Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is the American South Really That Special?

Civil War Memory has a good post here at The Burden of Southern History. This appears to be the first post of a series that will examine the thoughts of C Vann Woodward.

I think to start out on my thoughts on this post is we can agree Southern History is a lot more complicated than most people portray regardless of their viewpoint. There is of course not one "South" and really never was.

The question posed is / was the American South really ever that distinct or did this "myth" come about as a political and social response to other matters.

I agree and disagree with some of what is in this first post however I am open.

Let me say the most glaring omission so far is the whole Scot- Irish dynamic of the South. There have been many political posts that have examined this recently under the theme of the Jacksonian belt. Though we have seen much more migration than we did last century this Jacksonian belt still I think has some significant political and cultural effect today. This same Jacksonian belt to some degree showed up in border regions and parts of Northern States where this Scot Irish presence also tended to show more southern sympathies in the Civil War.

Let me take a few parts of this.

"C. Vann Woodward notes in his seminal work, The Burden of Southern History, northerners were equally complicit in fostering such views of “southern distinctiveness.” Woodward argues that, beginning with the Lost Cause and sectional reconciliation era of the 1880s, northerners joined the South in celebrations of its regional culture and that they further embraced the idea of southern distinctiveness by portraying the South as a haven and refuge from the disconcerting corruption and rapid modernization of the post-war North."

Well I actually think there is a lot to this. In fact we see this theme in a lot of lost cause literature. Particularly among some Catholics that promote this viewpoint. We have in the background "evil" Capitalism.

I think a lot of us are unaware of how vast these changes were. Most Americans are sort of good on American history till Lincoln and sort of pick it up again around FDR. So the social and political changes that are going on here are not on our radar.

However as a comment at this same post indicates:
"if you consider the South as a nation it would be the 4th most industrial nation on the planet by the eve of the Civil War. I find this area of focus to be quite interesting and it has helped me to move beyond the standard stories of two regions that fell on opposite ends of the industrial/modern spectrum."

Well that is true. The fact that people think otherwise perhaps has to due with much of post Civil War South looking like Post War II Germany. So in a sense I think there is a huge point that could be correct here.

Lets Continue:
During the early and mid-twentieth century, Woodward writes, the notion of southern distinctiveness acquired new meaning as Americans began to embrace and promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” on a truly global scale. This so-called “national myth” portrayed America as a global leader that had never known defeat and whose foundations rested upon an eternal commitment to liberty and morality.

Woodward argues that, in order to justify this “national myth,” Americans used the South as its scapegoat for its previous moral and political failures, including slavery, civil war, and periodic economic troubles. By “dumping” its historical and moral burdens on the South, Americans thus were able to purge their own (perceived) triumphant national history of its historical baggage; such efforts, in turn, resulted in the increasing differentiation between “mainstream” America and the South and in the perpetuation of the myth of southern distinctiveness.

Therefore Woodward argues, in reality, the South is not as inherently unique as we, as a nation, have come to believe; rather, it is the South’s experiences—of defeat and of an imagined separatism—that have made it seem so distinct.

Now I don't want to get into the whole debate if American exceptional ism is a good or bad thing. I do think there is a point here. Problems that we see nationwide were and are unfairly put in just Southern terms.

However was there really a campaign to dump all this baggage on the South? It seems like this during this time period the South was held up!! The film Birth of a Nation was a big hit!! What about Gone with the Wind and about a million other films. It seems to me the South was often put in glowing terms during the first half of the 20th Century. Maybe it had to deal with World Wars and the need to come together. Now there might be an argument some "dumping " was done later but again I will have to think about that.

One other thought. The South of today is of course different from the South of the 1840, 1860, or for that matter 1940. We have had for some time what we call the New South. We have had for decades a migration from the North and Midwest of folks to different regions of the South.

The question that would be interesting to study is who affected who more. Of course this mingling effected both the Southerners and the "Yankee" transplants. The South also like the North has some some significant migration from outside the USA - Italians etc.

It does seem to me that there is still in many ways cultural, political, and religious difference we see turn up time and time again .

So perhaps to ask how "distinctive" the South is and was, we should be looking at the effects of the South on the people of this migration.


Jim said...

That's an excellent post, and you are dead-on about the Scots-Irish influence. A lot has been written about it and it explains a lot of behavior that we see even today.
Good job.

James H said...

Thanks. I think that has a lot to do with it.

That is one reason I am curious in who affected who. The South has had huge migration from new factories, people fleeing the RUIst belt, the oil fields, and the fact that the South has had so many military bases.

I mean just look at Bossier where we have now had many decades of people from all around the United States that made one time sleepy little Bossier their home.

I think on the whole these "immigrants" take on the surrounding ethos. We see this in the difference we see today in different regions as to politics, religion observance and things like Military elistment.

Andy said...

Yep! The Scots-Irish influence is a nuance that must be understood. I know, because I'm from that blood-line (somewhat).

You also made a short reference to the Italians...that's also very important in understanding the culture of the south.

And, as to the military influence here in Bossier...I think it has some impact. I know it has on me, and my children that grew up here. But, I'm not so sure that "they" take on the ethos. Maybe. But maybe not.

It's quite possible that "The Bossier Way" was already within these folks, and they found a safe place to land here.

Not everyone that comes here stays here. In fact, most don't.

Good post though. It gave me a lot to think about. Heck, it's too pretty outside today to be thinking about stuff! I'm gonna take my dog for a walk...