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The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness. By Angie Maxwell. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. x, 324. $34.95 paper)

The Indicted South is a well-researched and often stylishly written study of the intellectual history of the twentieth-century South. Angie Maxwell, who is a professor of political science and southern studies at the University of Arkansas, structures the book around the idea that a crabbed defense of the faith, ideas, economy, and inequalities [End Page 136] of the South matured in the face of sweeping attacks from within and outside the region. Such passionate defenses elbowed aside less extreme ideas. Each of the three major sections of the book follows such an arc and in each case the rightward turn coincides with an increased reliance on the words of origin texts to underwrite literally the arguments being made.

In the first section, Maxwell shows Dayton, Tennessee, to be unremarkable in its commitments to fundamentalist religious certainties before it hosted in 1925 the Scopes trial and media circus over the teaching of evolution. However, after ridicule of the locale and region from Clarence Darrow, H. L. Mencken, and others during and after the trial, the backlash assumed a hard edge to defense of the South. Dayton soon hosted Bryan College, named for the beloved William Jennings Bryan, who had made the case against evolution and died after making it. The school, Maxwell shows, was conceived as a monument to creationism and biblical literalism.

The second section considers the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of young intellectuals who produced in 1930 the anthem to southern intransigence, I’ll Take My Stand. Maxwell traces the origins of the group to the earlier Nashville collaborations of the poetry group known as the Fugitives, who were at first in full flight from the “desert” of southern culture. They became by 1930 full-throated defenders of an imagined white South. Maxwell shows how the vitriol of Mencken and the context of the Scopes trial were reasons for this change, though she also demonstrates that defense of white supremacy was also much at play. Leading Agrarians soon pioneered the New Criticism in literary studies, making the close reading of classic texts the centerpiece of such study.

In the third section, Maxwell offers an impressive reading of reaction to the Brown v. Board decision in Virginia in 1954, focusing on the state’s political elite and the writer James Kilpatrick. The particular importance of Virginia to the campaign of massive resistance to desegregating schools is brilliantly captured. So is the trajectory in which more moderate responses gave way amidst critiques of the [End Page 137] benighted South to a propaganda war against any implementation of Brown. Kilpatrick’s rediscovery of the states’ rights doctrine of “interposition,” with snatches of the U.S. Constitution providing the basis of a new literalism, cemented South-wide opposition to integrated schools.

Each section, as well as a spirited conclusion on the recent past, contains significant insights, and the manuscript negotiates the tensions that run through the entire project. Nonetheless, those tensions are real. The respect for conservative and religious ideas that animates the project proves much more possible when a Bryan or a Robert Penn Warren is under consideration than when matters devolve to weighing Kilpatrick, whose ideas on interposition are ultimately dismissed as a “guise” (p. 171) with “insincerity” (p. 233) as their hallmark. Such judgments also signal the book’s productive difficulty in disentangling the impact of being made to feel inferior from the desire to defend a system of white supremacy. In discussing the Scopes case, although Bryan’s racism is nicely sketched, it is possible to keep the indicted South and the white supremacist South distinct. But for many of the Agrarians and for Kilpatrick, Maxwell acknowledges that the desire for absolution from inferiority was twinned with a desire to be free of “race guilt” (p. 185).

David Roediger

DAVID ROEDIGER is Foundation Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Kansas. His most recent book is Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Freedom for All (2014).


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