A Review of The Idea of The American South, 1920-1941, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979) by Michael O’Brien.
I have an invitation to extend to Michael O’Brien, the British author of The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941. At his convenience, I would like Mr. O’Brien to accompany me to a small establishment (one of those notorious Southern “fighting and drinking clubs”) known as “Frank’s” in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, on the banks of the James River. We must go on a Saturday night to ensure a full house and high spirits. I shall escort Mr. O’Brien into the building and beg the attention of the revelers. Then I shall defer to Mr. O’Brien so that he may announce to the assembled farmhands and blue-collar workers the underlying thesis of his book: There is no South. After that, Mr. O’Brien must fend for himself, for by the time his words have taken hold, I intend to be a good way down the road to Newport News.
Michael O’Brien bears no ill-will toward the “South”; indeed, he even seems rather fond of the folks who live below the Potomac. His guest status as an Englishman has made him immune to the invective routinely visited upon Southerners by historians, sociologists, federal bureaucrats, journalists, and assorted other leftist ideologues. Southerners have long since grown accustomed to straightforward abuse from the rest of the country. From the rabid attacks of the William Lloyd Garrisons of the abolitionist movement to the latest wailings of the New York Times over the resuscitation of the Klan, savaging the South has been a favorite and frequently practiced pastime in America. But what Michael O’Brien seeks to do in his mild-mannered, scholarly way promises to wreak more destruction than all the John Browns the North has marshalled against the South in the last one hundred years or so. For in O’Brien’s words: “The South is centrally an intellectual perception, closely tied to the survival of the organicist tradition of Romantic social theory, which has served to comprehend and weld an unintegrated social reality.” Translation: There is no South; it exists only in the minds of those oddly misnamed creatures known as “Southerners.” At least the editors of the New York Times have never essayed to deny the existence of the South.
To prove his thesis O’Brien analyzes the thought of six prominent Southern intellectuals in the years between the two World Wars: Howard W. Odum, the Chapel Hill sociologist, and five of the twelve Vanderbilt Agrarians who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand in 1930, namely John Donald Wade, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Frank L. Owsley, and Donald Davidson. In each case, O’Brien contends, these men had difficulty defining “The South” and “Southernness.” It cannot be denied that O’Brien correctly sees that these men wrestled with the ambiguities of self-identity and at times suffered considerable anguish in their efforts to determine what it means to be a Southerner in twentieth-century America. Anyone who has fathomed the meaning of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” for example, will admit as much. But does Tate’s poem indicate the absence of an integrated “social reality,” or does it simply demonstrate that Allen Tate, somewhat deracinated and striving for cosmopolitanism in the 1920s, could not grasp what simpler folk readily perceived? To reason from Allen Tate’s midnight lucubrations to the nonexistence of the South is to mistake intellectual history for social history.
O’Brien could have avoided this confusion by drawing upon John Shelton Reed’s sociological study The Enduring South: Subcultural Persistence in Mass Society (1972). Through careful use of opinion polls and other research tools Reed demonstrates that the South still exists and that Southerners differ appreciably from their fellow Americans. Such characteristics as localism, religiosity, and family attachment set Southerners apart. The concept of “The South” is not so slippery as O’Brien suggests, and it constitutes considerably more than his “unintegrated social reality.”
In two areas in particular O’Brien exposes his insensitivity to the forces that have given Southerners a sense of unity as a people. In one of his least perceptive asserverations, O’Brien states that “a sense of the past is a run-of-the-mill quality of Western culture, found alike in Paris, Charleston, or Duluth.” Come now, does O’Brien really believe that the people of Duluth, Minnesota, share a common historical-mindedness with the natives of Charleston, South Carolina? Could a novelist from Duluth conceivably have written William Faulkner’s words: “Yesterday wont be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago”? O’Brien needs to fill two apparent gaps in his learning. First, he should probe the consequences of the Civil War; he would discover that this cataclysmic event burned an awareness of the past into the minds of Southerners that has yet to fade. After he has completed that project, O’Brien should turn to a comparative study of Southern and non-Southern fiction in twentieth-century America. Does some peculiar quirk of coincidental individual taste explain the omnipresence of the past in the works of Southern writers and its absence among the Fitzgeralds, Hemingways, and Steinbecks? Or does one find oneself confronted with a society so steeped in historical-mindedness that a writer in the South cannot escape the grasp of the past?
O’Brien shows equal obtuseness over the Southern sense of place, emphasis upon which, according to him, “has, no doubt, been an unjust differentiation against the settled townspeople of New England, the robust enthusiasts for the Lower East Side of New York, the convinced loyalists of Colorado.” O’Brien seems to equate a sense of place with loyalty to one’s current residence. In truth, such a feeling for a distinct location exists because one’s ancestry stretches far back in unbroken continuity in a given locale. O’Brien’s “settled townspeople of New England” have had a similar experience, but then they have never had to defend their homeland from a marauding invader. As for the “enthusiasts for the Lower East Side of New York,” they didnot arrive until the late nineteenth century, and their children and grandchildren fled to the suburbs as soon as education and wealth enabled them to pack their bags. Need I even mention the “convinced loyalists of Colorado,” those chic, deracinated Easterners who have despoiled a once-lovely land? Southerners possess a unique sense of place among Americans, and paradoxical as it may sound, the Southerner’s loyalty to his own little patch of ground does not conflict with his attachment to the larger
One other major shortcoming of O’Brien’s book needs to be mentioned. O’Brien deliberately bypasses the poetry of Ransom, Tate, and Davidson because it has been thoroughly worked over by such literary scholars as Louis Rubin. But does that justify omission of such poems as “Antique Harvesters,” “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” and “Lee in the Mountains”? And what of Allen Tate’s splendid novel The Fathers, also ignored by O’Brien? No discussion of the “idea of the South” can be adequate when it elides the most carefully wrought and felicitous expressions of that idea. O’Brien’s own words serve to indict him: “It may seem that I am trying to perform Hamlet without the prince.”
But even with the prince this would not be much of a play. O’Brien offers little of worth in this volume, especially when one compares it with Louis Rubin’s The Wary Fugitives (unmentioned by O’Brien), a volume which illustrates what a combination of graceful prose, profound learning, and sensitivity toward the South can achieve. That some young Southern intellectuals struggled to define their relationship to the South in the 1920s and 1930s is obvious to anyone who has examined their writings. Once again, as in the years before the Civil War, the South suffered the barbs of journalists, scholars, and politicians. This forced young Southerners to reassess their relationship to their native soil, a land they had taken for granted. This reassessment encouraged them to separate the good parts of their heritage from the bad, and out of their reevaluation came a renewed love for the South. If some gave up and moved north, most stayed home, to stand by “a land still fought-for, even in retreat,” as Donald Davidson phrased it so well. And remember, even Allen Tate returned to the South after a long exile; he lies buried now in the land of his forefathers.
This article was originally published in the Spring 1982 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.