Commentary Magazine


The South

To the Editor:

David Donald’s unfortunate review of Pat Watters’s The South and the Nation [Books in Review, July] deserves rebuke and correction. Mr. Watters, with rare perception and sensitivity, has told us how the South came through the crises of the 6()’s, richly informing his narrative with lessons that both the region and the nation need to learn. Thus, Mr. Donald does a public disservice by recommending, in effect, that this book may safely be ignored.

Obscuring the fact that Watters’s subject is the South in the 1960s, Donald devotes the first half of his review to comparisons of W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South with The South and the Nation. The comparisons all turn out to Watters’s considerable disadvantage. According to Donald, Watters—guilty of inadequate research and limited by a narrow geographic perspective—is a “poor, sometimes a slovenly, writer,” and his book is “chaotic” in structure. He writes of Negroes in stereotypes and sees them as all alike.

All of these charges are mistaken. Taking literally Watters’s statement that he did not bother much with “painstaking scholarly research,” Donald missed the irony of the confession and failed to see how securely the book is grounded in the primary materials of the period. As Director of Information of the Southern Regional Council, Watters commissioned, edited, or himself conducted a large share of the very studies to which others turn for their “painstaking scholarly research.” Use of the pejoratives “slovenly” and “chaotic” badly misrepresents the character of Watters’s style and organization. Watters is not a conventionally “disciplined” author, and he may suffer losses from the loose, rambling nature of his approach, but his method is the necessary vehicle for the delivery of his special insights, and permits him to make credible the subtleties, ambivalences, and paradoxes of the period. Georgia and Atlanta do figure prominently in the book, but the statement that “rarely does his range of vision extend beyond the state of Georgia” is gross exaggeration. The charge that he “views” all blacks as alike—and as admirable—is contradicted in Donald’s own review and does not have enough substance to be labeled an exaggeration.

The last of Donald’s criticisms is the strangest. The “larger difficulties” with Watters’s work, he writes, “stem not so much from the author as from the subject.” It would have been easier to write about “the South and the Nation” in the late 1950′s, Donald says, because the themes were simpler. Now, however, with the South so much more like the nation, there is no “fixed vantage point from which to observe” the region. This curious observation, offered to add the final touch of discredit to the effort, substitutes for a clear explanation of the purpose and character of Watters’s book.

“What happened in the South,” Watters writes, “was that its dominant majority . . . suddenly had the very core of their value system challenged on moral and legal grounds by a spirited and inspired minority, and, finally, overthrown.” The South and the Nation is surely one of the best accounts of how and why that happened, and with what consequences. To tell that story is its first purpose. But it is more than contemporary regional history. As Watters puts it, “the central experience of the South’s recent change, the anguished racial struggle, was an experience that seemed soon likely to consume all Americans.” The issue would not be race alone, or even primarily race, for the nation was entering “a time when every old truth must be re-examined, when everything that has been accepted as right and proper must be reassessed.” In Watters’s pages we see “the wisdom of Southern experience and its warning for the nation as it enters a similar ordeal.” And, finally, “to see the South of the 1960′s is to see what may happen to the nation or, better, what the nation may avoid.”

Paul M. Gaston
Atlanta, Georgia

_____________

 

David Donald writes:

I find nothing in Paul M. Gaston’s wordy, pretentious letter that causes me to revise my opinion of Pat Watters’s wordy, pretentious book.

_____________

 

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