By Frank L. Owlsley
This essay was originally published in the February 1936 issue of The American Review.
Years ago, during the World War, I traveled from Chicago by way of Cincinnati to Montgomery, Alabama, in the company of a group of young ladies from the North who were visiting their men-folk encamped at Camp Sheridan. None of them had been South before, and they were looking forward to the journey through the “Sunny South” with considerable excitement. They had, despite everything which had ever been said to the contrary in the North, a romantic conception of the South. They expected to enter a pleasant land of white-columned mansions, green pastures, expansive cotton and tobacco fields where negroes sang spirituals all the day through. But, with the exception of the blue-grass basins of middle Kentucky and middle Tennessee, and an occasional fertile valley here and there where beautiful old homes yet stood amidst their fertile acres, no such picture greeted these romantic young ladies. After crossing the Ohio River, what they saw —with the exceptions of these lovely spots in middle Kentucky and Tennessee — were gutted hill-sides; scrub oak and pine; bramble and blackberry thickets; bottom lands once fertile now senile and exhausted, with spindling tobacco, corn, or cotton stalks to bear witness to the senility; unpainted houses which were hardly more than shacks or here and there the crumbling ruins of old mansions covered with briars, the homes of snakes and lizards.
For hundreds of miles this desolation unfolded: the Sunny South of Romance had disappointed my friends. There were always lovely spots here and there, but the rush of the train soon carried us past such oases back into the interminable wastes. Such is the picture, also, of the South from Washington to Miami, Florida, if one travels through the Southern States east of the mountains — with the exception of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and the fertile region of middle Georgia. Such is the picture of the country, with the exception of the fertile black basin of middle Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana,, and the delta along the great river and some of its tributaries, if one travels west to the Mississippi. There are beautiful cities in the South, lovely towns and villages; but the panoramic view of this land is one of ruin and desolation.
There is one important element, however, in this Southern scene which gives me some cheer: the people. If one does not travel too fast through this desolate country, he will form some acquaintance with its inhabitants; and if he has lived elsewhere he will be struck by the courtesy and good manners and the genuine kindliness of even the most humble people as well as their high level of integrity. He will be impressed by other characteristics, too. From high to low, there is a keen sense of humor and love of fun: life is not as barren as it looks. The religious sense is highly developed in the South, which Mencken has been pleased to call the “Bible Belt”, and the people as a whole still cling to the belief of their fathers from which they derive solace in their bereavements and comfort in bearing the deprivations of poverty. In sharp contrast to this religious sense one who sojourns among these people long enough will find another characteristic: the decided tendency toward homicide as a mode of settling permanently certain types of personal differences.
Mr. Kendrick and Mr. Arnet attempt to explain the South and its people; and they are very clever and skillful to be able to accomplish their task so well within such a small volume. Presumably the first portion is written by Mr. Kendrick and the latter by Mr. Arnett, both natives of the red soil of Georgia.
I am impressed with the objectivity of the essay. Neither author has had his views obscured by the haze of romance. Mr. Kendrick’s task has been to re-examine certain fundamental phases of the old South, which was definitely wrecked by the end of reconstruction, while Mr. Arnett has built his essay upon this background of destruction which focusses the whole upon the present desperate situation of the South: the red gullies, scrub pines, interminable waste lands, forlorn cabins, old ruins, its population with its conflicting kindliness and homicidal propensities, its docility and rebelliousness, its willingness to submit to regimentation under paternalistic masters, and its individualism.
Mr. Kendrick’s first chapter is the re-examination of the “Old South Traditional and Real”. He brings to this task a rare acquaintance with that body of critical literature which has been produced upon the subject during the last few years as well as a broad knowledge of the basic source-material. The South, he says, was not the land of cruelty ruled by haughty slave oligarchs as the abolitionists charged, nor the land of white-columned mansions and cavaliers which the pro-slavery philosophers claimed, or which Thomas Nelson Page pictured in his romantic novels. There were, he says, hundreds of fine old colonial homes, equipped with good libraries, where cultured, well-educated planters lived. But the greater number of the million and a half people who were slave owners lived in simple, unpretentious homes. Nor were many of the planters descended from the English gentry. On the contrary they were primarily descended from the stout English yeomanry and middle class. In this conclusion, he agrees with Werten-baker who has made a most critical study of this matter and disagrees with Bruce who has also made an exhaustive study of the same question. In any case, the wealthy planters were possessed of a high degree of culture and education. Regardless of whether their establishments were mansions or cottages, there was one characteristic which the planter class had: the joy of living, the art of living. The farmers and small land owners who made up the bulk of the Southern white population did not have as much leisure as the planters, yet their way of life was unhurried and much of their time was devoted to social intercourse and sports.
The negro was well treated as a rule and regarded as a member of the family, except upon the great plantations where there was little contact with the master. The separation of families was much less frequent under slavery than under the capitalistic industrial system of today. The work of U. B. Phillips, Flanders, Sydnor, and other recent students of slavery support such a statement; on the other hand Bancroft’s volume on the Inter-State Slave Trade challenges it. In these days of insecurity, it is pleasant to note that the slave possessed a great sense of security. He was cared for until he was old enough to work, well cared for; and when he became too old or ill to work, the master and mistress fed, clothed, housed, and nursed him until death, whereupon he was given a Christian burial in the family cemetery, and quite frequently, I may add, he had a marble slab with affectionate sentiment inscribed upon it placed at the head of his grave.
At the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy was the “poor white” class. Here again, Kendrick shows a critical knowledge of the literature bearing upon this subject. This class, he says, was not numerous; it was the malarial and hookworm-infested population who lived upon the sandy barrens of the coastal plains. These people were shiftless and hopeless, largely because of their chronic ill health, which at the time was called “laziness”.
Public education was making great strides in the South during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, contrary to the well-worn grooves of historical prejudice.
In 1860 [says Mr. Kendrick] about seventeen per cent of the white population of the slave-holding states was in school, against about twenty per cent in the free states. But progress was more rapid in the South than elsewhere in the eighteen-fifties. A movement for comprehensive systems of free public schools had begun to show results in the thirties and gained momentum thereafter. In 1839 North Carolina took the lead of the Southern States in providing for a statewide system, some years in advance of several of the Northern States. The Tar Heel system, integrated and improved in the fifties, became a model which other Southern States were studying and preparing to follow. It is important to remember in this connection that despite (and partly because of) the missionary zeal of the carpetbaggers, the system did not gain its 1860 level until a full generation after the war.
Higher education received greater attention in the South than in the North. “The South founded the first state universities — the first to be chartered was the University of Georgia, and the first to be opened was the University of North Carolina.” The South gave a much larger proportion of its youth college education than did the North. “In 1860 there were 26,000 students in Southern colleges and 27,500 in Northern, and the latter included large numbers from the South”; and this does not take into account the considerable number who were educated in Europe.
After his re-examination of the old South, Mr. Kendrick concludes his portion of the book with a study of the causes of the Civil War. Here again he discloses a thorough knowledge of the critical literature which bears upon this subject. In essence the war grew out of a sectional struggle for control of the Federal Government, a struggle between the Industrial East and Agricultural South. The control of the West would decide the contest. The author points out a truth which is only recently coming to be recognized: the South was foredoomed to lose in its efforts to maintain the equality of slave and free states, for the natural limits of slavery had been reached by 1845. Here the author is supported by Ramsdell, Webb, Phillips, Milton, and others who have studied the matter closely within the last few years. In short, the anti-slavery crusade to keep the South out of the territories, was not based upon reality. On the other hand it helped create sectional ill feeling which made it easy for the East to gain the alliance of the Northwest in 1860 and bring about the election of Lincoln upon a sectional question by a sectional vote, which in turn precipitated secession and war. .
Kendrick concludes that the Old South did not, as has been so frequently asserted,
Die because of internal disease gnawing at its vitals but was overthrown by an outside system which it had more or less unconsciously offended. To this outside system [the Industrial order of the East] it was not in reality dangerous. . . . Had it [the Old South] continued it probably would have retarded the gaining of ‘ overweening power by the industrial capitalists and given to agriculture a more articulate voice in governmental policies.
After the death of the Old South
Reconstruction subjected its body to mutilation and indignity. . . . We neither praise nor blame it [the Old South] or its enemies but insist that it did not deserve the hard fate of being cut off in the flower of its age. From the way of life which history and tradition ascribe to it we may glean much for the creation of a better and newer South.
Mr. Arnett, as I have said, devotes his attention to the period from reconstruction to the present. The South, of course, became solidly Democratic, because of its experience in reconstruction; but the Democratic party had two elements who struggled for control: the Bourbon Democrats and the “Wool Hat Boys”. From the outside, it was at first thought that the Bourbon Democrats were the representatives of the Old South; in fact it was this belief which gave rise to the name Bourbon — which never learns and never forgets anything. Actually the “Wool Hat Boys” represented agrarian interests and the Bourbons, despite their brigadier-general’s rank in the late Confederate army, were the first leaders of the “New South” movement, which preached the text “agree with thine enemy quickly”. Become like the North as quickly as possible. Cling no longer to the old ways of life, to an agricultural economy, “when God and the civilized world had decided in favor of industrialism!” Nor can one, who realizes the complete destruction of the economic and social structure, and the persecution of the South during and after the days of reconstruction, fail to understand the “New South” doctrine.
It is easy today to accuse such men as Henry Grady and Sydney Lanier and Walter Hines Page of sycophancy; at the same time it should be remembered that there was no prospect for an agricultural South ever to raise its head again. These men clearly understood that the war had not been a war between slavery and freedom, but one between an industrial and an agrarian society. The latter had lost and it was believed that the lack of industrialization of the South had contributed largely to the final defeat of the South. Looked at in prospect the leaders of the “New South Movement” were absolutely convinced that the South could never again wield its just share of influence in the national government until it was made over, as Thad Stevens had said, “in the image of New England”. As a matter of both personal and sectional interest they regarded the industrialization of the South as imperative.
There were more immediate reasons for the industrialization of the South: the destitution of its people. The agrarian social and economic system of the South had been killed by the Civil War and its body mutilated by reconstruction. The reorganization of the agricultural population under the tenant system degraded and still further lowered the status of agriculture. Then the years of depression in agricultural prices at the time when the North and industry were prospering greatly pauperized millions of people to the extent that a cotton factory was regarded as an eleemosynary institution. The text of the evangelist in Salisbury North Carolina bore eloquent testimony to this attitude. “Next to the Grace of God,” he exclaimed to his congregation, “what Salisbury needs is a cotton mill!” Salisbury got its cotton mill as a result. Much of the “New South Movement” was born of such tragic circumstances as caused this preacher to make such an utterance and to promote the building of a factory.
Contrary to present-day belief, the money which created factories and brought about the beginning of industrialization in the South was Southern money, blood money, indeed, which hard-bitten farmers, supply merchants, bankers, and lawyers had managed to squeeze out of the reluctant soil or from farmers who secured supplies to run their farms at pawnbroker rates. It was only after the cotton, steel, and coal businesses were securely established in the South, and the railroads built that Northern money came in and consolidated the smaller industries and railroad companies, watered their stock, or began genuine expansion.
The men who built these factories were frequently sturdy, thrifty farmers, of whom the Duke family furnishes an excellent illustration. These men were narrow, poorly educated, and usually had no respect for education above the three “r’s”. In the cities, they became the founders of country clubs, and their daughters and wives formed the circle known as “Society”. It was this intellectual and moral sterility -along with the degradation of both the agricultural and industrial population which gave rise to Mencken’s well known diatribe in “The Sahara of the Bozart”; and to a reaction among men of intelligence against the “New South” gospel.
Mr. Arnett takes note, in this connection, of the great intellectual renaissance which began in the South in the early twenties. In poetry, art, fiction, history, social and economic criticism, much was a revolt against the philosophy of “The New South”. He takes particular note of the movement to return the landless and jobless proletariat to the soil; and in , general, to rehabilitate the rural South, which, despite the great power of the industrialized portion still contains the bulk of the population. There are numerous groups advocating this agrarian- reform, and, contrary to Mr. Arnett’s statement, the Nashville group has made the most radical proposal of all: it proposes that the government purchase all the land owned by absentee landlords (including banks, insurance companies, etc.) insolvent farmers and planters, and homestead, free, the tenant farmers and those unemployed in the city with agricultural experience, and furnish them with work-stock and supplies for a year. However, if Mr. Arnett has failed to note this phase of the renaissance it only goes to show, as he observes, that the agrarian movement as expressed by the Nashville group is of minor importance — much to the regret of the latter of whom the reviewer is a member.
I commend this book to all thoughtful Americans. It deserves a wide hearing. Both authors have performed a clean-cut and much needed operation. From beginning to end they have cut at the heart of the matter.
Frank L. Owlsley
Frank Owlsley (1890-1956) was an historian and author, a member of the "Nashville Agrarians," and a professor of history at Vanderbilt and the University of Alabama.