April 22, 2019
Good Friday. Three weeks ago a much-loved member of the Virginia Happy Trails group passed after a long fight with pancreatic cancer. On Holy Thursday a cousin, a year younger than me, died of breast cancer a few days after entering hospice care.
So darkness descended. As with any death, those who knew the deceased mourn, and their grief stings more sharply when the world moves on at its relentless pace to less solemn, sometimes bizarre events, last week the Notre Dame fire. On Thursday we endured the release of the Mueller Report on Russia and the 2016 election.
The report’s release brought out the clowns grinding their usual axes. The attorney general was fried by the Democrats for mouthing Trump’s “no collusion” sing-song. They booed Mueller for acknowledging he couldn’t decide on obstruction of justice. The Trumpers, sweating until Thursday, announced they “won” for the same reason.
I went to the doctor Thursday and came away with orders for a chest x-ray and three prescriptions. This was around noon, when the TV talkers were earning their dough. Strangely, it got me thinking about the South.
On Thursday evening I popped cough drops; Sandy went to Mass. Instead of the TV news I plowed through Paul Theroux’s Deep South, his chronicle of a car trip through the Southern States. I look for good writing about the South because, fiction or non-fiction, authentic Southern writing is American writing. Stories of the South tell us where the country is today. They tell us also why Trump is president more eloquently than Meet the Press, Morning Joe, and the other talking heads.
Theroux, a Massachusetts Yankee, drove around the deep South. He saw the awful poverty of South Carolina hamlets, endemic bigotry in Alabama and Mississippi, the hopelessness of lack of good work, the rituals of gun shows attended by white men too poor to buy the guns they admired. The gun shows, he writes, “left a powerful impression of a prevailing mood of bitter defeat.”
Trump, a New Yorker, yet is a product of these places. Trump himself is only an agglutination of appetites and impulses who doesn’t know why he is president. But if you read The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash, you will know why.
Cash worked for North Carolina newspapers in the 1920s, and contributed essays to H.L. Mencken’s “American Mercury,” including one entitled “The Mind of the South.” Publisher Alfred Knopf persuaded him to expand it to a book. He spent 12 years writing it.
Cash writes that over the nearly 200 years from the settlement of Jamestown until the Revolutionary War, an aristocracy evolved in Virginia’s Tidewater region, supported by slave labor. The aristocrats acquired property and grew tobacco, rice, and indigo, and forced owners of less-fertile farms west to the frontier. Some of them did well. These prosperous “yeoman farmers” won local elections and eventually became the true ruling class of the South.
That left the poor whites, the masses of white Southerners who didn’t own slaves. These were the people to whom the terms “cracker” and “white trash” were applied—the unsuccessful, the less-industrious and unthrifty. Most lived in isolated places; often large families lived and died in a single room. They raised subsistence crops or worked at odd jobs. Yet they shared with the wealthy planters and yeoman farmers the recognition of the distinction between their own lives, being white and free, and the humiliation of black slavery.
The reality of slavery enabled all Southerners to maintain an exaggerated sense of pride, the feeling that, no matter their own status, another class of human beings was beneath them. Cash argues that the recognition that the slavery was the foundation of the economic and cultural life of the South united all Southerners: plantation owners, cotton farmers, and “crackers” in hatred of the Yankee North. That hatred, he writes, inspired the fanatical courage of the Confederate forces, both officers and the backwoods infantrymen who enjoyed no benefits from slave labor, in a war they could not win.
The lives of the poor whites were harsh, but their cultural bonds with those better off also led them to a sort of romanticism, a belief that they could someday escape their struggles. That romanticism, for Cash, translated to religion. Their religion wasn’t the genteel Virginia Anglicanism. It was simple and emotional, steeped in a sense of sin.
Cash writes that the poor whites’ faith was “of primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice.” God was a passionate tyrant. These Southerners demanded the God of the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians, which he calls the “personal and often extravagant sects, with their revivals, sweeping across the personal and extravagant South.”
Meanwhile, for poor whites, social and family life coexisted with drunkenness, gunplay, moonshining, and blood feuding, and warnings of damnation from backwoods pulpits. Yet they believed devoutly that their lives were guided by pure Christian values, even while blind to the evil of human bondage. Life’s daily struggles, Cash says, contributed to a social schizophrenia that robbed the Southerner of any sense of a need to adapt to the vast economic and social changes that over generations transformed the nation.
Defeat by the Yankees and Reconstruction, Cash points out, left the rigid Southern conviction that the North was determined to destroy the South economically and spiritually. Distrust and hatred of Yankees, he writes, united the poorest whites and the ruined planters and cotton farmers, overcoming once-uncrossable class boundaries.
This evolution of a “solidified South” was abetted by the pastors who preached that the god of the Yankees was not a god at all but the Antichrist. For them, Cash writes, the Southern people were chosen by God to stand against the Northern pagans. They argued that the South in its virtue was assigned the moral duty of caring for the souls of slaves.
This sense that Southern Christians were victims of Northern oppressors moved Southern churches closer to a strict Calvinism that taught that slavery as an institution was ordained by God. The churches looked on the Yankees as threats to their missions as arbiters of Southern morality.
Cash hanged himself six months after The Mind of the South was published. He recognized, at a time steeped in Jim Crow, Southerners’ resentment at being lectured at by Northern politicians and churchmen about how to vote. Today, pondering Cash and Theroux, we find the South a metaphor for all those hopeless, angry places where that resentment still simmers. We see too in Cash’s perceptions of the pseudo-spiritual fervor he found the concrete-solid support of today’s white “evangelical” sects for Trump.
Theroux tells how he took a seat at a group table in a restaurant in Vicksburg, Miss., introduced himself, and mentioned he was from Massachusetts: “A woman muttered in a resentful way, ‘You know what you did to us?’”
This is heavy, depressing stuff at Easter. Barr probably didn’t have any reason for releasing the Mueller report on Holy Thursday. I still take consolation in the message of the Redemption. So for this weekend I didn’t take Theroux and Cash to heart. But today we should.