THE INDICTED SOUTH: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness

By Mellinger, Gwyneth | American Studies, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

THE INDICTED SOUTH: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness


Mellinger, Gwyneth, American Studies


THE INDICTED SOUTH: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness. By Angie Maxwell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2014.

At the heart of white identity in the twentieth-century American South lay an enduring ostracism from the American norm, one whose roots extended to antebellum contention over politics and culture, and whose political and cultural manifestations defined southern whiteness in opposition to northern (read American) identity. The result was a regional inferiority complex marked by defensiveness and defiance and constructed against the standing indictment entailed in historically entrenched northern disapproval.

In her analysis of The Indicted South, Angie Maxwell argues that southern whiteness is historically distinct and, in its complexity, resists conflation with other conceptualizations of whiteness. "Southern whiteness," she writes, "is unique in the sense that it is constructed by oppressing a black 'other,' while serving paradoxically as the 'other' in the larger construct of American identity in the twentieth century...What began and continued to be a nonblack identity became, in effect, a nonnorthern, nonliberal, nonmodern, and nonscientific overdetermined whiteness" (22). The South's history of racial oppression remained a central aspect of white southern identity, to be sure, but Maxwell argues that the "unifying sense of inferiority" (4) in the face of northern disapproval gave shape to the oppositional elements of southern whiteness.

To make her point, Maxwell explores three broad and nuanced case studies that illustrate the oppositional posture of twentieth-century southern whiteness. In the book's first section, Maxwell examines the Scopes trial and the dynamic among William Jennings Bryan, defender of creationism, Clarence Darrow, defender of evolution, and H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore columnist whose antipathy for the South's rejection of science played to a national audience and typified northern condemnation of the South. Maxwell also discusses the founding of William Jennings Bryan College in Tennessee, which she defines as an act of reactionary fundamentalism. …

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