Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind By Stephen A. Smith (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.)
By John Egerton
Vol. 9, No. 1, 1987, pp. 15-16
If anything is more prolific than kudzu in the South, it’s mythology. The collective imagination of Southerners–romantic, gothic, adventurous, heroic, humorous, instructive–has thrived in courtroom and classrooms, pulpits and porch swings, since the plantation South emerged as a self-conscious entity in the wake of the American Revolution.
Social psychologists and psychiatrists and philosophers have never come up with a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon. We don’t know why Southerners thrive on stories, parables, imagination, rhetoric, exaggeration, legend, mythology–but they do, and they always have. Myth is embedded in the fiction and poetry, the newspaper and magazine writing, the song lyrics, the preaching, the language of lawyers and judges, the letters, the oral tradition, the ritual, ceremonies, the radio and television programming, the advertising.
It’s even in the history. “I may not have the facts just exactly right,” a keeper of useful myths of Southern history once explained to me at the end of a long and winding tale, “but what I’ve told you is the honest truth.” In a more negative vein, the South has also suffered from some historians whose myths and facts bore little resemblance to the truth.
Think of the descriptive names the South has gone by–how sweeping, how colorful, how misleading: Old South, New South, Deep South, Solid South, Populist, Progressive, Agrarian, Bourbon, Jim Crow South. Moonlight and magnolias, gentlemen of honor, ladies on pedestals, happy darkies singing in the cotton fields, belles and beaus glorifying the Confederacy, the Lost Cause, the pride of Dixieland. The intertwining tendrils of fantasy embrace and encompass reality in the South like wisteria on a backyard door.
All of which makes a book like Stephen A. Smith’s Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind so useful and welcome. Smith is a University of Arkansas professor of communications and rhetoric and a former staff aide to some Arkansas politicans. He has been immersed in rhetoric both as a scholar and as a specialist for skilled practictioners [sic] of the art; he is an ideal person to analyze and interpret the cultural myths that have dominated the historic and contemporary South.
To set the stage for his major points, Smith devotes the first three chapters of his book to a synthesis of Southern history and to his own careful and persuasive reinterpretation of it. At the risk of oversimplifying his own simplification of a complex story, let me compress his narrative into a few brief paragraphs:
The South didn’t emerge as a discrete, distinct region until after the Revolution. By the early 1800s–fully two centuries after Jamestown–the forces of slavery, agrarianism, economics, and geography were slowly beginning to shape the Southern social order. Institutions of politics, religion, education, and business reinforced the identity. As the century wore on and the South lost control of Congress, the White House, and public opinion, an oppression psychosis set in; the white aristocrat’s way of life was under attack, and his response was aggressively defensive. The planter-politician-businessman enforced a uniform white attitude based on loyalty and honor and fear, and though there were whites who did not agree, they were effectively intimidated into silent acquiescence.
Through the crucial middle decades of the nineteenth century, through the Civil War and Reconstruction and the resurgence of white supremacy, one petrifying and imprisoning myth after another kept the white South solid. Turning defeat and humiliation into pride and nostalgia for the “good old days,” the ruling planters turned-“colonels” learned to glorify defeat, to justify bigotry, and to purify their hearts with religious and literary mythology. “Separate but equal” was invented in this
Henry Grady’s “New South” movement of the 1880s was a variation on this theme in that it tried to define the region’s future, not its past–but as Paul Gaston made abundantly clear in The New South Creed, the Grady Bunch managed to cling to white supremacy and the Southern status quo. The Populist movement of the same period did try to redefine the Southern past, and for a brief time its leaders sought to elevate democracy by uniting the powerless majority of whites and blacks But Jim Crow leaders fumed the movement around, and egalitarian yeomen became racist demogogues. Southern Progressives of the 1920s fared no better, and the literary Agrarians of the 1930s were unabashed reactionaries who yearned for antebellum white paternalism and privilege.
It was not until the 1940s that the white supremacy myth showed the first signs of weakness. The democratizing influences of the New Deal and World War II stirred Dixiecrat reaction, and when that failed, increasingly alarmed racists dusted off some antique myths–massive resistance, interposition, nullification–to hold the tide. But the solid South of the White supremacists began to lose its powerful grip as black resistance swelled, the courts compelled change, the nation and the world condemned racism, and more Southern whites joined the crusade against racism.
The old guard said it was the end of the South, but wiser Southerners observed that it was only the end of the myth–and out of that notion came the impulse to create new myths and symbols and rhetoric suitable for the modern South.
The second half of Stephen Smith’s provocative book identifies three new mythic themes in the contemporary South: equality, distinctiveness, and a sense of place and community. These ideas aren’t developed as thoroughly as they might have been, and that is perhaps the weakness of the book. But Smith’s modern themes, like his synthesis of Southern history, may serve the purpose he intended: not to present a definitive argument, but simply to introduce a new way of looking at things.
The theme of equality involves a revision of history, a redefinition: the rediscovery of libertarian documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights) advanced by Southern Presidents (Jefferson, Madison); the impulse of Jacksonian Democracy; the prophetic dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the “separate but equal” ruling of 1896. Smith cites historians such as C. Vann Woodward and George Tindall, journalists such as Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore, politicians such as Terry Sanford and LeRoy Collins, and activists led by Martin Luther King Jr. and many others as the vanguard of a new Southern tradition of equality.
In support of his second new theme, distinctiveness, Smith argues that the South is still different from the rest of the country, as it always has been–but now often in positive ways, from its music, food, language to its literature and oral traditions. This and the final theme–the sense of place and community (by which he means such characteristics as family ties, attachment to land and nature, etc.)–are harder to sustain as examples of a new mythology. In fact, Smith acknowledges that growth and other manifestations of contemporary Southern life pose serious threats to the survival of a progressive new mythology in the heart of Dixie.
Understanding the cultural myths that thrive in a society is an important step in the direction of understanding reality–the true meaning of our past, present, and future. Thanks to Stephen Smith’s insightful book, we have more much-needed help in understanding the once and future South.