Southern Cultures 8.3 (2002) 1-5
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My father's family came from upper South Carolina, not far from Edgefield County, where the legendary demagogue Ben Tillman originated. After the end of Reconstruction, Tillman's violent ranting on behalf of white supremacy and those he called "the farmers" brought down the more high-toned government of Wade Hampton, framed the "nadir" of southern race relations, and made Tillman the master of South Carolina politics for the next generation. Once I asked Dad what people like his father had thought of Tillman.
"Did they think he really represented poor farmers, or was he just a planter who betrayed his own class?" I put it.
Dad thought for a moment and then replied firmly, "The latter."
What's in a life? Everything, obviously. Whether we're talking about a preference for sweet tea or a tragic view of history, broad cultural characteristics have to show up in real human lives or they don't show up at all. Famously suspicious of abstractions, southerners look for their truths in specific lives and specific contexts, not in misty transcendentalisms.. [End Page 1]
And so it was with Ben Tillman. Abstractions, even stereotypes, like "white supremacy" and "racist demagogue," found their nearly perfect personification in the public image of "Pitchfork Ben," the one-eyed wild man who famously threatened to stick a pitchfork into President Grover Cleveland. But in my father's memory, Tillman was no authentic fountain of elemental poor white rage, but an aristocrat manqué who adopted a "populist" image as a political ploy. According to Stephen Kantrowitz, who writes in this issue about his experiences as Tillman's biographer, that memory was correct. The "real" Ben Tillman was no more of a poor white populist than the aristocratic Hampton, but a poseur who used his violent rhetoric to manipulate the voters, his enemies, the press, and even posterity.
What does that say about the relationship between individual lives and the abstractions they supposedly embody? In reality, of course, southerners are not really immune to abstractions. Considered in isolation, what could be more abstract than "states' rights"? Or "freedom now"? But these abstractions have to take root in biography before they have practical consequences, or before they march across the textbook pages as "historical forces." What would "states' rights" mean without the advocates who have invoked it, from Thomas Jefferson to George Wallace? Or the freedom struggle without the activists and marchers who gave their lives to it? Or "white supremacy" without Ben Tillman and all the rest?
Not everyone who embodies an abstraction is a fake, of course, but no one lives up to the expectations of the role with perfect consistency. And though the abstract qualities that might be used to define southern culture all appear in individual southerners, not all southerners share them all in equal measure. While we may have an idea of the perfect "lady" or the perfect "good ole boy," it would be hard to find anyone who matches that idea exactly, without any trace of personal variation at all. This is what makes people unique, and prevents any one of us from becoming fully interchangeable with our neighbors or even with our own stereotypes. For men like Ben Tillman, the gap between public role and private self may be enormous. For others, the effort to live up to a public image can dominate the private self, so that the role creates the person as much as the reverse. The tension between public and private can be the most interesting thing about a person, especially those people that biographers choose to write about.
This issue of Southern Cultures is devoted to biography, and all the authors somehow raise the question of the relationship between the individual life and the abstractions it seems to embody. Three of our contributors have recently published full-length biographies of important southerners: Michael Fellman (The Making of Robert E. Lee), Timothy B. Tyson ("Radio Free Dixie:" Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power ), and Stephen Kantrowitz (Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy). They take this...