Thursday, October 12, 2006

Southern, or Appalachian?

Several months ago, I discovered a fascinating book, W.J Cash's The Mind of the South, published in 1941. I posted some interesting Web references here, and got a gracious comment from W.J Cash's great-niece, Mary K. Elkins, a talented Web designer.

Cash's book is a cultural history of the American South in the way that Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire is a history. Cash, a Southerner, critiques mid-twentieth-century problems such as toxic race relations, intractable rural poverty, sickly nostalgia for an imaginary past, and paralyzing class consciousness. Whether his history is accurate or not, his prose is compelling.

I heard echoes of the rhetoric of "Appalachian otherness" in Cash's analysis of eighteenth and nineteenth century Southern history. In fact, "The South," rather than "Our Southern Mountains," may be the real Land of the Nine-Fingered People. Here is one passage that took my fancy.

Again, if the Southern social order had blocked in the common Southerner, it had yet not sealed up the exit entirely. If he could not escape en masse, he could nevertheless escape as an individual. Always it was possible for the strong, craving lads who still thrust up from the old sturdy root-stock to make their way out and carve out wealth and honor in the very oldest regions....But in their going these emergent ones naturally carried away with them practically the whole effective stock of those qualities which might have generated resentment and rebellion. Those who were left behind were the simplest of the simple men of this country--those who were inclined to accept whatever the day brought forth as in the nature of things--those whose vague ambition, though it might surge up in dreams now and then, was too weak ever to rise to a consistent lust for plantations and slaves, or anything else requiring an extended exercise of will--those who, sensing their own inadequacy, expected and were content with little.

Moreover, they were in general those in whom the frontier tradition was likely to run strongest; which is to say that they were often almost indifferent, even in their dreams, to the possession of plantations and slave and to the distinctions which such possessions set up. For it is characteristic of the frontier tradition everywhere that it places no such value on wealth and rank as they command in an old and stable society. Great personal courage, unusual physical powers, the ability to drink a quart of whisky or to lose the whole of one's capital on the turn of a card without the quiver of a muscle--these are at least as important as possessions, and infinitely more important than heraldic crests. In the South, if your neighbor overshadowed you in the number of his slaves, you could outshoot him or outfiddle him, and in your own eyes, and in those of many of your fellows, remain essentially as good a man as he.

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