I finished reading this collection in the bleachers at one of my son’s baseball practices. When I closed the book, I looked up and noted how some things change while some don’t. The boys on the team and the dads coaching looked a lot like I remembered from the early 1980s, except that back then teams were either white or black, rarely both. A subtler change in that scene was that, under those ballfield lights, parents were waiting on kids, some in cars, some in the bleachers, and no one was talking to each other. In my day, we rode our bikes to practice, since kids played near our homes, and at ballgames, people knew each other. I mention that to affirm Roland’s point that “every gain has a price.” Our modern families have gained the benefit of being around people unlike ourselves, from all over town, as we enjoy something in common – baseball – while we’ve lost the sense of community that neighborhood leagues provided, and our children have also lost the independence of getting themselves to practice and back home.

My next thought in that line carries me to Fred Hobson’s notions of how the mythic “Benighted South” has faded. In the South, myths are still held very close to people’s hearts, though it’s no longer feasible to wear them on our sleeves. The reticence and hesitation about people unlike ourselves are still motivating factors and still affect our decisions. Whether “unlike ourselves” means race, social class, neighborhood, background, religion, or something else, Southerners are still wary of going where we aren’t comfortable or where we believe that we won’t be welcome. Here, I agree with C. Vann Woodward. When the white South of the 1950s and ’60s wagered its whole pile of chips on maintaining racist patriarchy, that stance and its subsequent defeat created ripples through Southern history that are still felt in the year 2021— a year that old movies had people envisioning as a futuristic dream. Now that we’re here, it’s a lot of the same old shit.

Why so? Because of beliefs, myths, and narratives. In the South, as integration occurred in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, people who didn’t know how to live that way were making their best guesses. For decades, ordinary people shared those guesses with their friends, their neighbors, and their children, while keeping their guesses to themselves around people they were wary of. Those guesses became folklore through conversations, peer pressure, social snubs, and other casual interactions. People were affirmed and assured by encountering guesses like their own, then patterns took shape, and then people were comforted when the dizzying pace of change settled down. Now, here we are.

John Hope Franklin was right: Southerners do resist change. And for some reason, we continue to do what is “illogical and indefensible” by attempting to find ways – subtle and not so subtle – to remain apart from people we’ve decided in advance are unlike ourselves. Even today, we look around uncomfortably and guess about whose guesses will or won’t be like our guesses. Several years ago, I got tired of trying to have conversations with people who wouldn’t reciprocate – I’m one of those chatty people – and I started carrying a book with me to those practices. I let the weight of being ignored and snubbed change my behavior, but I’ve not allowed my beliefs and narratives to be changed. I still believe that new people are worth meeting and knowing, and I also believe that we’d be better off, that the South would be a better place, if we’d put down the phones, tablets, and books that allow us to remain closed-off and talked to each other instead.


 

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