January 27, 2006

"Why Do They Exist At All"

Our Southern History seminar began, as any examination of the topic must, with a discussion of the origins of the region and its identity. While I already addressed this topic somewhat here, there is a great deal that was left unsaid. Most importantly I neglected to mention that neither I nor anyone before me can say with any real certainty what factors caused the South to exist as it has and does, but everyone has a theory.

I waded through quite a few of these theories during my research last semester, and our reading this week from Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer examined a few more. The idea that captured my imagination while I was writing my paper was that of the Southern historical consciousness. The Southern mind has generally been keenly aware of the events of the past which have led to the situations of the present. Surely, though (as I realized upon further reflection), this is merely one more facet of that mind, one more symptom of whatever it is that has made this region different from all the rest. The Southern historical consciousness is an effect, not a cause.

Theories as to what actually produced the Southern personality and the region's separate identity are wide-ranging indeed. Some attribute the differences to issues of climate, some to issues of cultural background, and some even to endemic diseases like pellagra. Fischer makes a compelling case for, in particular, the combination of the aristocratic cavaliers from England who settled in Virginia and the Carolinas and the impoverished Scotch-Irish (which is to say, Scots from Northern Ireland) who settled in the colonial backcountry of the Appalachians.

The Virginian aristocrats brought with them a rigid caste system, ideals of inviolable personal (Fischer calls it "hegemonic") liberty which did not extend beyond the landed gentry, and a strong sense of honor. The Scotch-Irish yeoman-farmers brought a determination to look after their own affairs, militant religious beliefs and practices, and a preference for fighting rather than labor.

These two different cultures shared a deep, intense loyalty to, and connection with, family (which would gradually extend to encompass their immediate community, eventually their entire state, and much, much later, the entire nation). They shared the hot, humid climate of the South. They shared the rugged conditions of settling an uncivilized wilderness. In particular, the Scotch-Irish brought over generations of experience with life in borderlands, where the delicate balance between differing cultures could frequently explode into violent conflict.

All of the elements that Fischer introduced and examined were well-presented and well-argued. However, what fascinated me the most was his examination of the emotional, reactionary aspects of what was to become the Southern personality. The Scotch-Irish in particular were a passionate people, while the Virginians were a people who would throw caution and rational thought to the wind in the defense of honor. The combination of these would tend not only to place reasonable thought and action in a subordinate position, but even to make them seem wrong in certain circumstances. This is precisely the sort of thing which, for me, helps to explain the dozens of ironies and contradictions in Southern history.

As a side-note, it has recently occurred to me that (sticking with my own personal experience) this same aspect of the Southern mind has translated over into the modern Southern Christian mind. There are so many things that Christians think that strike me as bizarre and contradictory . . . Things like, I dunno, God loves Republicans, Capitalism, and War. God loves the death penalty. God loves bigotry against foreigners or homosexuals.

Well, I shall refrain from proceeding any further along this line lest I lose all coherence and abandon the topic at hand entirely. Hopefully, as the class proceeds, we will get a clearer picture, if not of exactly why the South exists as it does, then at least of what that existence consists of.

Posted by Jared at January 27, 2006 01:50 PM | TrackBack