In the Arena

The Mind of the South

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One of the wonderful things about blogging is, you ask a question and you get an answer. Yesterday, I asked if anyone could come up with the quote from W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South that I once employed to describe Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell. Commenter Sinyet came through and the quote still shimmers, exquisitely:

“To the end of his service this soldier could not be disciplined. He slouched. He would never learn to salute in the brisk fashion so dear to the hearts of the professors of mass murder. His “Cap’n” and “Gin’ral” were likely to pass his lips with a grin — were charged always with easy, unstudied familiarity. He could and did find it in himself to jeer openly and unabashed in the face of Stonewall Jackson when the austere Presbyterian captain rode along his lines. And down to the final day at Appomattox his officers knew that the way to get him to execute an order without malingering was to flatter and to jest, never to command too brusquely and forthrightly. And yet — and yet — and by virtue of precisely these unsoldierly qualities, he was, as no one will care to deny, one of the world’s very finest fighting men.”

The Mind of the South remains one of the greatest works of American social history ever written–and boy, is it written, as you can tell from the quote above. It ranks with C. Van Woodward’s bookshelf of volumes on the South, and John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town, as the best exemplars of that region’s curious history. And for all this, I am indebted to Murray Murphy, who taught a brilliant class in the history of the South at the University of Pennsylvania 40 years ago.

In ┬árecent days, I’ve been accused of having an anti-Southern bias because of comments I made on television about the people attending the town meetings in that region. And it’s true: I don’t have much time for the racial bigots who defined the politics in that party of the country. But it’s possible to disdain the bigots and love the region–and I do, especially the music, the food, the ever-purple literature and its gloriously graceful people, black and white. You can’t really know America if you don’t know the South–although I could say the same of the borough of Queens in New York City, where I was born–and I’ll be forever grateful to Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, and their families, for giving me an early chance to see in person the stuff I’d learned, and loved, in the classroom.

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