'False History' Below the Potomac:

FEHRENBACHER, D. E.

'False History' Below the Potomac The Southerner as American. Edited by Charles Grier Sellers Jr. North Carolina. 216 pp. $5.00. Reviewed by D. E. Fehrenbacher Associate Professor of...

...In "The Southerner as American Writer," C. Hugh Holman explores the sources of the South's remarkable leadership in contemporary literature and literary criticism...
...However, if this viewpoint is accepted as a corrective, and not in absolute terms, it may help to dissolve the image of an alien and monolithic South which prevails during periods of sectional crisis...
...Such a thesis, if ridden very hard, would surely fall apart, for the South is undeniably the product of a unique historical experience and merits attention precisely because of its identifiable and significant deviations from the mainstream of American culture...
...But he is disposed to question the familiar view that "outside" criticism has served only to increase Southern intransigence...
...The editor, Sellers, contributes an exciting essay on "The Travail of Slavery...
...This, at least, is the basic premise of The Southerner as American, a collection of essays by nine Southern scholars, some of them Negro writers and most of them historians...
...He rejects the idea that there were two irreconcilable social and economic systems in the nation by 1860, and insists the problem of slavery alone brought secession...
...in order to understand it one must study not only slavery, secession and white supremacy but also the whole range of Southern commitments to the standard themes of Americanism ó commitments which transcend and sometimes contradict its well-known sectional peculiarities...
...Southerners, he says, smothered and distorted their most fundamental convictions in justifying human servitude and were driven inevitably to violent action by the very intensity of this inner conflictórendered intolerable by Northern criticism based on values which they fully shared...
...that Southern writers anticipated the need for an indigenous literary art, that they habitually found their deepest meanings in the textures of living rather than in the realm of abstractions and that they drew from their own region's historical experience a tragic sense of life to which a more innocent, fortunate and optimistic America has been driven only in recent times...
...Govan's case is overstated, but perhaps no more so than the arguments with which he takes issue...
...The difficulty with the Cash-Sellers thesis is that while it undoubtedly describes the mental torment of some Southerners, there is no way of knowing how many actually were trapped in the tragic moral dilemma described...
...Govan answers substantially in the negative...
...demonstrates that the one-party system has not exempted Southern politics from the familiar struggle between conservatism and progressivism...
...The authors believe," writes Charles Grier Sellers in his introduction, "that the traditional emphasis on the South's differentness and on the conflict between Southernism and Americanism is wrong historically...
...Americans Below the Potomac," by Thomas P. Govan, is based upon a previously published article (with a more meaningful title), "Was the Old South Different...
...and Dewey B. Grantham Jr...
...Reviewed by D. E. Fehrenbacher Associate Professor of History, Stanford University Defining the character of a given society by emphasizing the features that differentiate it from the larger cultural unit often results in a caricature, because the "uniqueness" may be only a small fraction of its total substance...
...The conflicts that have been so much a part of the Southern experience have occurred, we insist, between Southerners and within Southerners, as much as between North and South...
...He also denies that the current advocate of white supremacy differentiates the South in the way that slavery once did...
...Not only the South but America will suffer grievously if Southerners immolate themselves in another lost and unworthy cause...
...Grady McWhiney writes of Reconstruction as an "index of Americanism," with emphasis upon the pervasive influence of economic factors...
...George B. Tindall, who shows how the old pro-slavery arguments have been adapted in the 20th century to the defense of white supremacy, likewise finds "a consciousness of God's justice and a sense of sin" at the heart of the South's uneasiness about its peculiar institutions...
...Instead, he says, it reflects the ethnocentrism exhibited by most people of European origin when they come into contact with large numbers of non-Europeans...
...The South, the nation's most distinctive region, is much more than the sum of its anomalies...
...He believes, however, that a new generation of objective Southern historians is now compelling the South to take a more realistic look at its past in order to truly understand its own tradition...
...In other essays, David Donald explains how the strange mixture of democracy and aristocracy in the Confederate Army reflected the basic paradox of Southern society itself...
...In the leading essay, John Hope Franklin examines Southern historical writing and concludes that a "false history," with its Cavalier, plantation and lost-cause myths, has led Southerners to make "virtues of their vices" and thus rush upon tragedy...
...Like historian W. J. Cash, he sees guilt and painful ambivalence underlying the South's apparent unanimity in the defense of slavery...
...Holman's essay serves as a fitting conclusion to The Southerner as American because it points up the fact that the South is not only a peculiar national "problem" but also an irreplaceable source of much national greatness...
...He demonstrates convincingly that this leadership is far from new...
...As a whole, though, this volume of essays is a work of mature scholarship that is frequently persuasive and always stimulating because of its fresh views and the provocative arguments developed in several of the pieces...
...L. D. Reddick movingly describes the contradiction of love and hatred with which the Southern Negro regards the land that has both mothered and rejected him...

Vol. 44 • March 1961 • No. 11


 
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