A phenomenon that has always intrigued me is how certain books achieved importance not because of their literary merit or substance but because they accommodated the political trends of the time. This occurred because the Eastern establishment not only set the political trends, it also decided which books would be published, and its members wrote approving reviews of books it favored. Praise for books with themes sanctioned by the establishment often continued long after the book’s relevance became outdated. A classic example is W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, published in 1941.
When this book was published, it received rave reviews from Time magazine and The New York Times and for years it enthralled that segment of society best described by the late C. Wright Mills as “The Power Elite.” It didn’t alter the power elite’s views of the South; it simply interpreted those views in a new and novel fashion. Those self-appointed arbiters of American society regarded this book as the ultimate authority on all things Southern. It was foisted upon generations of America’s college students, and it formed the basis of their understanding of the South.
The word “mind” in the title sets the tone for the book which has been described as a “socio-psychological history” of the South. As one reviewer put it, South Carolinian Wilbur Cash conducted “a psychoanalysis of his own native land.” Indeed, the book is replete with clinical-sounding terminology, such as “defense mechanism” and other Freudian theories. Freud’s psychoanalytical hypotheses have long been discredited, but were in common usage when Cash wrote his book. Actually, Freud and Cash died within two years of each other.
Like most journalists, Wilbur Cash had no formal training in sociology, psychology or history. Such training would not have been necessary if he had simply interspersed an occasional psychological term into his articles about the South. Many journalists, without scientific backgrounds, spice up their articles with scientific terminology. But Cash proposed nothing less that psychoanalyzing the Southern mind, which he implied is not only consistent throughout the entire region but has changed little since antebellum days. Cash portrays Southerners as unschooled, unrealistic, hedonistic, militant, and unable to abandon a spurious, romanticized past which blinds them to the region’s history of oppression. This theme of oppression, characterized by racism and white supremacy, is why The Mind of the South became a favorite of the NAACP.
According to Cash, Southerners still cling to a Jeffersonian Agrarianism, a phantasmagoria world with little connection with reality. In this moonstruck landscape it is no coincidence that “the Southerner’s chosen drink is called moonshine.” Southerners don’t read books, except possibly Dickens and certainly the Bible, which they take literally. Their religion is a dour, narrow-minded Calvinism. They hate Catholics and the Pope, reject Darwin because his views conflict with scripture, resist improvements to society, industrialization, scientific discoveries, or anything that might alter the way things have always been.
Unlike New England, the South has produced no thinkers because “as everything is arranged by God, there is nothing to think about.” The South’s religiosity especially infuriates Cash as the following sentences indicate: “All ideas not approved by the Bible and the shamans are both despised and ignored. And, indeed, a thinker in the South is regarded logically as an enemy of the people, who, for the common weal, ought to be put down summarily – for, to think at all, it is necessary to repudiate the whole Southern scheme of things, to go outside God’s ordered drama and contrive with Satan for the overthrow of Heaven.”
Cash falls back on his sham psychology to diagnose the South’s efforts to prevent textile mills from unionizing. When business owners in the Northeast, Midwest, and West resist efforts to unionize their companies, it is generally attributed to pragmatic business reasons, a reluctance to surrender management prerogatives, a desire to contain operating costs, and so on. But Cash claims that the South’s resistance to unions is based on an ongoing regional mental disorder, characterized by flawed “socio-psychological” preconceptions that haven’t changed since antebellum days. Its plantation mentality dictates that mill workers, who are simply slaves, must not rise above their fixed place in the sanctified Southern hierarchy.
Better wages for workers might improve their living conditions and threaten the rigid structure of Southern society, and because God is the creator of all things, “change must always proceed from God” not man: – “…blasphemy is the first crime in the Southern calendar.” Cash insists that in Southern mill towns, “emaciated men and women and stunted children are everywhere in evidence.” But these latter day plantation barons are blind to the suffering of the working class, because as Cash explains: “The South is the historic champion of States’ Rights”, but it ignores Private Rights.
Many in the establishment felt that this shrill denunciation of the South must be factual because it was written by a Southerner. But some reviewers realized that as most publishing houses were located in the Northeast, Cash and other Southern writers tried to enhance their chances of being published by portraying the South in ways that were fashionable with the Northeastern literati. Later, publishing houses began developing below the Mason-Dixon line so that books about the South no longer had to adhere to the canonized views.
While most of the book’s reviews were generally positive, many raised concerns about specific sentiments expressed and the extremes of its language. There were unfavorable reviews, the most prominent from the pen of the late Donald Davidson. What particularly chafed Davidson was Cash’s oversimplification of Southerners, a one-size-fits-all caricature of the region’s enormous and varied population. Davidson also questioned how reviewers could blithely accept Cash’s cataloging of flaws in the South’s social arrangements while ignoring similar flaws in other sections of the country.
Only a few months after his book was published, Wilbur Cash became so convinced that Nazi spies were plotting to assassinate him, that he took his own life. It is more likely that severe mental illness brought on his suicide. Indeed, Cash’s idiosyncratic language and logic, almost bizarre at times, does raise serious questions about his mental stability. Finding fault with the South is one thing, but Cash’s unreasonable rage towards the region renders his reasoning incoherent. Other than its condemnation of the South, there seems to be little reason why The Mind of the South was so highly acclaimed,