“On the Edge of Extinction?”: Region, Identity, and the Pliable Contours of Southern History
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“On the Edge of Extinction?”
Region, Identity, and the Pliable Contours of Southern History

The South has always seemed to live on the edge of extinction, the good as well as the bad are perpetually disappearing.

—Edward Ayers, “What We Talk About When We Talk About the South”1

As Edward Ayers indicates, charting the end of southern history has a long tradition in both academic and popular tales of the American South.2 The region seems to be forever disappearing. However, identifying what precisely is supposed to be vanishing and why often proves difficult to pin down. Does this mean that the collective features that have historically made the South distinct are ceasing to find expression? What might these features be anyway and how might one measure their demise? Or perhaps it means that people who live in the South today no longer primarily identify themselves as southern? The irony of these efforts to chart the end of southern history is that a counterpoint has emerged with some arguing that America has in some fundamental way become southern. This “southernization” of America argument has gained particular currency when discussing contemporary race relations, changing political demographics, and developments in American criminal justice history.3

The question of southern distinctiveness, sometimes referenced as the question of southern exceptionalism, has become the indispensable query organizing the field of southern history.4 Scholars examining every time period, topic, event, and theme wind up grappling with components of this larger question in one fashion or another. Oftentimes the attempts to explore the contours of a distinctive South wind up generating important scholarship that defines the major historiographical fault lines for generations. [End Page 41] We see this in the kinds of questions that have often organized the major debates in the field. For instance, southern historians have asked if slave owners were capitalists?5 Did the Confederacy succeed in creating a new nation separate from the United States?6 Did the postwar South follow the same path to capitalist development as the rest of the nation or was the region merely a colonial outpost of Northern political and economic imperialism?7 Did particularly conservative strains of southern politics and race-relations migrate North in the mid-to-late twentieth century?8 Regardless of how such questions are answered, each is predicated on a conception of a South that is divergent from a broader, American norm.

Fig. 1. Center for the Study of the American South, Love House, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photograph by Caroline Culler. Image appears under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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Fig. 1.

Center for the Study of the American South, Love House, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photograph by Caroline Culler. Image appears under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Implicit in the question of southern distinctiveness is the irreducibly comparative nature of southern history itself. For, when southern historians argue that the South is either similar to or different from the nation they are necessarily making comparisons to “the North.” As James Cobb argues, at the heart of much of southern history “the North” has come to represent more of an “emotional idea” than an actual place, a sort of “mythical non-South” that is “synonymous with the idea of America itself.”9 Southern distinctiveness implies northern normativity. Given the inherently comparative nature of southern history, it is perhaps remarkable how few explicitly [End Page 42] comparative studies have been conducted. Many of the features understood as marking the South as distinct are assumed to have little purchase in this “mythical non-South.”

Recently this debate over the end of southern history has garnered new devotees. In a 2010 collection of essays titled The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino took aim at this foundational assumption. They contended that, “The tendency to isolate distinctive regional characteristics from a normative American narrative has set southern history in false opposition to an idealized national standard and has encouraged oversimplifications and overgeneralizations about all parts of the country.” For Lassiter and Crespino, and the other authors in their collection of essays, southern exceptionalism, particularly in the post-World War II era, has functioned to shield the broader American project from appropriate scrutiny. If the South is constructed as retrograde, then the North...