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.”
The dominant trait of the mind of the South, wrote Cash, was an intense individualism — an individualism the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since Renaissance days. In the backcountry, the Southern man’s ambitions were unbounded. For each who stood on his own little property, his individual will was imperial law. In the South, wrote Cash, wealth and rank were not so important as they were in older societies. “Great personal courage, unusual physical powers, the ability to drink a quart of whiskey or to lose one’s whole capital on the turn of a card without the quiver of a muscle — these are at least as important as possessions, and infinitely more important than heraldic crests.”
The average white Southern man (for this man was Cash’s main focus) was a romantic, but it was a romance bordering on bedlam. Any ordinary man tends to be a hedonist and a romantic, but take that man away from Old World traditions, wrote Cash, and stick him in the frontier wilds. Take away the skepticism and realism necessary for ambition and he falls back on imagination. His world becomes rooted in the fantastic, the unbelievable, and his emotions lie close to the surface. Life on the Southern frontier was harsh but free — it could make a man’s ego feel large.
The Southern landscape, too, had an unreal quality, “itself,” wrote Cash, “a sort of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance.” In this country of “extravagant color, of proliferating foliage and bloom, of flooding yellow sunlight, and, above all, perhaps, of haze,” the “pale blue fogs [that] hang above the valleys in the morning,” the outlines of reality blur. The atmosphere smokes “rendering every object vague and problematical.” A soft languor creeps through the blood and into the brain, wrote Cash, and the mood of the South becomes like a drunken reverie, where facts drift far away. “But I must tell you also that the sequel to this mood,” wrote Cash, “is invariably a thunderstorm. For days — for weeks, it may be — the land lies thus in reverie and then …”
The romanticism of the South, wrote W.J. Cash, was one that tended toward violence. It was a violence the Southern man often turned toward himself as much as those around him. The reverie turns to sadness and the sadness to a sense of foreboding and the foreboding to despair. Nerves start to wilt under the terrifying sun, questions arise that have no answers, and “even the soundest grow a bit neurotic.” When the rains break, as they will, and the South becomes a land of fury, the descent into unreality takes hold. Pleasure becomes sin, and all are stripped naked before the terror of truth.
A God who politely ignored the fury was no help to the Southern mind. A God, wrote Cash, “‘without body, parts, or passions’ is an abstraction for intellectuals.” What was demanded was a God who was as personal and individual and passionate as the South itself; a religion not of prayer books and liturgies, but of fits and jerks and barks; a faith “to draw men together in hordes, to terrify them with Apocalyptic rhetoric, to cast them into the pit, rescue them and at last bring them shouting into the fold of Grace.” The word of God in the South was an incantation, the mighty rhythm of the South.
The unreality of the Southern mind was W.J. Cash’s obsession — that mind was also his own. In February 1941 The Mind of the South was published to critical acclaim. It was considered essential reading in the task of understanding the South well into the 1960s. But W.J. Cash would — or could — never write another book. He put his entire self into that single work, and would never escape from it. The Mind of the South — and that of W.J. Cash — slipped slowly into obscurity.
In June of 1941 W.J. Cash moved himself and his wife to Mexico. He thought the grant money he had gotten to write a second book, a novel, would stretch farther there. But the altitude and the heat made Cash sick and dizzy and sleepless. At night, Cash heard voices. Nazis, he whispered to his wife. In Mexico, Nazi spies were everywhere and they were planning to kill them both. It was retribution, Cash said, for the articles he had written against them. On that last night of his life, Cash locked the doors and windows and held fast to his carving knife.
More than most people, wrote Cash’s wife — 26 years after his suicide — Cash had a vivid fear of death. It was due “to his fundamentalist upbringing,” she wrote, “his childhood exposure to finger-shaking sermons on eternal damnation and the searing fires of hell.” But that last night Cash was too irrational, she wrote, to be saved by anything so rational as the fear of death.
“At last we wearily got ready for the night,” she wrote, “and Cash picked up his Bible and said, ‘Read Ecclesiastes, baby.’ And so I read to him of there being a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to kill and a time to heal.” Cash let go of his knife and fell asleep, she wrote, listening to the mighty rhythms of the words — the story of a universe that unfolds according to its own logic, its own set of seasons, its own time to kill and its own time to heal, its own pale blue fog of reality. • 23 February 2015