Southern Cultures 7.1 (2001) 21-26
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"Knock Us Out, John!"
James C. Cobb
When it comes to milking an anecdote, John Reed has no equal and few competitors. It seems appropriate, therefore, to begin an essay about his work with a story. In one of his best-known yarns, comedian Jerry Clower told of a famous coon hunt that culminates in the miraculous ascent of one John Eubanks, "a professional tree climber," up one of the biggest trees in the Amite River Swamp. The object of John's climb is what is presumed to be a coon nestled among the giant sweet gum's topmost branches. As he nears his prey, Eubanks is repeatedly admonished to "Knock 'em out, John!" Upon his arrival in the upper branches of the tree, however, the unfortunate John encounters not a coon, but a lynx. The cat proceeds to attack him, resulting in a cacophony of screams from John, screeches from the lynx, and continued encouragement from the ground in the form of "Knock 'em out, John!" John's plight is finally understood by his colleagues, and he begs them to "Shoot this thing." They reply that they are afraid to, lest they should hit John. In response, a desperate John can only plead, "Just shoot up here amongst us, one of us has got to have some relief!"
I have a slight variation on this story. My version also takes place in a swamp, actually the great and dismal lowlands of southern historiography. Hopelessly lost, a contingent of southern historians are frozen in fear, trapped between a phalanx of advancing bulldozers on the one hand and a galloping regiment of Confederate cavalry on the other. As they plead for help, a daring and decisive sociologist, who happens to be named John, fires several crucial signal volleys, showing them an escape route to avoid being trampled or crushed as the cavalry and bulldozers move relentlessly toward an inevitable collision. For the uninitiated, in my allegory the cavalry represent the continuity-obsessed disciples of W. J. Cash, who firmly believed that behind any event or trend in southern history could be heard the gallop of J. E. B. Stuart's mounted dragoons. The bulldozers, meanwhile, symbolize an economic and demographic transformation, the so-called "Bulldozer Revolution," that C. Vann Woodward and his disciples of discontinuity believed might erase "the very consciousness of a distinctive tradition [End Page 21] along with the will to sustain it." The heroic sociologist in my story is, of course, my esteemed comrade in southernology, Professor John Shelton Reed.
In 1972 Reed's The Enduring South argued for the persistence of a distinctive southern identity characterized by localism, violence, and religiosity, all of which, he wrote, were "plausible responses for a minority group, surrounded by a culture which is viewed as powerful, hostile, and unresponsive" (2nd ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1986, p. 89). This persistence of a distinctively southern mindset further derived, in Reed's view, from the relative strength within the South of the "more culturally conservative" (p. 87) institutions of church and family and the relative weakness of mass media and the schools.
Armed with more recent data in his 1986 update of The Enduring South (University of North Carolina Press, p. 91), Reed found that "cultural differences that were largely due to Southerners' lower incomes and educational levels, to their concentration in agricultural and low-level industrial occupations--those differences already diminishing in the 1960s . . . [were] smaller still in the 1980s," and a few had even vanished altogether. Meanwhile, regional differences in tendencies toward localism and the acceptance of violence were also converging. This trend, however, was primarily the result of changes in nonsouthern attitudes that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s when nonsoutherners confronted experiences of frustration, embarrassment, and defeat and thus acquired the southerner's traditional sense that the world is a hostile place from which it is wiser to expect the worst rather than the best. [End Page 22]
Reed's explanation for the southernization of America was plausible enough. As he looked...