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The Anxiety of History: The Southern Confrontation with Modernity Elizabeth Fox-Genovese With virtually each passing year, the South's representation in the humanities becomes more elusive. To be sure, programs in "southern studies" abound, and some scholars continue to specialize in southern history or literature. But the South that figures in their pages looks more and more like a regional variant of the rest of the country. Indeed, "regionalism" is increasingly replacing everything else as the principal justification for southern studies. No doubt the centrality of race relations, the special patterns of labor relations, and the persistence of rural character endow southern history with distinct features. But more often than not, these features are seen as no different from the peculiarities of any other group in an ever-more-ethnically varied United States. The tendency to view the South as one region among many thus corresponds nicely to a growing interest in "difference " in general. Nothing could be further from my mind than to quarrel with the intrinsic interest of various folk cultures and folkways, not least because they assuredly do enrich our national culture. But the South cannot be understood only as one region among many. Since the Civil War, the primary difference between the South and the rest of the nation has been its anguished, and occasionally violent, struggle with the consequences of its history. Before the war, southern distinctiveness was grounded in slavery as a social system. That we all now recognize slavery as abhorrent has understandably tended to discourage historians in particular and students of the humanities in general from linking southern regional identity to it. There is an almost irresistible tendency to want the true story of the South to have been antislavery , and even secretly "progressive"—simply more rural and more biracial than that of the rest of the country. But in order to understand the distinctiveness of the South, we have to acknowledge that even the present story of the South is grounded in its past defenses of slavery and in resistance to modernity. The Distinctiveness of Southern Conservativism The distinctive aspects of the southern tradition have always been conservative. Modern southern conservatism stands virtually alone in the spectrum of conser- 66Southern Cultures vatisms of our time, primarily because of two key tenets: (1) its insistence upon the centrality of personal and local histories in the self-definitions of individuals and communities; and (2) its abiding discomfort with the solvent effects of rampant capitalism and individualism. These two tenets are closely bound together, even intertwined, in southern conservative thought. In an age in which the national political triumph of conservatism has been linked above all to the defense of minimal restrictions upon the free play of the market and the proliferation of consumer goods, southern conservatives have resolutely insisted upon the importance of "remembering who we are."1 They are proudly and self-consciously heir to what may well be the most sustained critique of the excesses of capitalism that this country has known. But unlike socialists, southern conservatives have largely avoided grounding their thought in abstract universal truths and international movements. On the contrary , they have resolutely defended the right of specific households, churches, communities, and regions to order their own affairs. From the start, southern conservatism has preferred confederation to consolidation as a model for national government and has mounted a sustained critique of that systematic individualism, and its attendant claims of universal equality, which have especially defined American ideology.2 The southern critique of systematic individualism merits attention, if only because so many southern conservatives have also passionately defended their own interpretation of individualism.3 Indeed, from the antebellum period on, it would be hard to find more enthusiastic proponents of the independence of the individual—normally understood to mean the male head of household. But the same men who insisted upon their rights as heads of households and families, who passionately defended their right to carry guns, who vehemently opposed the intrusion of the federal government into the life of their communities, no less forcefully rejected the notion that all members of society had equal claim to the status of individual. They thus rejected the view of individualism...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 65-82
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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