Nonfiction: The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson

That is a mighty audacious title, self-consciously placing The New Mind of the South as a successor to W.J. Cash’s seminal The Mind of the South.

Thompson gives two catalysts for writing this book.  First, she discovers that one of her ancestors was a Union sympathizer.  As someone who grew up in southern Appalachia hearing (inflated) stories about how much Union support up there, I was a bit bemused at her overreaction.  Thompson’s second catalyst is the disappearance of sorts of the South.  This is certainly true, but only to a point.  W.J. Cash’s closing paragraph still rings true today.  Thompson sees the South as defined by, first and foremost, two cultural institutions: slavery and evangelical Protestantism.  The small fact that slavery no longer exists does little to lessen its influence today.  The ruts and scars are still there.  The South has always been religious, and even as the ubiquity of religion has faded its intensity has grown.

There is much to be said for The New Mind of the South.  Thompson recognizes the strange dichotomy that the South retains much of its unique nature despite rapid change.  She even makes it one of the major themes of the book.  Much of the “mind of the South” can be found in HOW it changes—resisting it with all its might, sudden and rapid change, then acting as if it had always been that way.  I think she really has something here.  Thompson liberally introduces good social science on most topics.  The very recent influx of Hispanic immigrants gets attention (and may be the best section of the book) and Thompson (facially, at least) recognizes that black Southerners are also Southerners.  She admirably talks not only about lynching but about how it has historically been viewed—much like the crimes of communist regimes, its evil is both without serious question and at the same time studiously ignored.  She recognizes that racism and Southern-style political conservatism are separate entities, the waning interest of evangelicals in actual evangelism, and how Southern populism was hobbled by racism.  Her prose can be biting: “If F. Scott Fitzgerald was right—if the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function—then the South in those years was doing a phenomenal job of raising the national IQ.”

The Atlanta skyline (not my pic)

Admittedly, what Thompson gets right makes up the bulk of the book.  But she gets too far much wrong.  She does two things well: present social science and the attendant data and ruminate on the “mind of the South” in the abstract.  When she veers away from that she gets herself in trouble.  Her knowledge of Southern politics is somewhat lacking.  As to economics she shows no understanding whatsoever (she refers to the trading of cheap labor for money as a “Faustian bargain”).  She readily displays those old Southern peccadilloes of narrow-mindedness and an incapacity for analysis.  She thinks adopting a foreign child and watching Fox News are irreconcilable and an example of cognitive dissonance (so much for the conservatism isn’t necessarily racism point).  Thompson claims the influence of the South led to “radical” (that in itself incorrect given the role of the government during the bulk of American history) ideas about eliminating government.  But Southern conservatives have never been the primary driver of the small government faction of the party.  She thinks the best analogue to the modern immigration debate is the debate over slavery.  A better one is the debate over immigration from the late 19th/early 20th century.  She thinks the Occupy Wall Street movement “borrows its tactics from the civil rights movement, and its rhetoric to the outrage of early-twentieth century Southern populists.”  Somewhere Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Jennings Bryan are rolling over in their graves.  She calls the old Populist platform ahead of its time for proposing government ownership of railroads and the prohibition of speculation in farm commodities, despite the fact that neither was ever enacted on any kind of broad scale and remain awful policy.  Perhaps most egregiously, she faults Atlanta’s leadership for failing to provide “affordable housing.”  Any person of meager means who has lived in D.C. and Atlanta (or, as I have, Chicago and Houston) would attest to the greater affordability of housing in the latter (although of course I mean affordable in its plain sense, rather than its more particular, non-useful sense).

But there is a far more damning indictment.  W.J. Cash (a journalist himself) wrote as an advocate, an attorney, unabashed in his bias and his argument.  Thompson more often engages in journalistic obfuscation.  No one was safe from Cash’s barbs.  Everyone is safe from Thompson’s barbs but white Southerners.  To her great credit, Thompson recognizes that black Southerners are also Southerners.  That shows in spurts, for example as she points out how integral black churches were to the Civil Rights movement, but black Southerners are for long stretches forgotten, and never given the same critical treatment as white Southerners.  The black remigration is mentioned but not explored in nearly enough depth.  Similarly, she adroitly compares Southern culture to Mexican culture, but has nothing critical to say of Mexican-Americans.  Too much escapes attention altogether.  Thompson ignores the people of Appalachia even more thoroughly than Cash did.  The fall of the mills and the mill towns with them was worthy of attention.  Atlanta is admittedly the capital of the “New South,” but what about Charlotte turning itself into a banking center, Nashville turning itself into the country music capital, Houston and Dallas riding oil and natural gas from boom-and-bust to a more permanent boom, and the different responses of New Orleans, Tuscaloosa, and Nashville to natural disasters?

Houston is given short shrift

The New Mind of the South is worth the price of admission if only for its more recent vintage, but it still pales beside classic works like The Mind of the South, Albion’s Seed, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and Confederates in the Attic.

3 of 5 Stars.

3 thoughts on “Nonfiction: The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson

  1. Rick Schwertfeger

    Terrific review, H.P. I’m a big fan of the original. Will read the other 3 books you mention at the end before or instead of “The New….”

    Rick Schwertfeger, A.B. in American Civilization
    Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command,
    Austin, Texas

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: October 2018 Month-in-Review | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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