The New South Creed: Introduction
By Robert Jefferson Norrell
Vol. 24, No. 3-4, 2002 pp. 15-16
Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking, Montgomery: New South Press; 2002. With a new afterword by the author and a new introduction by Robert Jefferson Norrell.
An excerpt from Robert Jefferson Norrell’s Introduction to the new edition of this influential book:
With more than thirty years gone by since the original publication in 1970 of Paul M. Gaston’s The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking, it is appropriate to consider why this book has an extended life when so many books–and perhaps even a few equally meritorious–have met the more common fate of publications of that vintage. One might guess that there are simply a lot of old fogies like me who prefer to wear shoes, shirts, and jackets more than a decade old. But the New South Press’s edition of The New South Creed presumes that many new readers will want a copy. I purchased mine for $1.98 when taking Professor Gaston’s undergraduate course on the history of the South at the University of Virginia in 1972.
There are many good reasons why The New South Creed should find new readers. First among them is the book’s important subject, which was succinctly described on the jacket of my first edition: “The dream of a new South–prosperous, powerful, racially harmonious–that developed in the three decades following the Civil War, and the transformation of that dream into widely accepted myths shielding and perpetuating a conservative, racist society.” It is the story of how some articulate editors and promoters embraced a set of ideas that enabled a defeated, demoralized South to view itself as revitalized and forward-looking, even amid the reality of continuing poverty, sectional division, and race exploitation. It explains how the South embraced a gospel of industrial development in spite of its historic commitment to plantation agriculture; promoted the reconciliation of North and South, and black and white in the South, even though much of it was only an image projected not a reality fulfilled; and celebrated romanticized memories of the Old South and the Confederacy while creating a harsh and exploitative social order in the present.
For those who night rightly he skeptical of the opinions of a sentimental student about his mentor, let us note how the critics received the book when it first appeared. Amid overwhelming praise, the only persistent criticism
of The New South Creed was that Gaston should have taken his main analysis further than he did, which is to about 1890. The historian Dewey W. Grantham thought he should have analyzed further the relationship between the populists and New South Creed propagandists. The literary historian Louis Rubin did not believe that North Carolina journalist and publisher Walter Hines Page should have been included among New South myth makers, because Rubin insisted that Page was more a reformer than a promoter. J. Morgan Kousser, a “social-science” historian, criticized Gaston for believing the rhetoric of the New South promoters about allowing African Americans to vote, when their actual political behavior proved them to be opposed to black political influence. Most other readers have given Gaston more credit for skepticism of their words. Beyond this mild nitpicking and the occasional right-wing editorialist-turned-reviewer still promoting Lost Cause myths at a bad southern newspaper, The New South Creed enjoyed high praise. “Not only does he dissect the ironies as they develop richly over time in the New South creed,” Howard Zinn said of Gaston, but he also “understands with unusual clarity the greater irony–that the Southern mythology, with all its distinctiveness, turned out to be part of a national mythology.” Arthur S. Link, biographer of Woodrow Wilson, declared that Gaston moved “gradually yet inexorably toward a climax that is enormously relevant and meaningful in our present-day confusion and perplexity.”
The New South Creed has stood the test of time as a historical interpretation. Since 1970, the important books that have covered similar topics either build upon the ideas in The New South Creed or they take up topics well removed from the main questions of economic development, political action, and human relations that occupied Gaston. In some ways the book that most significantly complemented The New South Creed appeared the very next year: George M. Fredrickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (1971). In a manner similar to the way Gaston examined the thought of New South publicists, Fredrickson explored the evolving race thinking that justified the white-supremacist social order, using journalism and fiction as texts to examine the times.
One of the most useful and widely cited books on the twentieth-century South since its publication was James. C. Cobb’s The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development 1936-1990 (1992). Cobb credited Gaston with being the first to identify the “status quo orientation” of the New South creed, for recognizing that the “pursuit of industrial expansion could have a conservative as well as liberalizing effect” when other interpreters “blamed rural, agrarian influences for the South’s shortcomings and theorized that only urbanization and industrialization could save the region from itself.”
There has been a debate about “myth” as a method to explain what Southerners did with the memory of the Civil War. Gaston wrote that myths were not “polite euphemisms for falsehoods, but are combinations of images and symbols that reflect a people’s way of perceiving truth. Organically related to a fundamental reality of life, they fuse the real and the imaginary into a blend that becomes a reality itself, a force in history.” In a 1971 review of The New South Creed, George Fredrickson questioned Gaston’s use of myth and proffered instead the term “ideology” because he thought it suggested a stronger relationship between the New South ideas and the “class and caste relationships that underlay the growth of the ‘New South’ mentality.” In fact, there seems to be little real difference in the way Gaston used myth and the way Fredrickson and the dictionary define ideology. Perhaps because of its broader currency in social-science disciplines, “ideology” has had more adherents in intellectual discourse in recent years.
The 1990s brought much discussion of history as “constructed memory,” an interpretation of the past that reflects the group identity of those who are presenting it. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, David Blight, and other historians have encouraged the exploration of Southern memory on the assumption that little such work has been done, and new studies of memory are appearing. In fact, The New South Creed represents a fine study of the social and political construction of memory, but one that is firmly modernist in its critical concern for the lasting moral implications of history’s uses. The New South Creed makes direct and effective connection between interpretation of the past–whether it is called myth, tradition, memory, ideology, or civil religion–and the social realities that it justified and upheld: a social order of deep class division and awful caste exploitation, a region that has needed not just analysis but change.
For its continuing importance as an interpretation of the Southern past, its literary grace, and its passionate commitment to history’s intimate connection to the present, The New South Creed remains a great opportunity for readers who care about the South, the past, and the possibility for a better future.
Jeff Norrell holds the Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. A former student of Professor Gaston at the University of Virginia, he has since taught at Birmingham-Southern College and the University of Alabama. He is author of the award-winning Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, and other books.