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front porch Contemporary discussion ofthe U.S. South frequendy revolves around the question of southern identity or southern distinctiveness. For much of the twentieth century, WilburJ. Cash's authoritative pronouncement held sway: the South was utterly different from the rest ofthe country. In the introduction to his magisterial analysis, The Mind of the South, pubUshed in 1941, Cash minced no words. "When Carl Carmer said of Alabama that 'the Congo is not more different from Massachusetts or Kansas or CaUfornia,'" the master recaUed, "he fashioned a hyperbole which is appUcable in one measure or another to the entire section." Cash went on to Unk his argument for southern distinctiveness to an argument for southern cultural continuity. Southern whites, he insisted, had sustained an underlying cultural unity that had not changed much since colonial days. above: Country musicpioneer Uncle Dave Macon (detail). Courtesy ofthe Southern Folklife Collection, University ofNorth Carolina Library. Some observers have always disputed this point. Cash himself was probably thinking about Chapel HiU sociologists Howard Odum and Rupert Vance when he airily dismissed those "journaüsts or professors" who pretended that "the South reaUy exists only as a geographical division ofthe United States." Early on, the renowned historian C. Vann Woodward chaUenged Cash's notion ofthe continuity of southern history and insisted that abrupt changes had often ruptured the flow ofsouthern history in the past and might do so once more. For evidence, Woodward pointed to the Civil War itself, to the burst of PopuUst radicaUsm in the 1 890S, and later to the fits and starts that marked what he caUed "the strange career ofJim Crow." Later stiU, Woodward observed the onslaughts of the postwar South's "Bulldozer Revolution" and raised the possibility that economic development and modernization might one day leave nothing distinct about the South at aU—except for the one thing that change could never efface, and that was the southern past. Woodward built his case for the South's continued distinctiveness on the assumption that the past would remain relevant to the present. Astute as it was, however, this argument failed to distinguish between history and memory. To be sure, the events of the southern past wiU never change. Scholars wiU always be around to debate such matters as the origins of slavery, the rise of secessionism, or the effects ofcotton tenancy. In numerous subde and obscure ways, moreover, the consequences ofthese events or institutions Unger into the present and continue to affect us aU. Professional historians have the task of digging out those consequences and explaining them, but our efforts don't always have the impact we would Uke them to have. Despite professors' pronouncements, people remember what they want and what they need, not simply what they learn in school. If migration, prosperity, and population turnover create a human community in the South with no vital connection to the southern past, then historical experiences Uke Reconstruction or the one-party system wiU be as distant and irrelevant to them as the rise and faU of the Mound Builders. It's Uke the trees that faU in an empty forest: ifnobody hears the hoofbeats ofJeb Stuart's cavalry anymore , does the sound reaUy exist? SentimentaUsts worry intensely that the end of southern memories wiU undermine the existence ofa distinctive southern culture. I suspect this fear has a lot to do with the popularity of various memorial activities Uke Civil War reenacting and intense pubUc battles over the symbols of the Confederacy. Certainly Atlanta 's 1996 attempt to present the Olympics with no signs ofa distinctive southern identity was an ill omen for many regionaUsts. The inevitable replacement of one generation by another guarantees that memory and culture are always somewhat artificial; young people have to be told what to remember, oldsters have to remind each other, and everybody has to keep working on what they need or want to remember. But people's needs invariably change and so do their memo2 southern cultures, Winter 1999 : Front Porch ries and their cultures. If changing popular memories undermine the basis for a distinctive southern culture, it wiU happen because southerners don't need one any more, assuming they reaUy had one in the first...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 1-4
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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