Commentary Magazine

The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945, by George Brown Tindall

Southern Values

The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945.
by George Brown Tindall.
Louisiana State University Press. 807 pp. $12.50.

The South, announced H. L. Mencken in the 1920's, is the “bonghole of the United States, a cesspool of baptists, a miasma of Methodists, snake-charmers, phony real-estate operators, and syphilitic evangelists.” George B. Tindall's The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945, is devoted to refuting that charge by demonstrating that the region in the years between the two world wars lost its sectional distinctiveness and became “more an integral part of the Union and of the world than ever before.”

There is much in Professor Tindall's 807 fact-loaded pages to sustain his thesis. Massively researched, this enormous volume, the final one in the ten-volume History of the South series1 (though a volume on the 18th-century Southern colonies is still to appear), argues that Southerners came to accept most national norms. Southern progressives, for instance, may have had “a unique moral-religious tone,” but in their objectives they were much like reformers in other sections. Their accomplishments, too, were similar, for by the outbreak of the First World War “new responsibilities had become a familiar part of the political landscape, and if state services lagged somewhat in the South for want of taxable wealth, they did not lag for want of widespread public support.” The war had a further homogenizing effect; as a Florida newspaper lamented, it was sad but inevitable that henceforth all Americans abroad would be called Yankees.

By the 1920's “Southern industry's coming of age pulled Southern business, as Wilson had pulled Southern politics, toward the national orbit.” Symbolic was the rise of Atlanta as the principal urban center of the New South, that “source of the South's more notorious contributions to 20th-century American culture—Coca Cola and the Ku Klux Klan—but also the home of the interracial movement, several colleges, a symphony orchestra, and annual performances by the Metropolitan Opera Company.” In the golden days of prosperity, “the Atlanta spirit reigned supreme in the Babbit warrens of the New South.”

Then came depression, and the South suffered just as the rest of the nation did. On “one day in April 1932, a fourth of the entire area of Mississippi went under the [auctioneer's] hammer” for unpaid taxes. Like most other Americans, Southerners rallied behind Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. If the NRA, the AAA, the PWA, and the rest of the alphabetical agencies wrought no revolutionary transformation in Southern life, they did help stave off starvation. With returning prosperity, white Southereners, like their conservative counterparts elsewhere, worried greatly that the New Deal was coddling labor unions and encouraging Negroes to seek their civil rights, and by the late 1930's the “Atlanta spirit” was “in as full bloom as ever in the flourishing 1920's.” The war contracts of the Second World War further spurred Southern industrialization, and full employment permitted the impoverished Negro and white masses of the region to approach the living standards of the rest of the country. The New Deal and the war also “fundamentally altered federal-state relations,” for as William Faulkner once observed, Mississippi was estopped from further appeals to state-rights on the day it began accepting subsidies from Washington.


While there is, then, much to support Professor Tindall's view that the South during this period returned to the Union, one may wonder whether, in the larger sense, he may not have misread his own voluminous record. The emergence of the Southern businessman does not necessarily signify either a regional acceptance of national values or a break with previous sectional traditions. In fact, the leaders of the South had always been devoted to the business ethic. Contrary to the view of Frank L. Owsley, the South even before the Civil War was no agrarian elysium populated by happy yeomen; contrary to the theory of Eugene D. Genovese, it was no feudal empire either. The Southern planter of the 1830's was as hard-driving, money-conscious, and market-minded as the Southern manufacturer of the 1930's. If one advocated chattel slavery, the other supported wage slavery. Both groups effectively dominated the politics, the economics, and the society of the section.

But if Professor Tindall's enormous array of facts does not really prove that Southerners accepted new values, it does show the degree to which the South came to impose its ideas upon the nation. When Wilson was elected, one reporter predicted that the South, “beaten, bleeding, prostrate” half a century before, had finally “come back to rule the Union.” The fact that under Wilson all but two of the fourteen major Committee chairmanships in the Senate and all but two of the thirteen in the House were held by Southerners showed how accurate that prophecy was. So, too, did the President's decision to channel patronage into the hands of traditional, conservative Southern congressmen and the official endorsement by his administration of racial segregation in federal offices in Washington. A generation later the South was still in control. In 1933, as Professor Tindall writes, “Southerners headed nine of fourteen major Senate Committees and twelve of seventeen in the House, a pattern that varied only in detail until 1945.” The spread of the Ku Klux Klan into the North during the 1920's was an indication of how Southern attitudes were finding national acceptance; the very fact that this second Klan devoted its energies principally to harassing Jews and Catholics was significant, because it was everywhere assumed that the question of Negro-white relations had already been settled in accordance with Southern wishes. The favorable critical reception given Southern authors during these years was further evidence of the dominant role Southerners had come to play in the national life; one has only to list the names of Ellen Glasgow, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Wolfe, Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner to realize the degree to which American literature during these years was in fact Southern literature.

Nevertheless, the South remained in some degree unique, its values unshared by the nation at large, and Professor Tindall gives us in passing evidence to challenge his own theory that the section was increasingly being reabsorbed into the nation. It would be hard, for instance, to duplicate elsewhere in the United States the 1918 Georgia mob which, outraged by the killing of a white planter, stormed across two counties for a week, “hanged three innocent men, strung up the pregnant widow of one by the ankles, doused her clothing with gasoline, and after it burned away, cut out her unborn child and trampled it underfoot, then riddled her with bullets.” It was in defense of such gothic atrocities that Senator Cole Blease bellowed: “Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of South Carolina, then I say ‘to hell with the Constitution.’” More elegantly, the aristocratic Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi put it: “There is just one thing that I love better than the Democratic party . . . and United States . . . my wife or children or myself, and that is the . . . purity and the integrity of the white race everywhere.”

Southerners readily transposed these fears of the Negro into hostility toward any other minority. In 1928, Tom Heflin of South Carolina sensed that the “Roman hierarchy” was behind the diabolical plot to put Al Smith in the White House and announced to his following the alternatives: “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve, the God of white supremacy or the false god of Roman social equality.” Jews, too, came under attack, because they had, as the head of the Klan wrote, set themselves apart by a “racial and religious antipathy, unrelenting and unabating since the cross of Calvary.”

All change to the Southerner was dangerous. Arkansas planters advised against building outhouses for tenants, since it was well known that “all . . . a sharecropper needs is a cotton patch and a corn cob.” Labor organizers were considered dangerous radicals. A South Carolina evangelist announced that the letters CIO stood for “Christ Is Out,” while a history-minded company guard at Vicksburg, thoughtfully watching a mob beat up a union leader, reflected: “If it wasn't for people like the CIO we could still have slavery and get along without working.” Feeble New Deal attempts to encourage single-family dairy farms in the South were branded as Communistic. When a puzzled John Dos Passos asked the reason, an Alabaman explained: “Well, around here Communism's anything we don't like. Isn't it that way everywhere else?”

Fortunately it was not. Though Southern values were influential and Southern political power was great, the region remained identifiably distinct. It is the failure to analyze the reasons for this persistent peculiarity that one most misses from Professor Tindall's laborious and careful book. Perhaps he might have written a more interesting study had he brushed aside the surface similarities between the South and the nation, which he develops at such length. It might have been better to begin with the central insight of that most brilliant of Southern analysts, W. J. Cash, who recognized that the region was like “a tree with many age rings, with its limbs and trunk bent and twisted by all the winds of the years, but with its tap root still in the Old South.”


1 Edited by Wendell Holmes Stephenson and E. Merton Coulter.

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