Presented at the 2017 Abbeville Institute Summer School.
As scholars dedicated to exploring what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition, we are most often drawn to the antebellum South and the early federal period, the days when Jeffersonian federalism and political economy reigned supreme and Southern statesmen were regarded as the best in the land. We still fight the old battles, taking our time to explain the morality of secession and nullification, the depth of antebellum Southern literary and religious figures, the Jeffersonian critique of industrial capitalism, and the unquestioned superiority of Southern legal scholars and political theorists like St. George Tucker, Abel P. Upshur, John Taylor of Caroline, and John C. Calhoun. Antebellum Southerners, as Eugene Genovese pointed out, have an important place in the historical record, not merely as subjects of condemnation as the modern profession so often proclaims, but as real intellectuals whose “finest aspects of their thought, shorn from the tragic commitment to slavery and racism, constitute a searing critique of some of the most dangerous tendencies in modern life.” We wield pens instead of rifles and charge the ramparts for historical glory, waving our flags and hoping that we will not meet the same fate as Pettigrew’s men at Gettysburg. Unfortunately, the cultural Marxists stand on Cemetery Ridge, supported by the huge cannons of the Lincolnian myth, the professional academy, and their allies that control American pop culture and media.
This is instructive for Southern historians, particularly those who refuse to subscribe to the presentist narrative that saturates the establishment academy. I am not suggesting that we concede the field, surrender, and retreat to our homes, but we should we die in vain glory, either. The old battles are still worthwhile, and we can find avenues to parry their attacks, perhaps even mount an oblique assault. An Institute of Northern Studies dedicated to Northern hypocrisy on a variety of antebellum issues—slavery, secession, racism, history, literature—would be splendid. This has been and continues to be our goal, to chip away at the “treasury of counterfeit virtue” of Northern self-righteousness. This is often enjoyable—indeed it can be quite exhilarating—but by focusing most of our energy on the antebellum period, we leave other parts of Southern history open to the ravages of the modern historian, a group which views every subject through the lens of race, class, and gender.
The postbellum period in Southern history has suffered the most for this. The historian George Tindall, often considered one of the deans of the New South field, wrote that “Part of the trouble with the years after Reconstruction has been the apparent lack of dramatic appeal.” This is true. Modern Southern historians looking for a topic are naturally drawn to the conflict of the antebellum period. More often, they look at the antebellum era and the War as an opportunity to either gut or support the “lost cause” narrative. For example, current Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust crafted an image of rowdy riotous women in the South during the War to combat the “myth” that women enthusiastically supported the Southern cause. This, of course, belies the historical record, but Faust made a career out of her attempts to destroy the so-called “lost cause myth.” She is not alone. An entire library could be filled with books dedicated to the eradication of the “lost cause.” The modern political and cultural anti-Southern pogroms are merely an extension of this trend.
At the heart of this historical debate is not the Confederacy itself, but the memory of the antebellum South, or in other words the collective remembered past of the Southern people. Faust, like other anti-“lost causers” in both the historical profession and the mainstream educational, political, and cultural establishment, is not really concerned with Southern history per se, but with how Southerners and Americans at large interpret and remember that history. Their goal is political not intellectual. Charles Dew, whose Apostles of Disunion is now required reading for graduate students across the United States, openly admitted as such when he wrote in the preface that he intended his work to be a polemic against the “neo-Confederate” movement. That is a political not a historical statement.
This is why Richard Weaver chose to write about the postbellum South in his seminal The Southern Tradition at Bay subtitled A History of Postbellum Thought. Weaver understood that is where the real battle was taking place, as Southerners came out of the War with the intent of defining the South and defending their cause. Making the term “lost cause” a pejorative tied to race and slavery has not only altered our perception of the antebellum South, but has critically wounded the study of the New South as well. It was the New South, after all, which supposedly made the whole thing up. They lied. These, then, are the great questions of our age. Who were the “New South” leaders, what did they want, was their conception of the Old South rooted in wishful mythmaking or honest history, how did they ultimately affect American politics and culture, was the “solid South” based entirely on the principle of “white supremacy,” and most important, can the study of the New South provide examples of the Southern tradition, meaning was there a continuity between the Old South and the New?
This question of continuity can be addressed in several ways, but the two most pressing issues are cultural and economic, with culture comprising political culture as well as the general habits, attitudes, and ideas of the Southern people.
The New South is often regarded as a transitional phase for the Southern economy. When Henry Grady visited New York in 1886 and gave his famous “New South” speech, he championed “new ideas and aspirations” in the South. These included most conspicuously railroads and factories in place of cotton fields and cash crops. That image of an industrializing South stuck. The South, it was argued, would only be rescued from the crushing poverty brought on by the War through economic diversification. We often attach the “New South” moniker to economic transformation. Certainly there were Southerners before the War who pushed this message. James De Bow’s Review argued that the South needed to diversify its economy to keep pace with the North. A few industrial centers took root, most importantly Columbus, GA, Augusta, GA, and Richmond, VA, but most Southerners did not see the necessity in investing money in factories or railroads when they could become very wealthy growing cotton, sugar, or rice. And the good, navigable rivers of the South seemed to make railroads an expensive and wasteful economic adventure. The same held true for factories. Large plantations were a certain avenue to wealth; factories were not.
Historians have debated the wealth of the Old South, but studies in the 1970s conclusively proved that the South was not poor before the War and wealth was distributed across a wide swath of society, not concentrated in a few “oligarchs” who ruled the region. There were more “middling” landowners and a more vibrant “middle class” than the traditional image of Southern life portrayed. What transpired after the War, of course, was crushing poverty for the entire region, and it seemed that the South had to adopt new economic models to dig itself out of the Yankee imposed economic mess. What might be surprised to most, however, was that the South remained predominantly agricultural well into the mid-twentieth century. Most Southerners, black and white, were still farmers. Only 15 percent of Southerners were engaged in manufacturing in 1910 and by 1930 70 percent of the South was still rural, compared to 44 percent for the rest of the United States. Cotton production doubled between the 1870s and 1890s, as did production for other cash crops including tobacco. Farms did begin to diversify. By the 20th century, the South was the leading exporter of fruits and vegetables and both wheat and cattle production increased exponentially.
There were warning signs that this would soon change, hence the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand. The Southerners who penned that marvelous collection of essays were concerned that the way of life they had all known and accepted as the bedrock of stable civilization, land and agriculture, was slowly being chipped away by mechanization. Nearly ninety years later, their prognostications have been proven correct. Today Southerners are more concerned with Wall Street stocks than the cotton price. But this talk is not concerned with the broad transformation of the Southern economy nor with the micro-economics of the region, but how Southerners coped with this transformation within the context of being Southern.
The Agrarians were Southern first and foremost. Their worldview was pegged to a way of life entirely unique in the American experience. They came from a region steeped in history and culture, which is why they reacted so harshly to H.L. Mencken’s characterization of the region as the Sahara of the Bozart. Mencken, of course, was not entirely disparaging the South in his famous or infamous essay. His was a lament of what once was. As he wrote, antebellum Southern civilization was “the best that these states have ever seen.” But Mencken missed the vital link between the old and the new, the continuity that held the past to the present. The South may have been changing, but it was a uniquely Southern change, and as the Agrarians pointed out in scathing commentary, Mencken did not understand nor recognize the jewels the South produced after the War. She was still a vibrant section, which is why modern students of the South, particularly those interested in saving Southern civilization, should pay more attention to the New South.
Southerners were still consciously Southern in the postbellum period. This may seem like an obvious statement, but we have to remember that their identity was constantly being attacked and disparaged by Northern forces. Reconciliation had not yet arrived in the 1860s and 1870s and even into the early 1900s, the South was often still the conspicuous other in American society, the section of traitors and the economic and social drag on American progress. Southerners sought to salvage their identity from the ruins of war. More important, Southerners wanted to show the American people that their region was vital to the American experience. And Southerners aimed to place their own stamp on this idea of progress. Genovese called this the “slaveholder’s dilemma” in the antebellum period, the coupling of the belief in progress with a labor system that was characterized as medieval. In the postbellum period, Southerners aspired to show their Northern counterparts that their civilization was as “progressive” as the North. Simply put, they clamored for acceptance within the context of their own unique identity. It was not cultural assimilation they desired but real diversity. This has been despairingly called “the New South Creed,” a “myth” that helped spawn the “lost cause” myth. Those who tear down the “New South Creed” do so in the same way they attack the “lost cause.” The Creed was a myth perpetrated by Southern advocates who lied about the real conditions of the South in order to attract foreign capital, meaning Northern investment. This ultimately involved the establishment of Jim Crow segregation—a system C. Vann Woodward pointed out was created in Northern cities and then copied in the South with much resistance from the “redeemer class.” So how much of this was true? Was the South a cultural wasteland after the War? How did Southerners Southernize industrialization? And how did the South view its past?
There are so many questions to be answered in the New South period, and yet too few of us spend any time investigating and studying that era of Southern history. My focus in my talks today will be on three areas that need further development: political and philosophical continuity between the Old and New South; the effort by Southern intellectuals to place the South at the forefront of American culture and history; and Southern attempts to “Southernize” the growing industrial economy in the South.
In the decades following the War, nearly 700 former Confederate leaders served in elected positions at every level of government. One, LQC Lamar, served on the Supreme Court. In some cases, these leaders became Republicans and helped form early Reconstruction efforts, most notably Amos Akerman who held the position of Attorney General in the Grant administration. Akerman was later sacked because he opposed federal aid to struggling Northern railroads. By the 1870s, there were enough former Confederate leaders in the Congress that one California newspaper thought it necessary to print the names of every “rebel” who represented the Democratic Party in Washington D.C. These men—often called the “rebel brigadiers”—would infuriate their Northern counterparts with continual references to the glory of the Old South.
John Warwick Daniel of Virginia—often called the Lame Lion of Lynchburg—epitomized these “rebel brigadiers.” Daniel was severely wounded three times during the War. He was shot through the hip during the Battle of First Manassas only to return to combat within the year. He carved a bullet out of his hand with a pocketknife in 1862 and nearly bled to death during the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. Daniel became one of the most powerful Southern voices in the United States Senate. He served there from 1887-1910.
Daniel supported Winfield Scott Hancock for president in 1880 as the only hope of real reconciliation between the sections and his public career, while often characterized as either rabidly partisan or rabidly racist, displayed a willingness to bury the hatchet and move forward as a unified federal republic. But Daniel never lost sight of Southern political principles or the role the South, in particular, Virginia, played in the early history of the United States. After Daniel’s death in 1910, one contemporary remarked: “I fancy that John Daniel would have named Thomas Jefferson as the greatest American statesman; certainly his own political instincts and ideals were largely those which Jefferson had caused to prevail. Like Jefferson, he trusted the people of his country, because by close intimacy and wide experience he had found them worthy of trust and believed them also worthy of freedom and political power. His abiding faith in the honesty of his fellow citizens, his rooted belief in their common sense, his trust in the appeal to the educated reason of the voters, his assurance that human society is capable of indefinite advancement in virtue and uprightness, his firm conviction that majorities rule not by might alone but of right as well, made of Thomas Jefferson the typical American and the like qualities made of John Daniel the typical Jeffersonian Democrat.”
There was much truth to this assessment. Daniel was asked to speak about Jefferson Davis’s life and character before the Virginia Legislature in 1890, just one year after the former President’s death. His purpose was to honor the man and his legacy and to vindicate the South and its struggle for independence. Daniel said, “Jefferson Davis never advocated an idea that did not have its foundation in the Declaration of Independence; that was not deducible from the Constitution of the United States as the fathers who made it interpreted its meaning; that had not been rung in his ears and stamped upon his heart from the hour when his father baptized him in the name of Jefferson and he first saw the light in a Commonwealth (Kentucky) that was yet vocal with the States’-Rights Resolutions of 1798.” Davis, Daniel insisted, should have been etched in stone among the great pantheon of world heroes. His cause was that of America.
Daniel asked, “Did not the South love American institutions? What school-boy cannot tell? Who wrote the great Declaration? Who threw down the gage, “Liberty or Death?” Who was chief framer of the Constitution? Who became its great expounder? Who wrote the Bill of Rights which is copied far and wide by free commonwealths? Who presided over the convention that made the Constitution and became in field and council its all in all defender? Jefferson, Henry, Madison, Marshall, Mason, Washington, speak from your graves and give the answer.”
And Daniel emphasized that American history had been defined by the South, from the Old Northwest territory to Texas, Southerners had led the charge to settle North America, to bring America to the West, and by America he meant the principles that defined the South: liberty, independence, and free government. Their cause was that of the patriot who rode to battle against the British in 1776, both North and South.
Modern critics would call this “Lost Cause” mythology, but Daniel displayed a cogency in his advocacy for the South in every possible venue. He was asked to give the concluding oration at the dedication of the Washington Monument in 1885. The speakers of the day included the “Old Icicle” John Sherman, brother of William T. Sherman, and President Chester Arthur. Daniel heaped praise on the New England patriot during the American War for Independence but reminded the audience that Virginia had been first to resist the Stamp Act and had been the first to propose independence. He invoked the great names from Virginia history in an effort to place the Old Dominion at the forefront of the American experience. More importantly, Daniel emphasized that Washington was a Virginian before he was an American. This was no “Lost Cause” mythology. Southern historians in the post bellum period used it to dig at the notion that America had been formed by New Englanders. This was another skirmish in the long cultural war between North and South that began, as Daniel illustrated in his speech, during the English Civil War of the 1640s. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed beautifully explains the cultural differences between North and South long before the slavery question was interjected into American politics. Daniel and other Southerners had been saying this for years.
Daniel is but one example of the dozens of Southerners who connected the Old South to the New, who sought to provide historical context for the actions of the Southern states in 1860-61. This may be a myth to those with a social or political agenda, but to the men who survived the War and lived in the defeated South, the “myth” was a powerful reality. Even Henry Grady, so conspicuously tied to the “New South Creed,” worked to hitch the Old South to the New. In one high profile political campaign, Grady and his Atlanta Constitution supported John B. Gordon for governor in 1886 against August Octavius Bacon, a Macon lawyer, businessman, and statesman. Gordon had tarnished his reputation as a political leader while in the United States Senate—several letters indicating corruption were published in the press—and he was virtually broke in 1886, but the Southern people still held him in high regard for his military efforts during the War. Grady expertly used this to his advantage when he invited both Jefferson Davis and Gordon to the cornerstone ceremony for the Confederate monument in Montgomery, AL in 1886. 5,000 people attended that day, but over 100,000 people, many of whom were former Confederate soldiers, flocked to catch a glimpse of Davis and Gordon when they traveled to Georgia.
Lost in this story is A.O. Bacon, a future anti-imperialist, limited government Senator of the United States. Bacon also served in the Confederate army, but never had the public profile of Gordon. His political career was fairly free of scandal and Bacon was the favorite to win the governorship until Grady interjected Gordon into the race. Bacon personified the continuity between the Jeffersonian principles of the Old South and the application of those principles to the New. He favored diversification of the Southern economy but thought men like Grady had taken it too far. He went head to head with the administration of Teddy Roosevelt over the unconstitutional expansion of executive power and joined hands with a diverse group of statesmen and business leaders in opposition to the Spanish-American War. To the end, Bacon favored the policies that formed the early Jeffersonian republicans. He was recognized as the architype of the Southern gentlemen, the walking contrast to the new breed of Southern leaders like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina and even Henry Grady.
As these conservative voices began to die off in the early 20th century, they were replaced by the “progressives.” Woodward claims that Southern progressives were at one time Southern conservatives. There is some truth to this statement. One thing that has often perplexed antebellum Southern historians is why these men accepted a strong federal government. The Wilson administration ran roughshod over the Constitution, often with the complicit support of the Southern congressional delegation. The answer, I think, is to be found in their disdain for the Northern elite.
Take for example the great Southern political leaders of the 1910s and 1920s, men like Oscar Underwood, Henry Steagall, and Henry D. Clayton of Alabama, Carter Glass of Virginia, and Arsene Pujo of Louisiana. All supported, at least to some extent, the progressive agenda of the Wilson administration. Underwood helped craft the Underwood Tariff, which included a revised income tax with a punitive top marginal rate. Clayton was famous, or infamous, for the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and both Glass and Steagall had their names attached to the banking regulations known as Glass-Steagall which were recently repealed by the Republican controlled Congress. Pujo waged a one-man war against central banking and denounced the Federal Reserve as a dangerous institution. Put together, you can see the Jefferson/Taylor resistance to Northern finance capital but without the corollary of resistance to strong central government. These men had figured out that the apparatus the Republican Party put in place in the nineteenth century could be used against them. If they wanted big government, let them have it with a Southern brand of regulation. Northern finance capital and industrialists were the group harmed the most by these regulations. At the same time, Clayton made a strong push for agricultural loans which eventually happened. Punish the Northern elite and help the small farmer. We can quibble with their methods—and even Underwood reversed course in his Drifting Sands of Party Politics published in 1928 after he left Congress—but the intent was purely Jeffersonian.
The same can be said for the group of Southerners that led the Congress during the mid-twentieth century, people like Richard B. Russell of Georgia, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, Harry Byrd of Virginia, John Stennis of Mississippi, and even men like Huey Long of Louisiana. They are often denounced for their stand against Civil Rights, but all espoused a form of Jeffersonian political economy and Southern charm that made them irresistible to a broad spectrum of the American public. Ervin kept a published phone number so anyone could call him at home, even the loons who would often keep him on the phone for hours at a time. The Left has long wrestled over admiring his stand against Nixon and his opposition to “no knock laws” while wondering how such a principled defender of civil liberties could oppose federal Civil Rights legislation. Long was instrumental in the careers of the Vanderbilt Agrarians when many taught at LSU. Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men would not have been possible without the Kingfish, and Long’s “Share the Wealth” program had a recognizable Jeffersonian influence in its attack on big banks and government supported finance capital even if its methods shaded toward socialism. David Chandler’s The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians published in 1979 outlines why Southerners have been able to control the halls of Congress, but all of these 20th century figures need our attention. What can we learn from them and can we separate their views on race which are not palatable to the 21st century politico from their views on government and finance? I think the answer is definitively yes, but work needs to be done in this area.
The Southern attitude toward organized finance leads to another question. How did the Old South affect the economic life of the New? Certain Southern attitudes toward labor and work permeated the industrializing South. Most historians have focused on the system of sharecropping and crop lien, and rightly so, for it impacted a large swath of the Southern people, both white and black. Most Southerners were still farmers well into the twentieth century so labor patters in Southern communities were still tied to the land. Lost in much of this work are free black property owners and the impact of economic devastation on both the white and black community. It used to be that Reconstruction was portrayed as a stain on American history, a time when Northern policies were unduly harsh toward white Southerners, particularly in regard to economic activity. Philip Leigh’s Southern Reconstruction, just published in 2017, has concisely shown the effects of Northern policies on the Southern people. More work needs to be done here. As an aside, the now popular Southern novelist Ron Rash does a good job with the New South through literature. His One Foot in Eden and Serena depict Southerners wrestling with modernity and the changing nature of Southern society. We can still gain something from Southern literature, but more on that later.
The South, of course, undertook industrialization slowly, and did so in their own way. While many Southern factories adopted Northern labor models and hired women and children to do much of the work, by the early twentieth century such patterns had been modified to adopt a more humane approach to labor. This was born in the paternalism of Southern labor relations before the War. That term, paternalism, is now considered a trigger, but there was a time when studies of antebellum Southern labor discussed whether the South was paternalistic or ultra-capitalist. My thought is that was a bit of both. Southerners made money but even as the establishment historian Julie Saville notes in her The Work of Reconstruction, slave labor models were often determined by the circumstances of the plantation and not by some Northern conception of wage labor and the nature of work. There was a rhythm to Southern plantation work that carried over into the New South and into the factories.
For example, a 1950s documentary on the Avondale Mills in Sylacauga, Alabama highlights the paternalistic system so common in Southern factories at this time. Workers were given homes, gardens, schools, public amenities like swimming pools, and a stake in the town. To be sure, this took time to develop. The founder and scion of the Avondale project, Braxton Bragg Comer staunchly opposed child labor restrictions in the early twentieth century, but by the 1920s, much of that was dropped in favor of paternalism. The Callaway Family in LaGrange, GA practiced the same type of system in their cotton mills even in the late nineteenth century. Fuller Callaway remarked that he wanted to organize the mill on “human lines.” His motto was simple: “If you are working with cows, you have to think like cow. If you are working with men, you have to think like them. And you must never expect them to do anything that isn’t human.” Callaway called the poor people of LaGrange the finest people on Earth and later gloated, “I make American citizens and run cotton mills to pay the expenses.”
There are countless stories across the South of this type of economic model, and even today the South is the home to dozens of companies that regularly appear on Forbes Top 100 for employee relations and benefits. TYSYS and AFLAC are routinely ranked highly for employee relations. Both are headquartered in Columbus, GA. TYSYS was founded by W.C. Bradley and boasts a “servant leadership” model that is the envy of many other companies. This includes family counseling benefits based on a religious model. Before Google became the standard by which other companies are measured in regard to benefits, there were Southern companies that took pride in labor relationships. The stories behind these companies need our attention, for so often the Marxists and carpetbaggers take hold of the narrative and focus on the supposed misdeeds and ill-gotten gains of these men and not the value they provided to their communities. No one can forget the Callaways in the Pine Mountain region. The Callaway family turned to philanthropy after selling their stock in the mills and formed a beautiful private nature reserve and began donating to several causes designed to help the people of West Georgia, including investing heavily in LaGrange College.
Finally, Southern literature, perhaps, has had and will continue to have the greatest impact on how Americans view both the New and Old South. Southerners were certainly conscious of this in the postbellum period. Again, Mencken’s slap at the South as the “Sahara of the Bozart” does not quite work. The Agrarians famously took him to task for this claim, and the salutary effect of such a flippant statement helped elevate Faulkner, O’Connor, and others to higher acclaim. College students will still read Faulkner and O’Connor if nothing else from the South. That is a good place to start but by default it accepts Mencken’s umbrella condemnation of Southern literature in the period to 1930.
Over a decade before Mencken said that about the South and its intellectual worth, several Southern writers and academics produced a multi-volume study of Southern literature titled Library of Southern Literature. These types of collections were popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They were part encyclopedia, part history, and part literature. The editors would select both the best writers and their best works, write nice introductions to the content and then allow the reader to sample why the author was included in the anthology. But the editors of this collection knew something else was at stake. Like the multi-volume Southern history I will discuss in my next talk, the aim of this particular collection was rehabilitation and reunification, of placing the South within the “American nation.” The editors were consciously Southern and hoped that their efforts would “enrich” the American experience by providing tales of…home. Edward Alderman, in the introduction to the series, wrote: “The South has been called a sincere and distinctive section of the republic. It is all that and more. Of all our well-defined sections it seems to be the richest in romanticism and idealism, in tragedy and suffering, and in pride of region and love of home. English civilization began on its water courses, and for nearly three hundred years it has lived under an ordered government. It is difficult to imagine how the Nation could have been fostered into maturity without the influences that came from the South. Under the play of great historic forces this region developed so strong a sense of unity within itself as to issue in a claim of separate nationality, which it was willing to defend in a great war. No other section of our country has ever known in its fullest sense so complete a discipline of war and defeat; nor has any group of men or states ever mastered new conditions and reconquered peace and prosperity with more dignity and self-reliance. Here then would seem to be all the elements for the making of a great literature — experiences of triumph and suffering, achievement and defeat.” Alderman was born in North Carolina in 1861 and was serving as the President of the University of Virginia when he penned these lines. He had also been the president of the University of North Carolina and Tulane University. Could anyone image the current President of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, writing this? Simply uttering the word “Southern” in a public UVA setting would force her to issue a lengthy apology for using such offensive language.
The aging Joel Chandler Harris served as one of the Editors in Chief of the series. Harris, of course, gained fame as both a journalist for Henry Grady’s Atlanta Constitution and as the author of the Uncle Remus stories that delighted children across the United States. Harris was one of the most popular literary figures of postbellum America, but he, and his stories, have been largely forgotten today in part because they use “ethnic” language, the same thing Faulkner used in many of his works, but Harris was viewed as a conservative and Faulkner a liberal, making Harris a fugitive and Faulkner a hero. Of course, this is a misreading of Faulkner but regardless, Harris has been cast aside as an archaic reminder of a South that needs to be buried. This is both unfortunate and historically inaccurate, but what can we expect from a politically correct world?
No one from a Northern institution graced the list of contributors and editors for the Library of Southern Literature. Charles Kent, Professor of English at UVA and editor of several good collection of Southern poetry, and C. Alphonso Smith, founder of the Virginia Folklore Society, first Edgar Allen Poe Professor of English at UVA, and author of a fine biography of O. Henry, served as Associate Editors. The list of advisors and executive board members for the series was a “who’s who” in Southern intellectual, educational, and political life at the time. The most important classicist of the era, Basil Gildersleeve, lent his name to the project as did Gen. Stephen D. Lee. No less than fifteen president or chancellors of Southern Universities were part of the editorial board and several current or ex-governors, judges, congressmen, and ecclesiastical leaders participated as well. No current Southern literary project can match the esteemed—and pro-Southern—members of this group.
The collection not only included men and women of letters, but those who had made an oratory or political impact on the South as well. For example, Volume VI includes speeches by John B. Gordon, Wade Hampton, William Henry Harrison, and Robert Hayne along with works by Harris and William Hamilton Hayne among others. Every other book in the sixteen volume collection followed the same pattern. By showing that the South was more than just a backwater region with little artistic merit, these Southerners placed the section at the heart of the American experience, and it would not be a stretch to conjoin the literary theme with that of Southern music, perhaps the most enduring aspect of Southern culture and arts. No form of “American” music was born outside of the South, and like music, as Alderman emphasized, to be both good and interesting, literature has to have an attachment to home, to a place and a people, and those people need a story to tell. No section in America has a better story than the South.
In Ghosts of the Confederacy, Louisiana State University History Professor Gaines Foster is highly critical of both the motives and the content of the Library of Southern Literature. He views it as little more than artful propaganda designed to curry favor with the wave of “Lost Cause” mythology that saturated the South in the postbellum period and to place the South in a better position vis-à-vis the North. Noting that several of the authors held private views that contradicted their public statements in regard to the War and Southern identity and often called “to free history from the stifling sentimentality of the veterans,” Foster cannot understand why these professional academics “did little to distance themselves from the commonly accepted interpretations of Confederate history.” This statement says more about Foster than it does about the Southern academics of the early postbellum period. Foster is admitting he thinks Southerners made a conscious decision to lie about their past in order to forge a “Lost Cause” myth tied into a “New South Creed.” This is why this period of Southern history is critical to our current situation. People like Foster control the narrative. It has not always been so. Perhaps these academics “bought” the history of the period because it was largely true. No current establishment academic has dared make that claim. It would be career suicide, but if the academy was seriously dedicated to real scholarship, it would embrace Genovese’s call to understand Southerners and Southern society without haphazardly condemning it, and Richard Weaver’s insistence that the South has much to teach modern America. But as Clyde Wilson has noted, this would place the burden of the “myth” of the War on the North, not the South, and would take the fire out of the current crusade against Southern symbols. To the political and academic Left, that can never be allowed to happen.