The Magazine

Don't Look Away

On the southern genius for self-examination.

Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Away Down South

A History of Southern Identity

by James C. Cobb

Oxford, 404 pp., $30

WHEN A NEW BOOK ABOUT the South crosses my desk, I think fondly of my old friend Holley Mack Bell, a Tar Heel journalist and, later, Foreign Service officer who used to be easily annoyed by what he called the "south-south-south" cult: The endless rituals of self-scrutiny in which southerners of a reflective turn of mind fan the old embers of memory and meaning.

The political scientist V.O. Key speculated 56 years ago that such South-gazing could be life-threatening, inasmuch as it had presumably driven Clarence Cason and Wilbur J. Cash to suicide; but Mack Bell might well have welcomed the early exit of some lesser neo-Confederates by their own hands. His point was that chronic South-gazing, if not dangerous, was habit-forming, repetitive, and sterile: a dog chasing its tail in the illusion that it was making linear progress. Naturally, he would exempt from his strictures the originals who really had something to add. The prototype was fashioned by journalists like Cash and historians like C. Vann Woodward, and also by storytellers like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. And a brilliant prototype it was.

Certainly James Cobb's Away Down South is in the latter category. With Woodward's death, Cobb is perhaps our best historical interpreter of the South, and this may be his best book, better even than his fine book about the Mississippi Delta. Away Down South--the title, of course, echoes "Dixie," which a younger Cobb sang as a schoolboy practically every day in the classrooms of his native Georgia--is a historical survey of the shifting phases of "southern identity," from the dawn of regionalism to the present.

In the variety and authority of its treatment, the book gives rise to a couple of enduring reflections. The first is that the South didn't invent the Lost Cause; the Lost Cause invented the South--that fabulous mix of geography, fiction, history, and sheer nonsense that regional chatterers love to chatter about. Vann Woodward once observed that the South had been American long before it became southern. Indeed, up to the Missouri crisis of 1819-20 (the "firebell in the night"), it may not have occurred to even so representative a southern figure as Thomas Jefferson (to say nothing of his Virginia contemporaries, Washington and Madison) that they were regionalists. The polarities of the Jeffersonian consciousness were less North-South than New World-Old World, and city versus farm. Admittedly, in his correspondence with the Marquis de Chastellux, Jefferson observed that the South was "fiery, voluptuary, indolent, unsteady, jealous for their own liberties, but trampling on those of others, generous, candid, without attachment . . . to any religion of the heart"--anticipating a persistent stereotype. But with no more affective charge than if he had said that the mean temperature is higher at Monticello than it is in Boston.

The second point, less subtle, is no less obvious. Who sustains southern self-consciousness? James Cobb knows the answer and offers it here, though he mutes it lest an industry suffer impairment: Those who talk and write about it, that's who. There are always good ol' boys out there in the bayous and boondocks, tooling down dusty backroads in their deteriorating pickups decorated with battle-flag decals and shotguns, who at some instinctive level burst with regional self-identification. But for every such "forgit, hell" specimen, there are entire shoals and flocks of historians, novelists, poets, sociologists, journalists, and other more contemplative types who devote recidivist symposia, op-ed pieces, poems, stories, and papers to southern self-consciousness.

Contemplation, that is, is its high-octane fuel. Henry Adams, accordingly, was dead wrong when he singled out Rooney Lee, his Harvard contemporary, as the representative southerner who couldn't analyze an idea. Southerners may not be analytical, but they are surely among the most intellectualizing and idealizing tribes on earth, rivaled only by the Poles and the Irish. If they weren't, the South as an idea would have died a natural death years ago.