Fred Hobson. Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain, Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
By Elliott Gorn
Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, 20-21
I recently attended a workshop for historians held at a Southern university. One scholar, who teaches in New York state and whose field of study is Latin America, confided to me that he couldn’t understand all the fuss over the South. Most of those attending the workshop were Southerners, and their teaching and writing focused on their native region. My newfound friend was sure they were wasting their time. At best, the South deserved passing notice as a slight national aberration, to be quickly discussed and dismissed in general United States history classes. While not primarily a Southernist, I argued that slavery, Jim Crow, staple agriculture, enduring folk traditions, rurality, and other factors all contributed to a distinct Southern past. I failed to convince him. The next time I find myself slipping into such a fruitless discussion, I’ll save my breath and hand over a copy of Fred Hobson’s Tell About the South. If Hobson fails to convince, the case is hopeless.
Hobson’s fine book concerns a strangely neglected subject, or perhaps more accurately a subject which scholars frequently skirt but rarely address frontally. Tell About the South, as its subtitle implies, concerns “The Southern Rage to Explain.” Not the contours of history or the aesthetics of fiction, but Southern consciousness–the awareness of being Southern–is Hobson’s theme. Apologias, jeremiads, calls for reform, justifications, paeans of praise, all were united by their author’s impassioned, even feverish consciousness of Southern identity. A professor of English, Hobson reaches beyond short stories and novels to include essays, tracts, speeches, journalism, polemics, even sociology, in a sub-genre of South-centered writing.
Hobson is not a newcomer to his subject. His much praised Serpent in Eden: H. L. Mencken and the South, and this year’s Lillian Smith Award winner, South Watching: Selected Essays of Gerald W. Johnson establish his credentials as a capable scholar of Southern Studies. But Tell About the South leaps beyond these monographs to a comprehensive discussion of a dozen and a half of the region’s most penetrating and influential commentators. It is the bringing together of pre-Civil War spokesman like George Fitzhugh, Edmund Ruffin, and Hinton Helper, voices from the post bellum industrializing South such as Thomas Nelson Page, Howard Odum, Donald Davidson and Wilbur Cash, along with Southerners of the Civil Rights era like Lillian Smith, Richard Weaver and James McBride Dabbs, which gives the book its sweep and power.
Hobson’s prose is always highly readable, and at times moving. But both style and substance are at their best in the book’s midsection, the era spanning the last third of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth. Here social and moral conflicts haunted Southern thinkers, conflicts which spurred the imaginations of great novelists from Twain to Faulkner. The moral dilemma of slavery in a world obsessed with equality was difficult enough. The outcome of the Civil War simply added tangled new problems to explain or interpret: Defeat, humiliation, and impoverishment; a twinkling of racial justice snuffed out as suddenly as it appeared; industrialization, urbanization and a new spirit of capitalist boosterism, amidst tenant farm and milltown squalor.
Hobson places his dramatic personae in two broad categories of Southern thought which he labels the school of guilt and shame and the school of remembrance, the former critical, introspective, often liberal, the latter celebratory, nostalgic and conservative. Thus, in the antebellum period we have George Fitzhugh and Edmund Ruffin defending slavery and the plantation ethos against the assaults of the modernizing North, while Hinton Helper railed against slavery and eventually the entire black race as impediments to the advancement of the poor white majority. A century later, Richard M. Weaver took his conservative stand for a traditional Southern ethic–including a mistrust of abstraction, idealism and progress, a knowledge of tragedy and failure, and a love of place, nature, the spoken word and all that was tangibly Southern–while Lillian Smith wrote prophetically on the human destructiveness of racial and sexual segregation.
But it was the era of Jim Crow beginning late in the nineteenth century through the Northern assault on the “benighted” South during the 1920s and 1930s which produced not just critics or defenders, but great and self-conscious dialogues on the meaning of the South. As the region underwent the most intense period of economic transformation, pairs of antagonists took it upon themselves to define the meaning of the South for their contemporaries. Each developed a group of followers, and the opposing sides helped shape and define each other. Thus, Thomas Nelson Page eulogized the life of the old upper South for its heroism, gentility and grace, all those qualities which made Robert E. Lee a representative man. But his distant cousin, Walter Hines Page, looked with a more jaundiced eye on what he considered sloth, intellectual sterility, poverty, and the dangers of growing industrialization. By the 1920s the focus shifted to Southern universities, particularly Vanderbilt and North Carolina, as Southerners responded to the Northern intellectual community’s attack on their region’s racial, intellectual, and religious “backwardness.” Donald Davidson led the agrarians of I’ll Take My Stand against the liberal modernizing juggernaut they saw embodied in Howard Odum and the Southern sociologists. Here the defense shifted from the aristocratic South to the conservative values of the deep South’s plain folk, while the social scientists who criticized their own region sought ways to merge economic and social progress with enduring rural ways. By the eve of the second World War, Wilbur J. Cash and William Alexander Percy become the leading antagonists in the drama, the former assuming the mantle of reform, the latter writing in an elegiac manner on the lost life of the Delta aristocrat.
A review cannot possibly capture the depth and subtlety which Hobson brings to his subject. Above all what comes through in his work is the passion of these writers for telling about the South. Not what they said but the way they said it was crucial:
The radical need of the Southerner to explain
and interpret the South is an old and prevalent condition, characteristic of Southern writers since the 1840s and 1850s when the region first became acutely self-conscious. The rage to explain is understandable, even inevitable, given the South’s traditional place in the nation–the poor, defeated, guilt-ridden member, as C. Vann Woodward has written, of a prosperous, victorious and successful family. The Southerner, more than other Americans, has felt he had something to explain, to justify, to defend or to affirm.
Personal and regional identity merged. Prophets, Jeremiahs, patriots, all were possessed by the need to explain their cause and give it meaning:
If apologist for the Southern way, he was felt driven to answer the accusations and misstatements of outsiders and to combat the image of a benighted and savage South. If native critic, he has often been preoccupied with Southern racial sin and guilt, with the burden of the Southern past–and frustrated by the closed nature of Southern society itself, by the quality which suppressed dissent arid adverse comment.
William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom is Hobson’s prototype for the Southerner obsessed with telling the tale. Like the fictional Compson, four of the writers discussed by Hobson finished their story then took their own lives.
There are, of course, criticisms to be made. Tell About the South is occasionally repetitious. Moreover, the dialogue Hobson traces is primarily between liberals and conservatives. One wonders how the Southern radical tradition fits in, especially the populist voices at the turn of the century. I also suspect that Hobson’s implied eulogy for the passionate Southerner amidst sunbelt blight is a bit premature; commercialism and hype have not completely drowned out the voices of enraptured Southerners. But all of this is quibbling. Tell About the South is an important book about an important subject.
Elliott Gorn is assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.