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Back in 1941, Charlotte journalist Wilbur J. Cash published The Mind of the South, a sweeping account of southern culture that tried to pull the vast variety of regional thought and behavior into a single, simple framework. “If it can be said that there are many Souths,” he famously declared, “the fact remains that there is also one South.” What brought his South together, Cash went on, was “a fairly definite mental pattern, together with a fairly definite social pattern[,] which, if it is not common strictly to every group of white people in the South, is still common in one appreciable measure or another, and in some part or another, to all but relatively negligible ones.”
And what was that “definite mental pattern”? With a mixture of wistful regrets and rapt fascination, Cash drew it from the frontier experience, preserved and extended by plantation slavery. His “man at the center” was not only white and racist but also individualistic, hedonistic, impulsive, violent, brave, and thoughtless. “Great personal courage, unusual physical powers, [and] the ability to drink a quart of whisky or lose the whole of one’s capital on the turn of a card without the quiver of a muscle” were the qualities he treasured most. Modern authors have readily likened him to Confederate soldiers and nascar drivers. More than one reviewer has noticed that the main point of The Mind of the South was that the South has no mind at all. When figures appeared who were surely southern but not in this mold, Cash tailored them until they did. When that wouldn’t work—as with most women, blacks, liberals, dissidents, and other eccentrics, including Cash himself—he mostly ignored them.
Cash was a brilliant writer and his vivid portrait won instant acclaim and enduring admiration, as demonstrated today by readers’ glowing reviews on Amazon. In his pages, even a skeptic will discover many of the analytic themes that dominated southern scholarship in the generation that followed him: violence, honor, paternalism, white privilege, suppressed class conflict, cultural hegemony, and the pervading power of the past. Despite Cash’s insights and popularity, however, many of today’s observers are also quick to evoke the “many Souths” that Cash dismissed. Alongside the good ol’ boys, we are now more aware of southerners of every color, class, sex, and religion, who resisted slavery, opposed the planters, fought for the ballot, sat-in at lunch counters, preserved their Native traditions, and organized unions, often to defiant tunes from blues to Dirty South hip hop.
Most of the articles in this issue of Southern Cultures come from Souths beyond Wilbur Cash’s familiar realms of aristocrats and ring-tailed roarers. Unlike Cash, we at Southern Cultures don’t claim to know a universal characteristic of all southerners or all Souths, but we do claim to know them when we see them. So here’s your challenge, gentle reader: curl up and explore these other Souths, and decide if we called them right.
Our first four essays challenge southern gender stereotypes. “Between Creation and Devouring” by Keira Williams probes recent fictional characters who [End Page 2] reject expectations that a true southern woman must devote her entire existence to doting motherhood. Unlike the domestic angels of traditional literature, Williams’s mothers seethe against obliterated personhood, and struggle with the urge to abandon or even strike at the children, husbands, and homes that stifle them. Matthew Ross directs a similar iconoclasm at novels about manhood—especially the...