Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Mind of the South, Review

W.J. Cash- The Reluctant Southerner

W.J. Cash’s 1941 book, The Mind of the South, confronts many hard truths about the Southern character. In a blunt, no-nonsense manner, the author rips into many preconceived stereotypes of the region and explodes the mythology of the South.

However, Cash also reveals much about the south that is great and worth preserving. In doing so, the work divulges as much about its subject as it does about its highly sensitive and troubled author. While at times his portrayal of his native region borders on unfairly critical, it must be understood that Cash often merely projected his own misery and emotional upheaval onto his homeland by way of his embittered prose.

Although he uses the medium of “the South” as the template upon which he launches his sardonic tirades, one must not forget that Cash was his own toughest critic. Thus, the author had a love/hate relationship both with his place of birth as well as himself. This notion is hardly alien to the human condition. Humanity has an unfortunate tendency to desire scapegoats and whipping boys. All of us, to some degree or another, have projected our own weaknesses, fears, and uncertainty upon some group or persons whom we perceive are not like us.

Is it surprising then, that if Cash could not ever find lasting comfort within himself that he would ever find lasting comfort in anyone or anything?

Cash’s proficiency in writing resulted from a keen perception of human nature, a scathing wit, and a unique gift at satire. His tragic flaw lay in his immense resentment towards much of the world around him. Turned outwardly, through his pen, seething resentment allowed him to make prescient insights upon southern society, tinged, of course, with inevitable melancholia. Turned inwardly, resentment produced a brooding worrywart plagued with compulsive doubt, fear, and self-loathing. These emotional conflicts eventually led to his death by his own hand.

All great social satirists possess some degree of these same qualities; Cash was no exception. In the era of Enlightenment, Voltaire and Jonathan Swift both produced works of equal brilliance; it has been noted that satirists “diss because they’re pissed”. Anger/Resentment is often the base motivation of writers who dare to turn a mirror to society’s flaws. They believe they act out of a moral duty to society by forcing people to confront the errors of their ways. They seek to rectify wrong and replace it with right.

Voltaire lampooned the naïve optimism of his time, as did Swift. Cash, by contrast, mocked a society that, in his perception, lived in self-delusion and grandiose fantasy. In his own lifetime, he had seen firsthand the effects of two separate economic depressions. To his dismay, he saw a people unwilling to learn from the example of history.

Despite having lost everything in the aftermath of the Civil War and then The Great Depression, Cash observed in the Southern people an attitude of arrogance and unwillingness to compromise. He believed this temperament would continue to get the South into trouble for years to come.

The Mind of the South explores the reasons why Southerners chose to invent a regional mythology of their very own. Defeated in war, humiliated by conquest, their way of life utterly destroyed, it is hardly surprising that many native sons and daughters of the South would voluntarily believe in a rosy, glossy, highly romanticized version of their own troubled history.

Confronting the truth would be too painful an exercise for a prideful people accustomed to living their lives as they pleased and especially without any outside interference from anyone. In an effort to circle the wagons, edit out the messy bits of their shared past, and take pride in their own unique culture, many Southerners truly believed in over-romanticized tripe like Gone With the Wind, chivalry, and “Good Country People” (as Flannery O’Connor so eloquently put it).

This unfortunate phenomenon continues to this day, regardless of whatever region in the United States to which one claims allegiance. Today, many of us take stock in such foolish constructs as “The American Dream”. We teach our children to believe in miracles and fanciful notions like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

None of these are, in fact, “real”. Perception might be ninety percent of reality, but despite our best efforts, we cannot change what should be or what isn’t into what we want it to be. To do so remains an exercise in wishful thinking and futility. Such efforts are akin to pissing in the wind, or in the manner of Cervantes’ tragic protagonist, Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Cash understood this concept well.

As he saw it, the South was trying to accomplish the impossible—invent a better past. As he realized, not only were such actions useless and bordering on psychotic, they were also counterproductive. To Cash, the past was past, and no amount of well-intentioned posturing would ever change it. The Chinese definition of insanity explains this paradox quite nicely. This principle states that insanity is the action of doing the same thing the same way and expecting a completely different result in return.

In Cash’s viewpoint, this pointless gesture was another great fallacy of the Southern mentality. He believed that progress did not and would not occur until Southerners put their past behind them and genuinely sought to change things for the better.
Even now, Southerners remain mired in this great quandary. Instead of putting issues of racial conflict and societal inferiority behind them, they still cling to the very things that keep them in chains.

Their prideful, stubborn nature keeps society exactly the way they’ve it’s been ever since William Lloyd Garrison’s fiery rhetoric created the concept of the South as we know it—nearly two hundred years ago.

The irony is that many are not willing to change. They are not willing to let go of their own pain and suffering to make strides for the better. As Cash would argue, in the short term, change is painful, but the long-term rewards are lasting and much more beneficial.

As has been stated earlier, Cash took a jaundiced view of his people. Yet, he clearly loved the South—if he did not, then he would not have bothered to agonize over every misstep and flaw. Like an overprotective parent, he doled out occasionally obsessive doses of tough love. He fretted over his Southern progeny, fearful that if he did not come down hard on them, they would not learn from their mistakes. Still, he ultimately wanted only the best for his fellow people.

Cash thus was the reluctant Southerner. He was both an insider and an outsider to the cause. In one respect, his flair for the dramatic and love of storytelling, to name two examples, showed him to be the consummate Southern gentleman. Although, counterbalanced with his showmanship and verbosity was an often tactless, accusatory, warts-and-all delivery that only an outsider to the South would dare reveal.

Again, this speaks volumes about a man who lived his life in extremes—one moment energetic and optimistic, the next woeful and depressed.
His bipolar disorder made him an almost impartial critic. In his times of great joy, he sang the praises of his homeland like a happy songbird. In his times of misery, he showed the seamy, dark underbelly of a culture gone astray. Therein lay the genius of W.J. Cash.

The Mind of the South, then, is a study in contrasts---possessing rays of light as well as shades of dark. It possesses the unique ability to be exuberant yet depressing, funny yet somber, judgmental yet forgiving…all of these at the same instant. Behind each cloud lies a silver lining, and behind each silver lining lies another cloud.

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