A Hero, Moth Holes and All
Reviewed by Tony Dunbar
Vol. 13, No. 3, 1991, pp. 24-26
W. J. Cash, A Life, by Bruce Clayton. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991, $24.95.)
To those who have “a profound conviction that the South is another land, sharply differentiated from the rest of the American nation,” W. J. Cash, who wrote those words and went on to explain them in his bestselling classic The Mind of the South, first published in 1941, is one of the region’s special heroes. Cash, who captured Southern history, moth holes and all, was himself a peculiarity. Neither a rigorous historian nor a participant in major events, but instead a sporadic journalist little-known outside North Carolina, he nevertheless penned one monumental book which has remained in print for fifty years. Having achieved this success, he then committed suicide.
In Bruce Clayton’s biography we have as authentic an account of the man as we are ever likely to find. Cash is a hard man to write about So much of his time was spent in a very private world. He was not for example, a man of many accomplishments. Born in 1900 in Gaffney, then the industrial frontier of South Carolina, Joseph Wilbur Cash was the son of a man trying to rise in that world by operating a small textile mill for his father-in-law. “The Cashes were of the middling sort.” is Clayton’s description. “They worked hard, occasionally succeeded, yet seemed perpetually to be starting over again in life.”
Young Cash was bookish, and was nicknamed “Sleepy” by his schoolmates for his customary squint and his eyeglasses. He transposed his first names to distinguish himself from his father. He grew up in the days when the great clash in the Baptist Church was over evolution, when the famous orators were William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, when evangelists like Billy Sunday roamed the countryside, and when his most famous neighbor was Thomas Dixon, Jr., author of The Clansman (made into the early film, “Birth of a Nation” and a series of other tremendously popular books (which were racist in the extreme) about the same subject. After false starts at Wofford College and Valparaiso, Cash attended Wake Forest College. His writing career began there as an editorialist for the student paper in defense of the Baptist school’s liberal president William Louis Poteat For intellectual nourishment he looked, for want of other sources, northward and found the caustic critic of the South, H. L Mencken and his American Mercury. The Mencken style left an indelible impression on Cash, as in this senior year epistle on the South: “It is a desert–a barren waste, so far as the development of culture and the nature of the beaux arts are concerned, and North Carolina comes very near being the dreariest spot in the whole blank stretch.”
Dismay intact, Cash graduated and entered a long period of what might best be described as “drifting.” He taught high school in Henderson, tried college teaching at the Baptist Georgetown in Kentucky, and wrote some pieces for the Charlotte Observer, but generally he stayed close to his parents in Boiling Springs, North Carolina “Nervous disorders” and depression frequently laid him low, and he was never able to support himself. Clayton writes that the “imposing religious fundamentalism” of the era, the “culture of racism,” and the way the world turned slowly” in places like Boiling Springs. and even Charlotte, were “enough to make someone like W. J. Cash sick. In any event, something did.”
He displayed some vigor in 1928 when he accepted the job of managing editor of a new county newspaper, and he wrote some ringing editorials for the Catholic “wet” New Yorker Al Smith against the Quaker “dry” Midwesterner, Herbert Hoover. But Clayton gives us no evidence that this fiery propaganda was widely read. Once again, frail health and “neurasthenia” caused Cash to retire.
Then in 1929, while the rest of the country crashed, a dream of sorts came true. Cash had an article accepted for publication in the American Mercury. It was an attack on North Carolina’s Senator Furnifold M. Simmons (a pompous Old Democrat who had supported Hoover), and it was soon followed by two other articles in the Mercury. One was called “The Mind of the South,” and it parroted the Mencken style with references to white trash, coons, the yokel mind, and sweeping derogatory
premises like, “The growing of cotton involves only two or three months of labor a year, so even the slaves spent most of their lives on their backsides, as their progeny do to this day.” To modem ears,” notes Clayton, “unaware of the journalistic context or the fact that Mencken (and Cash) used slangy epithets for even’ group–even their own–Cash’s words sound like malicious slurs.”
But here too was much that would flesh out the themes of the book it would take him twelve more years to write. Despite the birth of the New South, the Southern mind was basically the same as in the Old, Cash wrote, with “a passion for the lush and baroque,” charged with irrationality and fantasy, and unadjusted to the modem world. Cash described his neighbors as “lint-heads” and “romantic loons,” but Clayton writes, he had an important statement to make, that “the hill-billy was mired in history and, as a result, lacked any class consciousness or ability to understand his own deprivation–a controversial point that Cash would place at the center of his great book.”
All of this was big stuff, and its publication by a national magazine made Cash a local celebrity. He began a correspondence with Blanche and Alfred A Knopf, owners of the Knopf publishing house and also publishers of the American Mercury, about expanding “The Mind of the South” into a book. But as recognition threatened, Cash fell ill. He was hospitalized in Charlotte and, Clayton speculates, treated to electric shock therapy. He returned to his parent’s home, now in Shelby, and for six years basically loafed. He hiked the dirt roads, rode his bicycle, talked politics at the courthouse, provided an entertaining target of jests for little boys, yet still got off an occasional piece for the Mercury or the Baltimore Sun. Frustrating stuff for the historian. Cash began novels then burned the pages. Worse, he revealed this to his waiting publishers. For years he continued his correspondence with the Knopfs, enticing them with the prospect that they would soon receive the manuscript they were encouraging him to write. Clayton is letting his own irritation show when he writes that “It is tempting, given Cash’s tendency to procrastinate, to second-guess him and feel anger or impatience with the man for throwing away pages and then avoiding working on a book that would become a classic.”
Finally, in early 1936, Cash mailed three hundred manuscript pages (which became the first half of The Mind of the South), and the Knopfs responded with a contract, which Cash quickly signed. He collected a $250 advance and promised a first draft by summertime. It was not to be. Cash instead moved to Charlotte to write editorials and book reviews for the News. He became known as, “that man writing a book.” The public read and liked his repeated slashing denunciations of Naziism. At Knopf, pages continued to arrive in the mail, but at intervals of months, and often Cash was trying to retrieve old segments to rewrite them. The process consumed five years.
At age thirty-eight Cash met and, on a high-alcohol Christmas Eve, eloped to South Carolina with and married divorcee Mary Bagley Ross. The event ended one thread of the Cash story, his fears of impotence, to which Clayton gives importance. All of a sudden, The Mind of the South was finished and in the mail. The Knopfs rushed it into print before Cash could think twice, and, as they had predicted, it was critically acclaimed almost everywhere. The book arrived at a time when there was great interest in the South, when Wolfe, Faulkner, W. A Percy, the ‘Twelve Southerners” who wrote I’ll Take My Stand, and even F. D. R., it, who called the South the Nation’s Number One Economic Problem, were all bombarding the public with their views about the region. Though Cash basically advanced the idea that the South is a land of violent Irishmen, romantics, unrealistic and prideful, resistant to any modern secular or religious ideas, and though he talked freely of rednecks and the exploitation of blacks, his book was reviewed well in the South, and even more widely praised in the North. Time magazine wrote that “Anything written about the South henceforth must start where he leaves off.”
All those things pleasing to an author followed. The Cashes were invited to lunch with Margaret Mitchell and to the mountain home of Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling. He was invited to lecture at the University of North Carolina and to give the commencement address at the University of Texas. Best, Cash was awarded a Guggenheim (and $2,000), and he and Mary decided to spend the next year living and writing in Mexico City.
The journey began with an arduous train ride south, followed by two weeks of digestive disorders that made it difficult even to drink beer. Then, in his hotel roam, Cash began to hear Nazis in the corridors plotting to kill him. Mary dragged him to a psychiatrist who gave Cash an injection of Vitamin B, then back to their room to rest He escaped, and was found hours later in a rented room, hanging on the bathroom door from his necktie. His family back home would always believe that Nazis had done him in. Clayton thinks it was a suicide.
It was a disappointing and inglorious end, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. and Clayton does not try to glamorize it He does attempt to explain it by digressions on Freud and on physiology. Clayton’s book compares favorably with another biography. W. J. Cash, Southern Prophet, by Joseph L Morrison (published by Knopf in 1907). As the title of Morrison’s book suggests. it was an affectionate account, less scholarly than
Clayton’s. Clayton’s book, barely 225 pages long, moves crisply and swiftly and leaves the reader feeling that there is not much more we are going to find out for sure about this troubled soul.
Cash was not a common man. He was a small-town eccentric, the butt of jokes, and a gifted writer blessed with enormous powers of observation, planted deep in Southern soil, who escaped greatness each time it was offered to him. He gave us one great book which, probably more than any other, has shaped how Southerners (even those who have neither read it nor heard of it) think of themselves.
Tony Dunbar is a New Orleans lawyer. His latest book is Delta Time. An earlier version of this review appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.