May 01, 2006

Modern South

And now I finally get to the (current) end of Southern history with the modern South, an era I haven’t really discussed before because my big paper from last semester ended in the 1960s. Where is the South now? Where has it come from? Where is it going? Has it learned anything on the way? And, most importantly for this reflection, what do the selections I read have to say?

There were two pieces for the final week: the section on “The Modern South” from The American South: A History (a textbook) by William J. Cooper, Jr. and Thomas E. Terrill, and various portions of Promised Land: The South Since 1945 by David R. Goldfield.

The former traces shifts in the political scene during that last fifty years or so. As anyone who pays attention knows, the Republican Party has supplanted the Democrats as the Southern party of choice, and Southern Democrats have a very large percentage of African Americans. This change is a source of great amusement to me. In less than fifty years, the two major political parties in the United States have undergone changes so drastic that it is almost as though they simply traded names.

It took the Republicans a long time to overcome the stigma of Reconstruction, and the Democrats somewhat less time to lose its status as the white Southerners’ party. Of course, there are still “yellow dog” Democrats, who vote a straight party ticket because that’s what their daddy did. I have met some of them. Most others, though, have hopped aboard the Republican train for a variety of reasons. During the Great Depression, the Democrats became the party of big government, which implies fewer personal freedoms, a definite problem for Southerners. Republicans also became the party of national security and military expansion (particularly during the administration of Ronald Reagan), definitely a draw for the ultrapatriotic, gun-happy South. Finally, Republicans have somehow managed to hop on the coattails of the Religious Right, an extremely powerful force in the Southern mindset.

The second selection was significantly longer than the first, and covered a wider variety of subjects. It addresses (of particular interest) the sudden turn-around in race relations after about 1965-1975, the rise of tourism as a Southern industry, the continuing national fascination with Southern literature, and urbanization and the growth of Southern cities.

The South is undoubtedly changing in many respects, becoming more sophisticated, drawing more outsiders to visit as well as live within its boundaries, and developing in a number of different areas. I didn’t get to talk about the Great Depression and Southern Literary Renaissance much in this class (I guess it was decided I’d said quite enough on the subject last semester), but it came up briefly in this piece as well. I believe I said then, and reaffirm now, that distinctly Southern literature, and the high status accorded to it in our classrooms, is not going away anytime soon.

However, as a final thought (my mind refuses to discuss deeper matters such as economy and the movements of large populations at the moment) I must discuss a distinct sub-culture that continues to reside in the South. Left out of circles occupied by the best and brightest of both Old and New South, these people nurse a considerable pride in their particular label and identity. They used to be called white trash. McWhiney called them “crackers.” Now they are known as rednecks, and they still walk among us. Rednecks are, in some respects, rather odious characters, prizing ignorance, bigoted attitudes, violence, and overindulging in alcohol, tobacco, and (some claim) even darker vices. However, I am tempted to believe that (if the South truly is becoming slowly absorbed into the larger national milieu of America), rednecks will be the last distinctly “Southern” people to go, if indeed they can be gotten rid of at all.

It has been a true pleasure to survey the history of the South in this course this semester, although I have often felt that I have not given it the treatment it deserved. However, I have enjoyed it so much that it is quite likely you shall be hearing more on the subject from me in the future, possibly even as a major field of study once I reach graduate school. Until then, I shall continue to comment on Southern life and literature as I see fit, and when I deem necessary.

Posted by Jared at May 1, 2006 09:32 AM | TrackBack