The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism

The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism

The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism

The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism


More than one-third of the population of the United States now lives in the South, a region where politics, race relations, and the economy have changed dramatically since World War II. Yet historians and journalists continue to disagree over whether the modern South is dominating, deviating from, or converging with the rest of the nation. Has the time come to declare the end of southern history? And how do the stories of American history change if the South is no longer seen as a region apart--as the conservative counterpoint to a liberal national ideal?

The Myth of Southern Exceptionalismchallenges the idea of southern distinctiveness in order to offer a new way of thinking about modern American history. For too long, the belief in an exceptional South has encouraged distortions and generalizations about the nation's otherwise liberal traditions, especially by compartmentalizing themes of racism, segregation, and political conservatism in one section of the country. This volume dismantles popular binaries--of de facto versus de jure segregation, red state conservatism versus blue state liberalism, the "South" versus the "North"--to rewrite the history of region and nation alike.

Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino present thirteen essays--framed by their provocative introduction--that reinterpret major topics such as the civil rights movement in the South and the North, the relationship between conservative backlash and liberal reform throughout the country, the rise of the Religious Right as a national phenomenon, the emergence of the metropolitan Sunbelt, and increasing suburban diversity in a multiracial New South. By writing American history across regional borders, this volume spends as much time outside as inside the traditional boundaries of the South, moving from Mississippi to New York City, from Southern California to South Carolina, from Mexico to Atlanta, from Hollywood to the Newport Folk Festival, and from the Pentagon to the Attica prison rebellion.


“The white South's uncontrollable urge to self-obituarize actually became a
steady source of supplementary income for a select squadron of the usual
academic and journalistic suspects who convened with amazing frequency
to deliver shamelessly recycled speeches at countless symposia dedicated to
kissing southern distinctiveness good-bye one more time.”

James C. Cobb, Away Down South

We begin with a confession. in March 2006, we convened a conference at Emory University, the goals of which could be construed to resemble those of the long line of southern symposia described above. We called the conference “The End of Southern History? Integrating the Modern South and the Nation.” We even invited Jim Cobb to speak. He indulged us with a gracious, incisive, knee-slapping commentary on a panel. It was one of many rich and provocative intellectual exchanges that took place that weekend, as we debated whether to keep the question mark in the conference title, take it out, or perhaps replace it with an exclamation point.

We organized the Emory conference in order to produce this anthology, and we deliberately recruited half of the contributors from outside the ranks of “southern history” as traditionally defined. Readers can decide for themselves whether or not we offer something new or have simply continued the recycling process, but it says something about the staying power of the myths of southern exceptionalism that scholars can't stop having this debate. We should be clear that “kissing southern distinctiveness good-bye” was never really our goal. the concern that motivated our conference and that informs this volume is not whether the South has come to an end, so much as what it means to recognize that it is time for a distinctive southern history and historiography to end.

We take it for granted that there is, and will continue to be, some entity called “the South,” and that people will continue to love it or hate it, defend it or deride it—or, in that great Faulknerian tradition, do all at the same time. and we trust that readers will recognize that we are not arguing . . .

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