Discovering the South: One Man's Travels through a Changing America in the 1930s

Discovering the South: One Man's Travels through a Changing America in the 1930s

Discovering the South: One Man's Travels through a Changing America in the 1930s

Discovering the South: One Man's Travels through a Changing America in the 1930s


During the Great Depression, the American South was not merely "the nation's number one economic problem," as President Franklin Roosevelt declared. It was also a battlefield on which forces for and against social change were starting to form. For a white southern liberal like Jonathan Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, it was a fascinating moment to explore. Attuned to culture as well as politics, Daniels knew the true South lay somewhere between Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. On May 5, 1937, he set out to find it, driving thousands of miles in his trusty Plymouth and ultimately interviewing even Mitchell herself.

In Discovering the South historian Jennifer Ritterhouse pieces together Daniels's unpublished notes from his tour along with his published writings and a wealth of archival evidence to put this one man's journey through a South in transition into a larger context. Daniels's well chosen itinerary brought him face to face with the full range of political and cultural possibilities in the South of the 1930s, from New Deal liberalism and social planning in the Tennessee Valley Authority, to Communist agitation in the Scottsboro case, to planters' and industrialists' reactionary worldview and repressive violence. The result is a lively narrative of black and white southerners fighting for and against democratic social change at the start of the nation's long civil rights era.

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This book is about three overlapping journeys: one man’s actual travels and both his and the United States’ metaphorical journeys from Jim Crow toward a greater commitment to democracy. On May 5, 1937, Jonathan Worth Daniels, a brilliant, young, white newspaper editor from Raleigh, North Carolina, set out on a ten- state driving tour of his native South with the goal of writing a book. Like other Depression- era writers, Daniels was moved by the plight of the “forgotten man,” particularly the desperately poor sharecropper. But his interests were also broader and his aspirations greater than those of others who documented southern rural poverty in the 1930s. He hoped to change Americans’ very perceptions of a region that had been both caricatured and romanticized and was widely misunderstood. the South “has been wanting discovery for a long time,” Daniels explained. “Natives and foreigners, first depended upon to present the South, broke it instead into fragments”— fragments that he now intended to put back together for his readers. One thing he knew for sure was that “the South is two races. Uncle Tom is as essential as the Colonel; burrhead is as indispensable as redneck.”

Daniels’s language was satirical, but his purpose was democratic. “There are as many Souths, perhaps, as there are people in it,” he wrote. “Maybe the only certain South is the addition of all the Southerners.” While he arranged to interview well- known writers and political figures, he also promised to look for as many different southerners as he could, people of all classes and colors whose perspectives, along with his own, would add up to a truer picture of the region.

Jonathan Daniels’s intentions for his trip were democratic politically as well as culturally. He not only insisted that blacks and poor whites had as much claim to a southern identity as the “Colonel” of the moonlight- andmagnolias myth but also made sure to visit a number of the most important . . .

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