The Mind of the South, by W.J. Cash, attempts to dissolve prevalent myths about the South by examining them in a clear, somewhat contemptuous fashion, isolating them from their cultural connotations and rebutting them roundly. Published in 1941, it was (and is) a highly controversial text, not least because it seems to conclude that the South is an almost entirely fictitious cultural construction, distinct from the North only in its rabid self-denial.

For example, Cash notes the historical impossibility of the commonly-held notion that many Southern aristocrats were genteel, well-educated noblemen from Europe. As he states, the rugged and primitive lifestyle which settlers in America faced was hardly the sort of existence discrete and titled gentry from Europe would choose voluntarily. Instead, the “Great Old Southern Families” are mostly descended from relocated criminals, petite-bourgeoisie psuedo-adventurers, and simple businessmen who built fortunes in the brutal wilderness of early America by buying slaves and disenfranchising poorer whites. Thus the legitimacy of Southern culture, often predicated on the supposed existence of this class of aristocrats, is utterly problematic.

Having destroyed the myth of the intellectual, sophisticated plantation owner, he moves on to disassemble a number of other beliefs: the friendliness of Southerners (a tool used to perpetuate an unfair class system), the value of Southern arts and letters (rare and usually worthless), and religion (a pretense without positive effect).

Cash’s style is fascinating in itself: he adopts a number of voices to personify the archetypes of the South, and even when he is acting simply as the narrator, his prose is lively and engaging. The excessively polemic quality of the text is probably attributable to Cash’s difficult personal life, which ended in suicide. Detested in the South for his beliefs, but unable to leave the home he loved, he suffered from a number of mental disorders (as have so many Southern thinkers, like Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, Conrad Aiken, Stark Young, and so on).

Whatever the book’s faults (and I believe there are many, notably a reductive reasoning process which turns subjects of analysis into caricatures), it an extremely valuable work. Its realistic appraisal of Southern culture at a critical moment in the region’s history is useful not simply as a correction of myths, but also as a depiction of a people struggling to come to terms with themselves; in Cash, one can see the mind of the Southerner, wrestling with a culture the derivation of which is unclear, the behavior of which has occasionally been reprehensible, and the future of which is in question.

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