|Driving south from the North, we tried to spot exactly where the real South begins. We looked for the South in hand-scrawled signs on the roadside advertising ‘Boil Peanut’, in one-room corrugated tin Baptist churches that are little more than holy sheds, in the crumbling plantation homes with their rose gardens and secrets. In the real South, we thought, ships ought to turn to riverboats, cold Puritanism to swampy hellfire, coarse industrialists with a passion for hotels and steel to the genteel ease of the cotton planter.
Most of what we believe about the South, wrote W.J. Cash in the 1930s, exists in our imagination. But, he wrote, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the South is therefore unreal. The real South, wrote Cash in The Mind of the South, exists in unreality. It is the tendency toward unreality, toward romanticism, toward escape, that defines the mind of the South.
The unreality that shaped the South took many forms. In the South, wrote Cash (himself a Southern man), is “a mood in which the mind yields almost perforce to drift and in which the imagination holds unchecked sway, a mood in which nothing any more seems improbable save the puny inadequateness of fact, nothing incredible save the bareness of truth.” Most people still believe, wrote Cash — but no more than Southerners themselves — in a South built by European aristocrats who erected castles from scrub. This imaginary South, wrote Cash, was “a sort of stagepiece out of the eighteenth century,” where gentlemen planters and exquisite ladies in farthingales spoke softly on the steps of their stately mansions. But well-adjusted men of position and power, he wrote, “do not embark on frail ships for a dismal frontier… The laborer, faced with starvation; the debtor, anxious to get out of jail; the apprentice, eager for a fling at adventure; the small landowner and shopkeeper, faced with bankruptcy and hopeful of a fortune in tobacco; the neurotic, haunted by failure and despair” — only these would go.”