The South as an American Problem: An Interview
Though perceptions of the South, and the South itself, have changed in the last two decades, it still remains isolated from "American" consciousness, culture, and economy specifically as a "problem." Don H. Doyle, Professor of History, and Larry J. Griffin, Professor of Sociology and Professor of Political Science, have organized the 1992/93 Fellows Program at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities around this notion of the "problem" South. They and their Vanderbilt colleagues from various disciplines, including English, law, economics, and political science, will spend the year at the Center holding weekly discussions and sponsoring lectures and colloquia investigating "The South as an American Problem." Letters recently spoke with professors Doyle and Griffin about the origins of the topic and what they anticipate in the coming year.
DOYLE: When Larry and I first met and started talking about a year-long interdisciplinary examination of the South, it was Larry who first came up with the idea of posing the South as "a problem." Together we cast that slightly differently by saying that it was an American problem, in other words, a problem that the United States had with this region within it. Then as we started talking about how the South has been a problem, our conversation unfolded in a combination of historical and thematic ways. For instance, the fact that the South once had a commitment to slavery and a certain system of labor posed a problem for Americans, and for Southerners as well. It was a specifically national problem in that it contradicted the basic commitments to liberalism, democracy, capitalism, and Christianity. We're interested in how the South as a problem gets defined by those outside the region, in particular but not exclusively, and then what kind of solutions they propose.
GRIFFIN: And we're interested in the defenses, that is, the reconceptualization by the South that it truly is not a problem. It's the natural order of things, or it's a function of misunderstanding. So there arises that kind of dialectic between problem and definition, problem defusing, and then solution and counter solution. This is an historical dynamic; it takes place through time, quite literally and not in an idealized sequence. There are collective understandings which are then fought against or more broadly disseminated, from which proposals for solutions emanate which are countered in the South, etc.
DOYLE: America's problem with the South, oversimplified as slavery, becomes the South's problem with America. The North's solution to the problem of slavery was to mount growing public opinion to persuade and then to legislate against it, first to restrict it and eventually to abolish it. The South's problem was to defend a vital institution, an economic institution but also a system of racial control. Their solution was to secede, to create a separate nation that would sanction this institution by law.
GRIFFIN: Which then created a problem for the Constitution.
DOYLE: So then you have another problem. Secession poses a problem for the United States, since according to some you cannot do that. So their definition of the problem was "this is rebellion, treason, and there is no legitimate Confederate States of America. This group has taken over the legitimate governments of South Carolina and other states and they must be defeated and the governments restored." So it was for the North a civil war instigated by rebels. The South's position, of course, was that this was a war between states that had a legitimate right to withdraw. With the war the South presents an obvious problem, as the cause of the war. That too has evolving solutions: the Emancipation Proclamation, and the escalating commitment to what becomes a total war. As you can see, this has been a kind of ongoing dialectic between North and South.
GRIFFIN: It really does play itself out, in fact so neatly that I'm personally afraid! It's too schematically neat. But still, the war, and slavery, was solved by Reconstruction, which Southerners then viewed as a problem which needed a solution. They thus acted on their perception of their interest to remove Reconstruction governments and military occupation, thereby creating a national problem, Jim Crow, which cried out for solutions, which created self-defenses, rationalities, and elaborate ideological justifications.
DOYLE: There is a sense too that the South as an American problem becomes a way of America defining its values, defining itself. So the South serves as what C. Vann Woodward calls an "American counterpoint," something that is the opposite, or counter to what America wants to be, or is, or sees itself as.
GRIFFIN: It also allows America a chance to funnel its own understanding of its darker side to the South. At least it did function that way for a very long time until the sixties, when it was very clear that this darker side was not specific to a region. You could almost date it: 1965, with regard to race, with the Watts Rebellion.
DOYLE: Also with busing and the huge white backlash in Boston, Detroit, and elsewhere in the North.
GRIFFIN: The de facto segregation of the North as opposed to the de jure segregation of the South, that is right. See, that is very interesting: the solution to America's problem with Jim Crow in the South was the emancipation, fully now, at least politically, of blacks. And thereby the problem of America vis a vis race was exposed. That is an interesting notion.
DOYLE: One strand of this dialectic after the Civil War remains focused on race relations. But then there are others that have a less continuous character. One is economic development. A number of us in the Fellows Program have an interest in the South as a problem in terms of economic development. The South remains a region that is notable for its poverty and for its lack of economic development within a prosperous industrial capitalist society. During the Depression, the South was identified as "America's number one economic problem."
GRIFFIN: And all these problems are very clearly related. The economic problem was part and parcel of the cause and consequence of the race problem and both in turn were deeply intertwined with the problem of politics: the one party South, disenfranchisement, the lack of effective political participation by the vast bulk even of whites in the South. They are all linked together in a very tightly interwoven nexus.
DOYLE: There is also this focus on the South, slightly different, as a region of not only economic poverty but of a poverty of the human condition. I was thinking of public health problems and educational backwardness. This is another aspect that was not as integrally related, but was a problem that intellectuals had in the South. Some of this is a problem that intellectuals in the South themselves define, that there was no place in the South from which the intellectual could criticize their society. It was instead a place from which intellectuals had to flee, go into exile.
LETTERS: You mentioned that in your proposal for the fellow's program.
GRIFFIN: It's absolutely true, many did. Some explicitly in order to criticize the South. With others it was more subtle, about economic opportunities, for example. And that is certainly continued right on through to today.
DOYLE: There is this theme that the South is a closed society that shuts out criticism. This goes back to Antebellum times win Hinton Rowan Halper was driven out of the South for proposing an end to slavery.
GRIFFIN: There is another great irony here. Many analysts of the South, both before W.J. Cash and after John Shelton Reed, emphasize that one of the very distinctive things about the South is its individualistic ethos. Southerners are highly individualistic, which is why we choose not to have big governments, why we don't like rules and regulations. And it is thought to explain partially our violence, our sense of frontier justice, etc. And yet, superimposed on that individualism, or undergirding it, is this really striking conformist ethic. So you can be individualistic as long as you conform to dominant norms and understandings.
LETTERS: Is this a Southern understanding of the South you are reviewing?
GRIFFIN: Well, it's certainly developed by Southerners, and I don't know how it is with popular discourse or consciousness. I think that there is a fair sense among many Southerners that "we are less apt to put up with petty rules and regulations." Think about George Wallace's 1968 and 1972 campaigns as a reflection of that.
DOYLE: Southerners do not look to the state in the same way that modern Americans outside the North are supposed to. So that strain of individualism comes thorough more than a family-centered or individual centered view of the world. One of the people who exemplifies the intolerance of the South, or who was a victim of it, was James Silver.
GRIFFIN: He was a history professor at "Old Miss" who basically had to leave.
DOYLE: He was a graduate student here at Vanderbilt. He became a critic of the existing racial order in Mississippi.
GRIFFIN: ...and at the University of Mississippi. Classrooms were being bugged by the administration to find out whether or not "atheistic communism" was being spread under the guise of modern race relations. And that was a generation ago. It was not the dark ages, at least chronologically.
DOYLE: Probably the Scopes trial was the best example of the intolerance of ideas which threaten in this case religious orthodoxy. And that was one of H. L. Mencken's targets as a benighted ignorant, but intolerant region. That would be a good example in which the South's intellectual intolerance became defined by outsiders as a problem.
LETTERS: Isn't there a way in which seeing this all as a problem almost prefigures what you are calling a dialectic, and prefigures that there has to be a solution? I'm thinking of Southern literature as a way of thinking outside that.
GRIFFIN: Yes, I totally agree with that. To me, that is a complete and direct consequence of everything we have been talking about. It's inconceivable that we would have had Faulkner anywhere but in the South.
DOYLE: Faulkner always seemed to thrive on being an alienated intellectual observer within a society and culture that did not fully appreciate him. There is a kind of perverse creativity that comes out of that. So you might say that too much acceptance might destroy something, so that it's not always a problem.
GRIFFIN: But he always came back from his alienation. He and other writers left for Hollywood, but always came back. Lots of people did that.
DOYLE: So somehow out of this "Sahara of the Bozart," as Mencken called the South, came a terrific amount of creativity, particularly in literature.
GRIFFIN: Even as the condemnations were being levied at the South, they were being contradicted in that very way.
DOYLE: I thought that Mencken inspired some of that! "We'll show him!" But I think his point was not that they were incapable, but it was not a culture or society that supported creativity. The Agrarians and the Fugitives were responding to some of that ridicule by cultivating something uniquely Southern. The poet Donald Davidson, who stayed here at Vanderbilt, was very interested in showing that only an agrarian society like the South could support artists who were really in connection with their society.
GRIFFIN: Sort of "organic" in a way that a mechanized, industrialized society could not have. That is a very old argument, one which monarchists and reactionaries, real reactionaries, have used for centuries.
LETTERS: What other problems are you taking up as American problems? Race, of course, and the civil rights movement...
GRIFFIN: Well, to a degree the nature of Southern politics. For an extremely long time there really was, with the exception of eastern Tennessee, just one party. That was a problem for the national Republican party, and it was certainly a problem for Southerners, even though many of them appeared to recognize it. And that too had its own kind of dialectic in terms of how national political processes responded to, modified, or adapted to the "solid South." There is an excellent book called The Vital South by Earl Black and Merle Black. They try and explain why it is that the South is now solidly Republican, more or less, with isolated pockets of Democratic support. We have seen a true transformation of the nature of politics in the South, from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican in a generation.
DOYLE: So the South has presented a problem to the national Democratic party, which had a deep tie and commitment to white and black support since the 1930s, and has had to cater to this divided constituency in the South. They keep coming up with Southern candidates who do not often play well in the North, and who themselves have to straddle this black and white constituency.
DOYLE: It's really been a national problem for the Democrats, but it's been the South, and the Democratic party's commitment to the civil rights movement and its aftermath, that has been a great boon to the Republican party.
GRIFFIN: That is Black and Black's point, that having the South solidly in the presidential Republican camp means that they need marginal support everywhere else, just a few states and they can pull it off. So the Democrats somehow have to work twice as hard everywhere else, because they can almost count on the South going Republican.
LETTERS: What do you see now, with the South in a period of economic growth, for example in Charlotte, Atlanta, or here in Nashville? Will the Fellows Group be considering contemporary issues in the South?
DOYLE: To a large extent, the changes that have swept over the South, outside of the political process that we were talking about, have ended the South's status as an American problem. I mean, we do not talk about the nation's number one economic problem, we talk about the "Sun Belt," while the "Rust Belt" is now the problem. And no Northerner or outsider would talk about the race problem as being a Southern problem. That illusion has been destroyed. John Egerton has a book called The Americanization of Dixie, with the subtitle The Southernization of America, in which he looks at things like the race problem. He shows that it was always present in the North. It was exported from the South to some extent, with the black migration, but the ethnic and racial tensions were always there. It was partly a matter of how the problem was perceived. So that idea of the South as a special problem for America has receded in the American mind in a lot of ways. I think this political problem we are talking about is still an issue.
GRIFFIN: And there is still cultural stereotyping of Southerners from the outside. Someone, I think Roy Blount, Jr., a Southerner living in Manhattan, wrote that no other ethnic group in America would be receiving the kinds of slurs that Southerners routinely do in polite conversation. So I do think there is still a perception of Southern backwardness and intolerance. But I think Don is right. It would be very naive to talk about "the South's" race problem these days.
LETTERS: I know people from Boston who have moved here and are relieved at the sense of racial harmony. It's relative, of course. Now, Professor Doyle, you grew up in the west?
DOYLE: Yes, the San Francisco Bay area.
GRIFFIN: I grew up in Mississippi. But this is my first year back in the South.
DOYLE: This is great, a Southern exile and a carpetbagger! So we can see it from all different angles, inside and out. And that is what this program is about. Not just to look at the South and its special characteristics, but to look at the South as a special problem for America....In the reality of contemporary America, the issues that define the South as a problem—race relations, economic underdevelopment, and the repression of intellectual and cultural life—they do not define a national problem.
LETTERS: You mentioned a Southern Studies program in your proposal.
DOYLE: Yes, one of the legacies of this Fellows Program will be, we hope, an academic program at Vanderbilt where we would offer graduate students an interdisciplinary concentration in Southern Studies that would draw from diverse disciplines.
GRIFFIN: There is a fairly large number of faculty here, more here than there would be at other, even Southern, universities, whose teaching and research has focus on things Southern.
DOYLE: And they are in all corners of the University. Economics, the Law School, the Divinity School. At least since the time of the Agrarians, and earlier in the century, the South has been part of Vanderbilt's mission. I think of Edwin Mim's book The Advancing South. He was very much conscious of the South as a problem, and he wanted to transcend it. I always remember that in the aftermath of the Scopes trial, Chancellor Kirkland said that Vanderbilt's answer to the trial was to build more laboratories. They actually used the embarrassment and ridicule of the Scopes trial for a fundraising campaign in the North. The Agrarians, on the other hand, really this whole notion that the South was a problem by saying that the problem was the North; the South was an American problem because the industrial North was trying to destroy the agrarian South, and we must "take our stand" here and develop an alternative to urban, industrial society. This view was at the time an embarrassment to Vanderbilt, though you would never know it now. The Agrarians pulled together a large number of people at Vanderbilt who had an interest in the South.
GRIFFIN: Yes, people from political science, literature. I think even philosophy.
DOYLE: There were a lot of people who were Southerners, who thought a lot about the South, whose intellectual identity was shaped within this region.
GRIFFIN: Including Robert Penn Warren!
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
[ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]
Created by Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.
Copyright © 1998, Vanderbilt University