The Mind of the Old South

A review of All Clever Men, Who Make Their Own Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South, edited with an introduction by Michael O’Brien. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. 1982. 456 pages.

The intellectual history of the South is yet to be written. This assertion bootlegs two assumptions that do not go unchallenged. The first is that there is something called the South distinct enough to have a history. There are those who, from a variety of standpoints, dispute this premise. Some seem to feel that the South is evil and that therefore it is best treated as spurious and unreal, a kind of temporary aberration from the norm of a progressive democratic universe. For others the South is intangible, dubiously quantifiable, and therefore we should concern ourselves with other things about which we can make more reliable, scientific generalizations. These challenges would seem to be overruled by common sense. The South must be in some sense a historical reality— millions have for generations acted as though it were, and even today, hundreds of presumptively sane people throughout the globe are devoting careers to studying it.

The second bootlegged premise is that this phenomenon of the South, if admitted to be real, had a life of the mind sufficient to justify an intellectual history. Here we find it more difficult to secure assent. It will perhaps be admitted by many that Richard Beale Davis’s three volumes established that there was intellectual and cultural activity in the colonial South significant enough for historical attention and distinct enough to be understood as Southern. (That is, distinct enough from the mind of New England which since the middle of the nineteenth century has been assumed to be equivalent to the mind of America.) As we can make some headway on good authority towards assent in regard, to the colonial era, so, too, can we with modern times. Few would dispute that there has been in the twentieth century literary and intellectual activity which could reasonably be called Southern and which has been of significance, some would even say of world significance.

Thus, if the intellectual history of the South has not been written, some pieces of it have been patched together in a preliminary sort of way. The great lacuna is the nineteenth century. Here, according to accepted notions, to the extent that Southerners exercised their intellects at all. it was merely in a sterile, reactionary, unreflective defense of the evil, obsolete and defective ideas of slavery and state rights. These having been justly thrust into the wastebasket of history, nothing was left but an equally sterile and reactionary romanticization of a delusionary Lost Cause, up until the time (placed by different authorities at different points in time and for some still in the future) when the South was forced to “join the twentieth century.” (Union with the twentieth century is, today, not universally considered so unmixed a blessing as it was just a few years ago.)

Yet, it is inherently implausible that the interval between, say, Jefferson and Faulkner, could have been empty of anything of interest in its content or movement. Until very recently, this inherently implausible account of history has gone nearly unchallenged. Presumably, one would not expect to find anywhere in 19th century America the Athenian academy, or even the intellectual concentration and standards of Oxford or Berlin in their best days. However, were there in the Old South men and women who were intelligent, widely read and traveled, interested in and abreast of the world of ideas past and current, and capable of formulating their thoughts creatively and communicably? Did the Old South, in other words, exhibit an intellectual culture in the best sense of that term rather than merely journalists and orators concerned with an apologia for their vested interests?

One way of answering this question yes, which has been pursued and developed by scholars in the last few decades but which has not yet been fully consummated, is literary. The more one understands the components of the literary achievement of figures like Faulkner and the Agrarians, the more apparent it becomes to the reasonably perceptive that such creation must rest upon historical roots, must have literary forebears. Thus, the creative literature of the Old South is very gradually being uncovered and assessed in context. A different and somewhat more direct answer is given in All Clever Men, the first book published by the University of Arkansas Press. The volume presents fourteen representative essays from the journals and books of the Old South. They are selected so as to show a variety of good minds at work on subjects related to the mainstream of Western culture as it was understood at the time.

All are unconcerned with narrow apologetics. All are by persons who no more would have rejected the description Southern than Emerson would have denied he was a New Englander or Carlyle that he was a Scotsman. The selections are prefaced by an introductory essay that is a masterful description of the intellectual terrain of the Old South, its relation to the map of the world, and of the reasons why that terrain has gone uncharted and largely unknown. The author’s insistence upon the significance of Southern mental activity is all the more persuasive in that he is not in the least interested in defending the Old South per se, but is interested in correcting and perfecting the record in regard to the larger intellectual history and historiography of the period.

This book has received some attention, but less or more perfunctory attention than it merits. This is partly because the British born and educated editor deals with his materials in a manner that is at the same time so broadly erudite and so playful that it is off-putting to earnest American scholars. To few American scholars does it occur that their own intellectual foibles, conventions, and blind spots can be subjected to the same kind of detached critical appraisal that they as a matter of course mete out to others. Another reason for the relative neglect of All Clever Men is that suggested by O’Brien as responsible for the neglect of his subject matter heretofore: one of the conventions of American intellectuals is that intellectual and cultural activity and achievement are coexistent with progressivist social and political views. Where progressive views are absent, there could not possibly, therefore, be significant intellect at work. Thus, it is simply unthinkable that an antebellum Southerner, like George Frederick Holmes, could have been thoroughly familiar with European philosophy, art, and science, since he drew from it entirely different conclusions than Emerson.

Likewise, it is unthinkable (though true) that the greatest of American classicists, Basil Gildersleeve, received his training in antebellum Charleston and remained to the end of his days a fervent Confederate. And such a person as Louisa Cheves McCord, a plantation mistress who was quite a skilled poet and dramatist, but who also wrote eloquently against feminism and in defense of a traditional view of the role of women, could not possibly have existed. But indeed, such persons did exist, and in abundance. The assumption that intellectual achievement and adherence to the latest of leftist fashions are inseparable is, in the long view of history, a ludicrous convention pasted together a half century or so ago.

But, assuming that scholarship as actually practiced is indeed cumulative and self-correcting, the main reason for the relative neglect and misreading of the nature and quality of mental activity in the Old South is simply a matter of logistics. The primary sources have been too scattered and unknown and the task of assessing and drawing the proper conclusions from them too arduous. This book and another edited by O’Brien and David Moltke-Hansen on the intellectual life of antebellum Charleston provide the wherewithal to correct simplistic views of the Southern, and thus of the American mind.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

You might also enjoy these articles...