Instant Grits and Plastic Wrapped Crackers: Southern Culture and Regional Development

instant grits

This essay was originally published in Louis D. Rubin, Jr., The American South: Portrait of a Culture, 1979, 27-37.

In 1928, an unusually far-sighted southerner named Broadus Mitchell pondered the implications of the South’s impending modernization, wondering “whether these great industrial developments [to come] will banish the personality of the South … or whether the old spirit will actuate the new performance.” “Will industrialism produce the same effects here as elsewhere,” he mused, “or will it submit to be modified by a persistent Southern temperament?” A half century later, the South has certainly seen its share of industrialization, urbanization, and all the other -actions that sociologists call development and most of us would optimistically call progress, but the answers to Mitchell’s questions are still not clear.

When he wrote, a majority of southerners were engaged—un-profitably, for the most part—in agriculture. Only a third lived in the South’s towns and cities (“cities,” with a couple of exceptions, that didn’t amount to much anyway). The South’s per-capita income was roughly at the level we use today to distinguish between “developed” and “less developed” countries, and was substantially less than that in the rest of the United States. Since then, both the proportion and the absolute number of southerners working on farms have declined dramatically (fewer than one in twelve does so now, only slightly more than the national figure), and the nature of southern agriculture has changed: the size of the average southern farm has doubled, and it has itself been very largely industrialized.” Per-capita income in the South is now recognizably American and is a good deal closer to the national figure (although a gap still remains). The South has become, like the rest of the United States, an urban society. Two-thirds of its people are now city or townsfolk, and a half dozen of its cities are grand enough to have teams in the National Football League.

These changes and their correlates are obvious even to the casual visitor, and writing about them has become a staple of American journalism. With monotonous regularity, northern journalists arrive at southern airports, travel interstate highways to Holiday Inns, chat with a few new-style southern politicians or academics, and write that “the South has rejoined the Union,” meaning that Yankee culture has finally prevailed, a century after Yankee arms did so.

And, to be fair, the changes of the past fifty years have indeed transformed more than the physical landscape of the South. For better or for worse, Atlanta is the model of the “New South” (a hackneyed phrase popularized by an Atlantan a century ago). The benefits of the South’s development are clearly evident—in the pay envelopes of southern workers, in public health reports, in the statistics of magazine and newspaper circulation, in state budgets for education and welfare, in nearly all of the eight hundred or so indicators of southern deficiency Howard W. Odum compiled in his 1936 book, Southern Regions. Some of the unfortunate consequences of industrial and urban development are almost as obvious. With all this change going on, and nearly all of it tending to make the South look more like the rest of the country, how can the answers to Mitchell’s questions still be in doubt?

Certainly there are good theoretical reasons for supposing that economic and demographic convergence between North and South should produce cultural convergence as well, and a good many people who write about the South simply assume that it has—or, anyway, soon will. The French sociologist Frederic LePlay’s formula, “land, work, folk,” is a pithy summary of the generalization that, in preindustrial societies, the natural data determine how a living can be made, and how a society makes its living largely determines what kind of society it is. We are how we eat. In the South, conditions favorable to staple crop agriculture led to a plantation economy, which in turn produced a plantation society. Industrialization, however, has weakened the link between “land” and “work,” and as the South’s economy becomes less distinctive, so, according to this view, should its culture.

But although many of the most dramatic cultural differences between North and South have been decreasing (it could hardly be otherwise), an accumulating body of research suggests that it is easy to overestimate the extent of cultural convergence, and to underestimate the autonomy of southern culture. This research indicates that, in many respects, southerners are still different from other Americans, and that they are as different now as they have been at any time in the recent past. Moreover, these cultural differences cannot be explained in any obvious way by differences in demographic composition or economic circumstances. To paraphrase Irving Babbitt’s observation about the Spanish, there seems to be something southern about southerners that causes them to behave in a southern manner.

The disjunction between economy and demography on the one hand and culture on the other, between “work” and “folk,” is apparently greater than many of us have assumed. The citizen of the New South may spend forty hours a week at a job indistinguishable from those of other Americans, but nearly twice as many waking hours will be spent in families and communities organized around sentiments and presuppositions somewhat different from those found elsewhere. (Even the hours on the job may.be different, of course. Sociologists have rediscovered the primary work group so often that its importance should probably be axiomatic by now.) The educated, urban, factory-working southerner remains a southerner, and that datum often tells us as much about his tastes, habits, and values as any of the others.

Why haven’t these “great industrial developments” banished the “personality of the South”? It is tempting to speculate. For example, might importing a “mature” industrial regime—where workers spend more hours off the job than on, and other values compete with short-run efficiency in the managerial calculus— be less culturally disruptive than an indigenous industrial revolution? Possibly, but I suspect the explanation is less subtle than that. I think we may simply have overemphasized the initial differences between South and North. After all, southerners have been Americans, too, of a sort. Whatever the differences between the cultures of the South and North, they have been more like each other, surely, than either has been like that of Japan, say, or the Soviet Union, or the Republic of South Africa. Industrialism must impose some constraints on culture, but the old culture of the South cannot have been so far out of the range consistent with urban, industrial society that it could not adapt to it—as the Japanese, Russian, and Boer cultures have adapted.

So the link between work and folk is not without slippage. Nor is it necessarily one-way. Not only have a variety of national cultures proved to be compatible with modernization, but some of those cultures have affected the nature of development, if not its extent. Can the same be said for southern culture? Has development been “modified by a persistent Southern temperament,” as Mitchell put it? Or has southern culture been so “American”—or so effete—that our region’s development is following pretty much the same course as the Northeast’s?

So far, it is not at all obvious that urbanization and industrialization have taken any greatly distinctive turns in response to the South’s culture. There are, here and there, scattered differences from the North: fewer really big cities and more middle-sized ones,-a larger proportion of “rural non-farm” families, employed in industry but living in the countryside,- a residually lower degree of residential segregation by race (probably reflecting an older belief that one’s help should be close at hand); a higher ratio of blue-collar to white-collar workers; poverty more prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones (the reverse of the nonsouthern situation); a significantly lower proportion of workers belonging to labor unions,- a somewhat different industrial “mix”; and (primarily as a result of the last two factors) lower industrial wages. But, by and large, with regard to things the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics think to measure, the cities and factories of the South look pretty much like the cities and factories of the rest of the country, and what differences exist are more easily explained by the timing of the South’s development than by anything in its culture.

If there have been inconsistencies between southern culture and the general American pattern of development, as some have argued, culture has had to make way for development. In their eagerness to find a seat for the South at the great American barbeque, southern leaders seem by and large to have adopted the attitude of William Faulkner’s character, Jason Compson, “I haven’t got much pride. I can’t afford it”—and by any standard, southern development so far has been remarkably pell-mell and indiscriminate.

When my hometown in Tennessee turned up on a government list of cities with serious air pollution problems, the newspaper responded with an offended editorial titled “Golden Smudge.” When some citizens of Charlotte, North Carolina, complained about the proliferation of “topless” nightclubs in their city, a Chamber of Commerce official replied in defense that the clubs attract “an estimated 5000 people from other towns across the Carolinas and Virginia . . . every day.” When I asked a Columbia, South Carolina, banker what he wanted his city to become, he expressed his admiration for—Charlotte. (So much for South Carolina’s traditional arrogance.) Charlotte, meanwhile, wants to look like Atlanta; and Atlanta, it seems, wants to look like Tokyo.

This single-minded focus on growth was understandable in the 1930s. Confronted with obvious and insistent problems of poverty, bigotry, ignorance, and disease, most of the South’s political, entrepreneurial, and intellectual leadership felt that the evil of the day was sufficient thereto and that they could deal with the problems of industrial society when they had an industrial society to generate them. But now we have one. Although southerners have not “gathered down by the mainstream of American life for baptism by total immersion,” as George Tindall put it, the southern economy has certainly been born again. As we begin to enjoy the fruits of that rebirth, is there any reason to suppose we can escape some of its unpleasant consequences? The South’s development has not yet gone as far as the Northeast’s, and we can still learn from their mistakes. Is there any basis for hoping we shall?

There may be. Southern culture may yet have its impact. Although the broad outlines of the New South are already established (the changes have already taken place), perhaps in the fine tuning some adjustments to a “persistent Southern temperament” may be made, some regional refinements introduced. The South may have some cultural and institutional resources that the North lacked, resources that can help it domesticate and assimilate industrialism and urbanization. In particular, two enduring aspects of southern culture may be useful: the nature and extent of religious belief and practice, and a relatively great attachment to local communities. Both characteristics have been discussed by many students of the South; here I want simply to summarize some of the findings of my own research, and to consider what the persistence of these traits implies for the future of the South.

In this century at least, one of the most striking differences between the South and the rest of the United States has been the nature of the South’s religious life. It is no accident that the first southern president in over a century is a Baptist Sunday-school teacher: the South, as Flannery O’Connor observed, is “Christ-haunted,” and to understand the region it is necessary to understand the role religion plays in its life.

Public opinion polls reveal that nearly 90 percent of all white southerners identify themselves as protestant, and nearly four out of every five of these are Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. (The homogeneity of southern blacks is even greater.) The fact that the region is uniformly anything, that it has never had to adjust to the presence of competing religious groups, may account in part for the prominent part religion plays in the public life of the South. (The fact that it is, to a great extent, uniformly low-church protestant almost certainly has some implications for the nature of religion’s role, but that is another, and a complicated, question.)

Poll data also indicate that, regardless of their denomination, southern protestants are more orthodox in their beliefs than non-southern protestants. Despite the fact that southern protestants believe pretty much the same thing, however, there are a number of indications that they take denominational differences more seriously.

Religious institutions play an important role in the social and spiritual life of the South. Southern protestants are nearly twice as likely as nonsouthern protestants to assert that church-going is an essential part of the Christian life, and on any given Sunday they are, in fact, more likely to be found in church. They are less likely than protestants elsewhere to feel that religion is irrelevant to the modern world, and they are more likely to feel that their churches are satisfactory as they are.

The picture of the South that emerges from these data is one of a society that takes religion seriously. Most southerners agree on the fundamentals of religion, which allows them the luxury of disagreement on relatively minor points of faith and practice. They are satisfied with their churches, and they support them accordingly with their time and money.

It can be shown that regional differences in these matters have not become smaller in the recent past, and that there is no reason to expect that they will do so in the near future. Data on trends often show change, in the South and elsewhere, but the differences between South and non-South are no smaller now than a generation ago, despite the dramatic changes in southern society since then. When statistical controls for education, occupation, and urban or rural residence are applied (to ensure that the regional differences are not due to differences in these factors), nearly all of the differences remain, and a few become even greater. Some regional differences in attitudes more or less related to religion— anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, opposition to the sale of alcoholic beverages, and the like—may be decreasing, but the data strongly suggest that the religion of the New South will be as vigorous and distinctive as that of the old.

This prediction is strengthened by a look at patterns of churchgoing within the South. In general, southern protestants are more likely than nonsouthern ones to report that they went to church on any given Sunday. But this difference is smallest for the uneducated farm population—a group that is shrinking rapidly in the South. Many of these people are moving into blue-collar occupations in southern cities, a migration that leads almost everywhere else in the world to a decrease in churchgoing. Outside the South, urban blue-collar workers are among the people least likely to be reached by the churches, but in the South this group is as likely to go to church as its country cousins. Evidently, rural-to-urban migrants in the South take their church with them (and the polity of the Baptist church and similar groups makes it easy for them to do this).

At the top of the status ladder is another interesting difference between the South and the rest of the United States. Outside the South, educated, urban, business and professional people are less likely to be churchgoers than their white-collar employees. In the cities of the South, however, that pattern is reversed: educated business and professional people make up one of the most church-going groups in the region. On an average Sunday, more than half are—or at least say they were—in church, a remarkable performance, for protestants, by any standard. Whether these people set the standard for society, as one theory of leadership would have it, or are merely excellent at doing what is expected, it is significant that belonging to a church and actually attending its services are still taken-for-granted parts of upper middle-class life in the South.

A few years ago, I wrote: “The prophet Amos foretold a day when many should ‘wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east,’ seeking the word of the Lord, in vain. In these latter days, the wayfaring stranger would be well-advised to forsake the secular North, abjure the mysterious East, and check out the South. He will find gas station signs like the one in my town, advertising on one side ‘REGULAR 2,9” and on the other, ‘WHEN YOU HAVE SINNED/READ PSALM 51.”‘ This invitation to save and to be saved still stands. The Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries has brought about some drastic changes on one side of the sign, but the other remains—just recently, as it happens, repainted.

Another persisting aspect of southern culture that may have some bearing on how the region adjusts to development is what has been called “localism”—roughly, a tendency to see communities as different from each other, and to prefer one’s own. There is more to this, I think, than mere parochialism; the trait seems to be related to the “sense of place” remarked by so many observers of southern life and culture, a sensitivity to the things that make one’s community unique and, in particular, the existence of a web of friendship and, often, kinship that would be impossible to reproduce elsewhere.

Once again, we can find outcroppings of this characteristic scattered here and there in American public opinion poll data. For in-stance, when asked what man “that you have heard or read about, living anywhere in the world today” they most admire, southerners are twice as likely as nonsouthern Americans to name a relative or some local notable. (Nearly a quarter do so, despite the polling organization’s obvious attempt to discourage such responses.) When asked where they would live if they could live anywhere they wanted, southerners are more likely—and have been since the question was first asked in 1939—to say “right here.” When asked to name the “best American state,” southerners name their own; almost 90 percent of North Carolinians do so, for an extreme example, compared to less than half the residents of Massachusetts. Asked where they would like a son to go to college, if expense were no problem, only New Englanders are more likely than southerners to name a school in their own region. (Two-thirds of the southerners did so the last time the question was asked, despite the poor national reputation of southern schools; only 3 percent of nonsoutherners chose southern schools.)

Once again, neither trend data nor statistical controls for the economic and demographic differences between North and South give any reason to suppose that regional differences in localism are decreasing. Although prediction is always a risky business, it may be, in fact, that as conditions in the South became “objectively” more attractive, southerners’ affection for their region and their communities will become even greater.

Within the southern population, the degree of localism is lowest among urban groups. Whether this is a genuine effect of urban life or simply reflects the fact that a great many southern urban folk are recent migrants to their cities remains to be seen, but, even so, the people of southern cities are more localistic, by these measures, than their counterparts in northern cities.

How might southerners’ religion and their localism help them adjust to the momentous changes their region is undergoing? Obviously, both are useful to individuals undergoing the sometimes wrenching dislocations in their lives that go to make up what we call “social change.” Now more than ever, perhaps, southerners need the assurance of personal worth and importance their religion provides; and their taste for rootedness, their sense of community, may help them cope with the disintegrative effects of mass society. (Indeed, the psychic utility of southern culture may have something to do with its persistence.)

But social change threatens more in the South than the mental health of individuals. When pollsters asked a sample of North Carolinians what they liked best about the South, two-thirds mentioned something about the physical environment. The South, it seems, is still a pleasant place to live. But many of the region’s amenities—both natural and man-made—are menaced by undiscriminating development. If the towns and cities of the South are not to become examples of southern efficiency and northern charm (to borrow John F. Kennedy’s characterization of Washington, D.C.), southerners must have both the will and the ability to make them something else. It is not obvious that they have either, but they may, and if they do I suspect that localism will provide the impetus and southern churches at least some of the means.

Of course, localism is sometimes expressed as boosterism of the crassest sort, but it needn’t be. Although several generations of southerners have, for good reason, been mesmerized by the prospect of growth and development, there are signs now of an emerging skepticism. In a recent poll, a third of a sample of North Carolinians agreed that “much of what is good about the South will disappear if the South gets as much industry as the Northeast” (and another 22 percent were undecided); and 42 percent agreed that “material progress in the South will not be worth it if it means giving up our Southern way of life” (20 percent were undecided). Many southerners, it seems, feel they have seen the future, in the cities of the Northeast, and they’re not sure it works. Their localism may find expression in a determination to control growth and to preserve the things they value in their communities.

If this happens, we should not be surprised to find the churches of the South involved. Southern churches, black and white, have always responded to a consensus of their members, providing them with everything from leadership in the struggle for civil rights to swimming pools and segregated private schools. In practice, most of the South’s churches have been splendidly democratic institutions; in consequence, when they have become politically engaged, they have often done so in ways that strike outsiders as strange, or even downright un-Christian. But—as the ongoing conflict in many states over the sale of liquor demonstrates—the churches have impressive reserves of energy, money, and political power. Although these assets may often have been misdirected and dissipated in the past, I think the South is fortunate indeed to have such mighty institutions dedicated to what is seen as community well-being, and to have a tradition of voluntary and relatively selfless support for those institutions. If southerners’ views of community well-being change, we can expect the concerns and activities of their churches to change accordingly.

This essay began with some questions one southerner was asking fifty years ago. At about the same time, another southerner, John Crowe Ransom, advised the South to “accept industrialism, but with a very bad grace, and . . . maintain a good deal of her traditional philosophy.” We can see now that Ransom’s implied dichotomy was probably a false one. The South has accepted—indeed, sought—industrialism wholeheartedly, but some, at least, of her “traditional philosophy” remains. And these aspects of the region’s culture may yet modify and meliorate the development of the South.

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