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Southern Cultures 13.1 (2007) 107-109

Reviewed by
Stephen J. Whitfield
Magnolias without Moonlight: The American South from Regional Confederacy to National Integration; By Sheldon Hackney; Transaction, 2005; 152 pp. Cloth $29.95.

The contemporary southerner is compelled to swing both ways. Any white who stems from the region may be the proud legatee of the Confederate effort to destroy the Union a century and a half ago. Yet no section has exhibited more fervent patriotism, or has shown a fiercer eagerness to defend the nation, or has favored more readily the resort to military force even when the United States isn't exactly under attack. (During the most decisive phase of the war in Vietnam, and then in both wars against Iraq, Texans served as Commander-in-Chief, giving orders to generals like William Westmoreland and Tommy Franks.) The mind of the South could be diagnosed as schizoid, because the yearning to diverge coexists [End Page 107] with the need to merge; and the celebration of Rebels leaves unaffected the trust in authority. Nor has the insistence upon distinctiveness and even separateness prevented the South from becoming the most thoroughly Republican section of a nation that has in recent decades chosen gop hegemony.

"If At First You Don't Secede. . ."—a bumper sticker that Sheldon Hackney once noticed in his native Alabama—could be the moral that his collection of eleven historical essays is intended to unpack. A region that has been historically slow to conform to the rest of America (from capitalism to cultural pluralism, from public education to a racially egalitarian ethos) has also kept itself so intact that a disproportionate impact in shaping U.S. history was guaranteed. The differences persist, Hackney argues—in manners and mayhem, in expressions of piety and in imposing capital punishment, in owning more guns and in earning fewer diplomas. Magnolias without Moonlight catapults its author into the counterpart of those German historians who emphasize the Sonderweg, the special path that their own nation followed. But because southerners have been black as well as white, the social and cultural character of the region has also been biracial, and not only centripetal as well as centrifugal.

The need for scholarship to attend to regional variation within the bigger national picture is evident in the earliest of the essays that Hackney reprints, "Southern Violence" (1969). Gunplay has made America the most dangerous industrial society west of, say, 1980s Beirut and north of Medellin, Colombia. Yet it is the South that pushes the U.S. off the charts among advanced nations, which stimulates Hackney to challenge the usual explanations of why the Mason-Dixon line also became known as the Smith and Wesson line. The demands of the frontier? Then why are Nevadans less homicidal than Virginians? The role of race? "There is actually a tendency for states to rank lower in serious crimes as the percentage of blacks in the population increases." What about the South's poverty? That dog won't hunt either, because murder rates decline during business depressions. The inference that Hackney draws from the historical record is that feelings of persecution, putting southerners at the mercy of malevolent outside forces, may keep generating a culture of violence.

The other essays gathered in Magnolias without Moonlight are also elegantly crafted and persuasively argued; they burnish a southern liberalism that is defined as a repudiation of the romanticism that his title mocks. Three chapters are devoted to the scholarly and moral achievement of his late teacher, C. Vann Woodward, whom Hackney calls "the most widely admired historian of the United States in the twentieth century." A fourth essay portrays Justice Hugo L. Black, whose first wife's sister was Hackney's mother-in-law. These two earlier southern liberals contained multitudes as well: Woodward had to reconcile the detachment of the scholar with the imperatives of the activist who struggled to scuttle Jim Crow [End Page 108] rather than merely trace its "strange career"; and the populist Senator who became...


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