James C. Cobb. Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999. x + 251 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2139-4.
Reviewed by Michael T. Bertrand (Departments of History and Southern Studies, The University of Mississippi)
Published on H-South (October, 2000)
The Search for (a Modern) Southern Identity
The Search for (a Modern) Southern Identity
For most of the twentieth century, scholars preoccupied with the South have been determined to sound the region's death knell. Yet whether the presumed passing has been linked to the introduction of new curatives (mechanical cotton pickers, electricity, bulldozers, air conditioning, skyscrapers, cable television and the Internet) or to the eradication of old infections (pellagra, hookworm, sharecropping, demagogues, and Jim Crow segregation), southern culture has stubbornly resisted the embalmer's fluid grasp. The numerous and various reports of the region's demise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have obviously been greatly exaggerated.
In his own ironic epitaph for Dixie, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South, James C. Cobb explains why the culture of the lower right corner of the United States continues to defy extinction. His approach is one that places the South and southern culture in a global context. Instead of searching for that which makes the region atypical, he is intent on highlighting the characteristics and conditions that it has shared with other subcultural terrains. By exploring the South in this manner (and he suggests that "southernology" for its own sake will eventually become unjustifiable), the longtime southern historian seeks to understand how traditional cultures respond to the forces of modernization. Emphasizing that the former Confederacy's experiences represent the universal rather than the unique, he concludes that the American South has endured by constantly modifying or adjusting older habits and routines to novel demands and realities.
It is this larger perspective that unites the eight essays found in this work. Cobb, who currently serves as the Spalding Distinguished Professor of History and department chair at the University of Georgia, has long been recognized as a notable scholar of southern economics, politics, and society. Although most of the articles collected here have already seen the light of day (six have appeared in such venues as the Journal of Southern History, the Journal of Popular Culture, Georgia Review, Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South, and The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity, with the oldest of the pieces dating back to 1982), they are organized and presented in a thematic fashion that amplify their continued relevance.
Like the most acclaimed southern chroniclers, Cobb demonstrates a rare intuitiveness concerning his native region that subtly informs his scholarship; unlike many of the others, however, he shows an appreciation for popular culture that makes his range of topics that much more impressive. He is able to jump from economic formation to musical evolution and the flowering of literary introspection with nary a pause. His grasp of regional historiography is impeccable. Leading off the anthology is "Beyond Planters and Industrialists: A New Perspective on the New South," an analysis that establishes the book's cosmopolitan tone.
Rather than heed conventional interpretations that blame particular individuals or groups for the region's slow industrial growth and descent into poverty, he argues that larger impersonal economic and social forces arrested southern development. The essays that follow likewise embrace a revisionist disposition and should interest the lay person as well as the professional historian. Particularly noteworthy are assessments of Wilbur J. Cash's Mind of the South, the Southern Renaissance, and late twentieth century affluent yet estranged individuals seeking a shared community by embracing commercialized fabrications of their ancestors' history.
Among the many insights Cobb brings to his reexamination of regional life are three that deserve special attention. First, he argues that industrial development and modernization do not necessarily have to comply with the models established by Great Britain and later emulated by the northern section of the United States to be verifiable. The South's progression in fact diverged from the archetype, largely because lack of capital and a surplus of low-wage laborers compelled entrepreneurs and investors to take the most economically efficient and profitable paths possible.
This meant building mills and factories to suit rather than to revolutionize a historically agricultural and rural region. There was little need to invest in labor-saving and culture-altering technology or to import immigrant workers who would have brought about demographic diversity. The result? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century southern culture ultimately retained its traditional agrarian and provincial character even as it adapted to new and alien economic systems. As Cobb contends, this may not have exemplified the presumably liberal transformative process generally associated with modernization, but the South's conservative response represented change nonetheless. In other words, the southern experience was not aberrant or abnormal, just different.
Second, the author provides further food for thought when he emphasizes that historians hoping to fathom the modern South should redirect their attention from the routinely acclaimed Civil War-Reconstruction and Populist eras to the less chronicled yet just as decisive ten years leading up to and through World War II. Cobb points out that between 1935 and 1945 the region may have indeed undergone its greatest makeover. The impact of the New Deal and war mobilization on southern agriculture, migration patterns, urban growth, race relations, and working women was tremendous and would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. He makes a strong case that this decade symbolized the crucial period in the region's history.
A third major contribution lies in placing the southern propensity for mythmaking into a larger historical context. Through interpretative lenses provided by Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawn, Cobb demonstrates that the "invention" of tradition and national identity was not unique to the South; he lists a number of strife-torn nations that have undertaken comparable retroactive rituals. Similarly, inventing the "Old South" allowed proponents of the "New South" to legitimize their vision of a progressive and harmonious future by linking it to what many wanted to perceive as a glorious and extraordinary past. Hoping to ensure a stable social, economic, political, and racial climate in the midst of a rapidly changing present, white southerners from all walks of life propagated and accepted a mythical version of the region's history. It was a distortion that set the stage for the numerous conflicts between fact and fiction (including, but not exclusive to the black freedom struggles) that rocked the twentieth century.
Cobb tackles other issues -- such as the recent trend of African Americans making their claims to a southern identity and heritage customarily assumed to be lily white, the debates over the Confederate battle flag, the relationship of blues to racial and class alienation, and the expanding popularity of country music - -with competence and sensitivity. The book as a whole, however, does have its flaws, least of which is the lack of an index. Many of the essays, because they tread similar ground, are often repetitive. Also, particularly for the articles on music, there is an impressionistic quality that implies an antiquarian devotion to favored recordings and artists embellished by a ephemeral plunge into secondary sources.
Nevertheless, Redefining Southern Culture will stand the test of time because it painstakingly puts to rest the longstanding and superfluous historiographical debates emphasizing either regional continuity or regional discontinuity. Influenced by both Wilbur J. Cash and C. Vann Woodward, Cobb demonstrates convincingly that southern society has experienced a great deal of change while a constantly adapting southern culture has remained essentially intact. Combined with an effective and often witty writing style and use of language, Cobb's ability to advance his analysis beyond a seemingly permanent intellectual quagmire contributes greatly to our understanding of the modern South.
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Michael T. Bertrand. Review of Cobb, James C., Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South.
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