- Away Down South A History of Southern Identity
James C. Cobb's Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity is that rare book published by an academic press that can be wrapped up and given as a Christmas present. An engaging, accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable read, Away Down South is a comprehensive history of the ways different southerners, nearly all of them writers of one sort or another, have thought about their region and their own relationship to it. Known for his wit as well as his erudition, Cobb is in his element in this book, leaping lightly from U. B. Phillips to Willie Morris to NASCAR. At the same time, he is self-consciously aware of the serious nature of his subject, remarking at the end that this book was written against a contemporary international backdrop of genocide.
What is "southern identity," and what is its history? Curiously, its history is clearer than its definition. Cobb defines southern identity variously: as synonymous with southern distinctiveness, a regional sense of self defined in opposition to the North, a shared sense of a common past, and the product of common suffering. The virtue of such definitional flexibility is that it covers the many vantage points from which those who thought about southern identity approached their topic. The drawback is its inability to clarify just what is meant by the phrase "southern identity."
Clues to the nature of the what are found in consideration of the when. Although Cobb introduces us to antebellum constructions of southern difference, his chief interest lies in the post-emancipation era, and for good reason. In social, economic and political terms, the South differed more from the rest of the nation in the antebellum period than in the postbellum era. Yet the story of southern distinctiveness is, as writer and regional armchair psychoanalyst W. J. Cash pointed out in 1941, the product of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It was "the conflict with the Yankee," Cash argued in The Mind of the South, "that created the concept [End Page 105] of the South as something more than a matter of geography." According to Cash, a coherent southern identity was forged for the first time out of opposition to the victorious North, a term that stands for congressional Reconstruction as well as the Union Army. Cobb agrees, and quotes Robert Penn Warren: "'the conception of Southern identity truly bloomed . . . only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword' at Appomattox."
This oppositional definition of southern identity ("we are not the North") and the argument that it grew out of a shared history of fighting the Yankees falls apart the minute the historical views of African Americans are considered, as Cobb recognizes. Although he asserts in the Introduction that "the most common foundation of group identity is a shared sense of a common past," Cobb notes immediately that black and white southerners have disagreed strenuously about the actual content of that past and how it should be remembered and represented. Black southerners did not construct their identity in opposition to the North and all it stood for. Quite the contrary: between 1865 and the turn of the twentieth century, they and a few white allies struggled with former Confederates over the definition of the southern past and the shape of the southern future. The southern identity marked by Cash and Warren was born of internecine conflict during years in which dramatically different visions of southern identity and political possibility clashed and vied for prominence, when African American leaders such as Frederick Douglass were backed up by white southerners like George Washington Cable and newcomer Albion Tourgée, and opposed by those determined to "redeem" the South by whatever means necessary. As Cobb demonstrates so effectively, there were competing notions of what it meant to be southern after 1865. But by 1900 the ruling class had "made racial supremacy the cornerstone of their regional identity."
One of Cobb's aims in this book is to present the possibility of an inclusive southern identity. This hope...