It’s hard to believe, but John Shelton Reed’s classic sociological study The Enduring South was first published a half century ago. I long ago gave my copy to a student, but, as I remember, Reed’s findings pointed to a persistent identification of a great many people as Southerners by use of various opinion surveys.
Persistent peculiar Southern aspects of behaviour were noted by Reed in three areas that differed quantitatively if not qualitatively from the “American” norm. 1)Significantly higher Christian orthodoxy, even higher than in Northern Catholic areas. 2) A more family and locally centered attention and set of values. (For instance, Southerners were more likely to name children after family members than celebrities, and remembered the War between the States as family history rather than a phony abstract theory about freeing slaves.) 3) A different dividing line between the personal and the public. (Southerners were more likely to deal with an affront in person instead of calling the police and less likely to justify interfering with other people’s family and business.)
A new set of sociologists, Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knox, have taken on Reed’s question in The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
The good news is that self-identification as Southern is still very powerful. Interestingly, it has even increased some lately, especially among the younger and better educated and among African Americans. These scholars lack Reed’s literary charm and somewhat sympathetic feelings toward Southerners, but they have done their counting well. They conclude that despite all the vast changes in Southern society in the last half century, “residents of the Southern states are at least as likely to proclaim their southern identity as they have ever been.”
This is interesting news, especially for those of us who can remember the 70s when celebrated liberal intellectuals declared that with the end of segregation the South would soon be an unlamented thing of the past.
As contemporary professors, the authors are of course anxious to declare their freedom from the South with its evil history so different from that of the righteous American mainstream: “It is important to emphasize that this is not, and was never meant to be, a book celebrating the South.” There is, they avow, a “dark side of Southern identity” that fosters reprehensible negative attitudes.
They have made a random sampling of interviews that confirm their numbers but the authors fall short of adequately answering their declared question of “Why.” They find that the increased acquaintance of Southerners (including African Americans) and Northerners has something to do with it. They quote a Southern lady who explains that “being a southerner means not being a northerner.” An undeveloped insight here: maybe a lot of people think that some Yankees are not very likable people.
It is probably beyond their sociological brief, but the authors of The Resilience of Southern Identity only scrape the surface. They are unaware of the resilience of Southern music and literature that represents a lot more than statistics. They have never heard of Donald Livingston and the Abbeville Institute, nor of various other intelligent and serious stirrings that make us still a people.