Rethinking Southern History

By Carlton, David L. | Southern Cultures, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Southern History


Carlton, David L., Southern Cultures


Any understanding of John Shelton Reed's legacy to the study of southern history should begin with an appreciation of his pivotal position within modern southern intellectual history itself. Reed burst on the southern scene in 1972 as a contrarian, and he has remained very much a contrarian to this day, both his scholarly interests and his temperament steering him far away from the academic mainstream. Yet his heterodoxies have not prevented him from gaining enormous influence both inside and outside of the academy. This is attributable in part to a personal style that is both witty and accessible; in my experience, few assignments are more effective than a Reed essay in getting students to learn how to think about their world. But Reed's influence is also due to one great service: at a time when traditional ways of thinking about region--especially the South--had reached a dead end, Reed introduced us to a new way--an approach that understands region as a historical and cultural product, but one with a life of its own, and a stubborn persistence born of the basic needs of those who identify with it.

To appreciate Reed's contribution, it is necessary to recall the impasse that the study of the American South was approaching in the early 1970s. At that time, when I was setting forth as a southern historian, the dominant way of thinking about the region and its history drew heavily upon "modernization" theory. Most thinking about the American South took the classic dichotomy between traditional and modern societies and applied them to, respectively, the South and the larger "America" of which it was a part. In large part this line of thinking drew upon the "objective" delineation of the "southern regions of the United States" developed in the 1930s by Howard W. Odum and his "regionalist" colleagues at the University of North Carolina's Institute for Research in Social Science (which Reed would later direct). Odum delineated his regions by examining the geographic distribution of numerous social indicators; the resulting maps and tables persistently showed the region he termed the "Southeast" (essentially the Confederate South excluding Texas) as a cohesive zone of, by American standards, deep deprivation. Thus the Southeast had the densest rural population and the least impressive cities and industry; of all American regions, it was clearly the poorest, the least educated, the unhealthiest, and at once the most demographically fertile and the stingiest in providing opportunity to its children.(1)

In the post-World War II years, these deficiencies, in turn, fed into a larger perception of the South as backward, a laggard in the progressive American parade. Flushed with postwar triumphalism and eager to define their society as a superior alternative to Soviet Communism, Americans had come to think of their country as the pinnacle of modernity. Not only was it urban and industrial, it was dynamic, innovative, forward-looking, and tolerant; its rewards were open to individual ambition without regard to irrelevancies of birth or creed; and its politics were democratic and pluralistic. Alongside this paragon, the South appeared to be the epitome of tradition; indeed, its economic and human deficiencies were rooted in its retrograde social character. The region was slack and unimaginative, steeped in religious passions that smothered free thought and suspicious of outside people and ideas. It cherished ascribed status over achieved status, family and class over individual merit. A narrowly based oligarchy lorded over its poor, thanks in large part to a political system devoted not to the reasonable pursuit of social equity but to the perpetuation of tribal enmities. And, of course, there was white supremacy--the old "central theme of southern history," the epitome of "traditional" backwardness not only in its refusal to reward its black citizens according to their merit, but in its repression of the human aspirations of African Americans and its intolerance of all challenges to the dominion of Jim Crow. …

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