- Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity by James Cobb
In the introduction to Away Down South, James Cobb cautions that he has not attempted to write the history of the South, but rather, a history of the South, one that focuses on southern identity from colonial times to the present. Cobb’s history revolves around three questions: (1) how did the notion of a distinct southern identity come about? (2) how did southerners comprehend this identity? and (3) how have socioeconomic changes in the post-Civil Rights era impacted the essence and interpretation of southern identity? As Cobb notes, the scope of these questions represents quite an ambitious undertaking. By welding these broad themes together, Cobb has produced a work that can aid geographers and other scholars in explicating the persistence of a differentiated ‘southernness’ vis-à-vis the region’s increasing incorporation into American society since the Civil Rights movement.
The twelve chapters of Away Down South can be roughly divided into three sections. The first section (chapters 1–4) charts the evolution and propagation of ‘southern distinctiveness’ from the post-Revolutionary period through the early twentieth century. Integrating the voluminous scholarly literature on this topic, Cobb describes how reliance on plantation agriculture and slave labor became the distinguishing features of ‘the South’ within the new republic, and how, particularly after 1800, northern leaders came to equate ‘northern’ and ‘American’ values, thus marginalizing the South’s role in the nation. Despite this ‘othering’ process, Cobb [End Page 375] argues that southerners did not forge a cohesive identity until the mid-1800s, as northern attacks on slavery came to be viewed as attacks on southern society more generally. After the Civil War, southern identity building continued via the construction of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth and the ‘New South’ creed, until these orthodoxies came under fire from southern academics in the 1920s, instigating an identity crisis among the region’s intelligentsia.
The second section of the book (chapters 5–7) explicates the conflicted nature of southern identity, in part through an analysis of southern literary works, with an emphasis on the novels of William Faulkner. Cobb also devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of W.J. Cash’s influential 1941 exposé, The Mind of the South, pointing out the importance of this work in debunking the myth of a vaunted southern past and in illustrating how reconciling that past with the present created conflict within the southern psyche. This discussion prefaces Cobb’s treatment of “South of Guilt and Shame,” the post-World War II South in which the Jim Crow system and the mythologies that sustained it, such as the sanctity of southern white womanhood, were increasingly assailed by critics within and outside the region.
The final section of the book (chapters 8–12) concerns southern identity in the post-Civil Rights era, one in which the South experienced significant socioeconomic change and, seemingly, greater homogenization with mainstream American culture. This ‘Americanization of the South’ led observers to pen epitaphs for the ‘Old’ South when faced with the loss of cultural distinctiveness that seemed to accompany the emergence of what Cobb terms the ‘No’ South. One chapter in this section explores black southerners’ observations on the essence of ‘southernness’; this insightful discussion sets up the final two chapters, which concern contemporary debates over interpretation and commemoration of southern history and identity politics.
Cobb, to his credit, is obviously dedicated to incorporating the experiences of black southerners into this work on southern identity, avoiding (and overtly criticizing) the traditional pitfall of equating ‘southern’ and ‘white.’ Cobb’s struggle to fashion a coherent story of southern identity from the disparate historical experiences and contemporary attitudes of the region’s black and white residents is admirable, but this focus on ‘race’ often leaves little room for discussions of class and gender, both inextricably bound to the South’s traditional social hierarchy. Cobb includes an interesting (and often amusing) discussion of class differences among southern whites that emerged in the post...