Southern Culture: From Jamestown to Walker Percy

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“Nations are the wealth of mankind, its generalized personalities; the least among them has its own unique coloration and harbors within itself a unique facet of God’s design.”
—Alesandr Solzhenitsyn

James Warley Miles was librarian of the College of Charleston in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also an ordained Episcopal priest. Miles had spent some years in the Near and Middle East collecting manuscripts and was said to know thirty languages. A philosophical book of his had been noticed in European universities. He was, in short, a typical product of the notoriously backward culture of the antebellum South.

During the brutal bombardment of the civilians of Charleston, the longest and most deadly any American city has ever experienced, Miles preached a sermon, offering comfort and encouragement to his fellow Southerners in the trials of their war for independence. Reminding them that history is an unfolding of God’s plan, he said: “No people has ever existed wholly without meaning.”

That suggests to me the way the history of the South, or indeed of any nation, should be approached. As the story of a people whose existence has meaning. But, alas, another reflection from the same time indicates the way that the history of the Southern people is more commonly told. This is the view of a Confederate soldier who had been captured at Gettysburg, written for his hometown newspaper after he had returned South. He described those among whom he had sojourned as a prisoner thus:

They believed their manners and customs more enlightened, their intelligence and culture immeasurably superior. Brimful of hypocritical cant and puritan ideas, they preach, pray, and whine. The most parsimonious of wretches, they extol charity . . . . the blackest-hearted hypocrites, they are religious fanatics. They are agitators and schemers, braggarts and deceivers, swindlers and extortioners, and yet pretend to Godliness, truth, purity and humanity. . . . They say that we are a benighted people, and are trying to pull down that which God himself built up.

Many of these bigots expressed astonishment at finding the majority of our men could read and write; they have actually been educated to regard the Southern people as grossly illiterate, and little better than savages. The whole nation lives, breathes, and prospers in delusions; and their chiefs control the spring of the social and political machine with masterly hands.

I could but conclude that the Northerrn people were bent upon the destruction of the South. All appeared to deprecate the war, but were unwilling to listen to a separation of the old union. . . . A great many, I believe, act from honest and conscientious principles; many from fear and favour; but the large majority entertain a deep-seated hatred, envy and jealousy toward the Southern people and their institutions.

They know (yet pretend not to believe it) that Southern men and women are their superiors in everything relating to bravery, honesty, virtue and refinement, and they have become more convinced of this since the present war; consequently, their worst passions have become aroused, and they give way to frenzy and fanaticism.

We must not deceive ourselves; they are bent upon our destruction . . .
They are so entirely incongruous to our people that they and their descendants will ever be our natural enemies.

Those “descendants” are writing much of the accepted history of the South.

In trying to properly understand the South, about which there is a vast literature, there is, it seems to me, a primary obstacle. Unless we appreciate and allow for the role that the South has played in American intellectual life as the “internal oriental” we will not be in a position to understand very much. The internal oriental is defined as that part of a polity that performs the scapegoat function of an external enemy. The society defines itself, at least in part, by identifying a segment within that is alien or inferior, The good and defining qualities of the society are highlighted and validated by contrast with the deficiencies of the internal other. For example, Communists identify the parasitic bourgeois as the obstacle to the realization of the rule of the proletariat. The self-image of America is a product, in part, of its contrast with and conquest of the alien and inferior South. Or as Tom Landess, has put it, American history is written as the story of the blond hero of the North saving the fair maiden America from the swarthy villain of the South.

Much of the vast literature about the South must be seen as created to emphasize our role as the internal oriental. That is to say, what is said about us is a function of the needs of other types of Americans to justify their own existence and demonstrate their own virtues, rather than a dispassionate attempt to understand our history. To better approach the truth of our history we need to evaluate what is written with this understanding— that it is pervasively tainted by the self-interested perspectives of others. Much of what has been and is being written is a product of the intellectual gamesmanship of the internal oriental—and never more so than today.

Edgar Allan Poe understood this when he responded to an attack by the Boston literati by lampooning them as “Frogpondians”—creatures in a little place which they thought was the center of the universe. William Gilmore Simms saw it when he refuted the lies about the South’s role in the American Revolution. Faulkner expressed a sense of what was going on when he described in LIGHT IN AUGUST “old maids of both sexes” who came to reform the South. Flannery O’Connor famously said that people will believe anything about the South as long as it is strange enough. And Walker Percy had a good reason for dropping Major John Pelham into the Phil Donohue show—to demonstrate exactly which side of the Mason-Dixon line the truly abnormal folks came from. For us scholars it is a sad truth that our creative writers have told our history much better than our historians.

To truly understand the South we need to study it as itself, not as the function of others’ needs. I have taught Southern intellectual and cultural history at undergraduate and graduate levels. I have exposed the students to the actual words of Southern statesmen and writers rather than third-party interpretations of what they said and did. Students invariably express surprise and wonder at the vast gulf between the South as it emerges to them and what they had been taught to assume.

The theme of Dixie as the internal oriental assumes particular virulence because of the desperation of America to define itself in the absence of any genuine culture. The “proposition nation” has a special need to suppress dissenters. It is also particularly virulent, as the soldier suggests, because of the Puritan’s impulse, though now long secularized, to project the evil in his heart onto others. An additional factor, in relegating the South to the despised other, is that it is the most authentic surviving manifestation of Old America, and thus not a part of the experience of the more recent America of the Melting Pot.

Large numbers of Americans are disposed to regard their society as the universal norm—the standard to which all people are, or at least should be, striving to imitate. They approach not only the South but the rest of the world this way and are even persuaded to make war on other peoples to cure them of their unAmerican qualities.

An extreme example is a screed by an Ivy League intellectual who wrote that America is growing more violent because what he calls the “Southern gun culture” has been sneaking over the Potomac and Ohio to contaminate the true America. This was written at the time of Timothy McVeigh from New York and the Unabomber from Harvard and Berkeley (neither of whom used guns, by the way), and the Columbine shooters from Colorado, which is the Western State least influenced by Southerners. Except perhaps Utah, which nurtured Ted Bundy.

This is an extreme example but you see the point. The unstated assumption is that if there is evil in noble and pure America, it must be creeping out of the lower regions where dwell unredeemed Southern people. Southerners are by definition inferior but dangerous. Much of the history of the South has been written by people who are obedient to this same unstated premise, which is to them so much a part of their intellectual equipment that they are not even aware of it. You can’t begin to understand the real history of the South—or the real history of America—unless you allow for this.

Another example. A very able “conservative” historian recently complimented the American people on their ability to meet challenges—like Fort Sumter, Pearl Harbor, and September 11. Pearl Harbor and 9/11, massive sneak attacks by foreign enemies, are equated with Fort Sumter as attacks on real Americans. The bombardment of Fort Sumter, besides being a dispute between Americans, was preceded by a gentlemanly warning, was bloodless, and the garrison were not made prisoner but were allowed to depart in honour. And all the sneakiness involved was on the part of the U.S. government. But Jeff Davis is, without a moment’s hesitation, put into the dock with Tojo and Osama ben Ladin. It is not true, by the way, that the public in the North rallied to the support of the government in 1861 as it did after Pearl Harbor. But one wonders: if Southerners are not to be counted among Americans who rose to the occasion after Fort Sumter, how is that we were permitted to fight alongside real Americans in World War II?

The embedded assumptions of American thinking that relegate Dixie to the internal oreiental are many, but I would identify one assumption that perhaps provides the umbrella for them all: the South has no culture or identity of its own, nothing worthy of study except for its deviations. The South does not exist except as a function of its defects. When I was a young man, it was argued that the South would soon disappear since its defining characteristics: illiteracy, poverty, disease, and racism were being ameliorated. The South was not something different to be understood on its own terms. It existed only as an inferior, defective form of the North. Once corrective measures have been applied, it will be as normal as Ohio or New Jersey. To the extent that it is postulated that the South is different only because of the race question, this view suppresses or prettifies the large history of Northern racism.

It also suppresses the role of the South in American history. It is assumed that Southern applies only to perversions of the real thing. Anything that happens to come out of the South that is good is thus not really Southern. Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, to the extent that they are well thought of, cannot be Southern but just American—that is, they are assimilated to the Northern. Andrew Jackson is held to be a great hero of Northeastern style democracy. His resemblance in almost every respect to another Southerner of the next generation, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, never comes to mind.

A somewhat more sophisticated form of assumption that denies any meaningful identity to the Southern people is that our history has had so many radical discontinuities that we cannot discuss a continuing Southern tradition. The idea of the Great Reaction is a conspicuous example of this. According to the Great Reaction, Southerners were just good normal Americans like Northerners in the Revolution and early republic. Then they ceased to be good Americans and became bad Southern Calhounians who rejected American principles and closed themselves off from progress and enlightenment. A change that can be explained only by their newfound defense of slavery. Finally, they became so unAmerican that they engaged in a wicked rebellion to destroy what the Founding Fathers had established. That the South changed radically in its behaviour and beliefs while the North remained faithful to founding American principles is an absurdity to anyone who has any knowledge that is more than superficial, but it is the controlling theory of most of what has been written about the United States in the 19th century.

This discontinuity that denies the Southern people any meaningful extended identity was skillfully deployed by C. Vann Woodward in his celebrated books about the postbellum region. According to this view, the South sold itself to the corporate world and abandoned all the basis of Southern tradition, becoming just a poor stepchild of capitalism. Woodward’s account of what happened to Southerners in that period, of how they behaved and why, has been shown to be seriously defective and of limited validity from many different perspectives. The implication of discontinuity in Southern culture is substantially false. But Woodward still provides the starting point for nearly all academic discussion.

One antidote to false assumptions is to examine more closely the history of the North, to investigate the peculiarities of Northern history rather than to assume the North as an axiomatic standard of the normal. For indeed, the North underwent radical religious disintegration, economic dislocation, ethnic displacement, and ideological revolution during the time when the South was supposedly engaged in wicked rebellion against the Founding Fathers.

Another antidote is to take note of Richard Weaver’s comparison of the 17th century diaries of Cotton Mather and William Byrd II. How can anyone read those and not understand that Massachusetts and Virginia diverged drastically—a century and a half before Massachusetts found slavery to be unprofitable and almost two centuries before it gave up the slave trade.

Another common distortion of Southern history is the unstated comparison. For instance, it may be argued that the antebellum South was dominated undemocratically by a few large slaveholders and such was its essential nature and the explanation of its behaviour, which has already been defined as deviant. This description of the Old South is demonstrably a lie, but suppose it were true. It tells us nothing without a context. For instance, how did the South compare in this respect to the North? Surely the rich there exercised a disproportionate share of power as they do in every human society. Did the Northern rich exercise more dominance than in the South, or less, or just the same? The question is never even asked. The mere assertion of something about the South is taken as conclusive evidence of its deviation from the good. It is a fact that a lot more Southerners owned slaves than Northerners owned national bank stock or tariff-protected industries, and that the richest slaveholders in the South opposed secession because like all rich people they feared change might upset their possessions. Sherman himself complained that wealthy Southerners were sacrificially fighting in the ranks while Northern rich men were avoiding service and bribing working men and foreigners to enlist.

So pervasive is this idea of the War for Southern Independence being the product of elitist class dominance over the mass of Southerners that it even effects accounts that are professedly pro-Southern. Two recent writers on the so-called Celtic South, James Webb and James Cantrell, while celebrating the virtues of Southerners, blandly accept the slander that the Southern plain folk have been oppressed by their own upper classes. Apparently Tidewater Virginia, Charleston, New Orleans, and the Kentucky Bluegrass are, like Yankees, just another burden upon the brave but maligned rednecks. I am all for celebrating Southern plain folks, even if you give us the dubious label Celtic, but to divide the South along lines designed by our enemies is counter-productive as well as misleading.

SOURCE: From The Abbeville Institute Scholars’ Conference, “The Origin of Southern Identity and the Culture of the Old South,” University of Virginia, February 1-4, 2007.

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 www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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