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On Reading and Rereading The Mind of the South

in No Place Southern

by Kat Meads


First impressions of author and book: a melancholic man, a melancholic text, the label in neither case a criticism. Southerners are a melancholic tribe. I believe that—perhaps in the interest of comfort.

I should have read W. J. Cash’s classic years before I did. I owned the book, intended to read it, but only opened my copy during a fit of melancholy that retrospect ranks as minor. At the time, of course, the episode didn’t feel minor or incidental. Blue moods seldom do. My melancholy felt all consuming, insurmountable, a sink too deep, a bottom settling too far from the surface, to merit the effort of a kick up.

So I do not turn up my nose at melancholy.

At the time of my initial reading of The Mind of the South, I already counted as a South deserter. I finished fifty pages plunked on an Adirondack chair that straddled gopher holes in a fenced backyard. The house next door to my brown-shingled cottage still bore yellow tape from earthquake damage. Physically, I’d flown the Southern coop. Mentally? Not then, not now.

“If (the common Southerner) could not escape en masse, he could nevertheless escape as an individual … make (his) way out and on,” Cash wrote and I pondered, breathing Pacific air.

In his leisure time, the Southerner “is free to brood as well as to dream—to exaggerate his fears as well as his hopes," Cash wrote and I read and brooded upon.

Next day, I came down with the flu, a defensible excuse for taking to bed. With me I took The Mind of the South, a decision that resulted in making the parts of me that didn’t ache from a virus ache from another cause.

A sentimental reaction, Mr. Cash might call that—sentimentality a telltale Southern trait. He identified several others. Clannishness. The tendency to act and react with the “sensitiveness of a defeated people.” A people of divided character: part hedonistic, part puritanical. A people who carried individualism to violent extreme. Folks far too charmed by rhetoric and its flourishes. Romantics. Idealizers of the past. Unrealistic beings.

I can’t argue with the list. Couldn’t then. What I did was swear up and down that the reason I was weeping in bed in a brown-shingled cottage crumbling from dry rot was that I was ill. With the flu.

The flu is not insomnia, nor insomnia the flu, but both accommodate, not to say encourage, drifty thought. Last night, wide-eyed in my bed, I began musing about displacement(s). Eventually I conceded defeat in my nightly sleep war and left the bed. As I made my way down the stairs to the living room, the “displacement” notion morphed into “migration.” Generic migration, migration patterns, Southern migration patterns, the migration patterns of Cracker farmers, which sent me to the bookcase and my twelve-year-old copy of Mind of the South to reread Cash’s gorgeous, melancholic descriptions of dirt workers who used and abused the soil before moving on.

My antecedents; those poor white farmers, those crass and craven, and desperate men.

A blasphemous statement for a Southerner: someone, anyone, you don’t know, have never met, blood kin or no, is just someone you don’t know, have never met.

Blasphemy redux: the dead are only stories. If you remember at all, you remember the story.

Blood-kin Fritz would not only disagree with that contention, she’d take offense. Self-appointed family historian, Sears side, Fritz labored long and hard on a project dear to her heart: researching our great-grandfather’s war records.Willoughby Dozier Barnard (1841-1914) served in Company B, 61st Virginia Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865. He was wounded twice, in the arm at Spotsylvania Court House, and in the hip during the Siege of Petersburg. In April 1865 he was paroled as a prisoner of war at Appomattox Court House and headed home. Before and after the “great disaster of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” in Cash’s phrase, Willoughby Barnard was a piss poor farmer. On a good year, he cleared fifty bucks—probably because he was one of the few who continued to work the same worn-out soil. The Meads-side farmers scattered.

After Cousin Fritz completed her research, she compiled a booklet, xeroxed it and sent copies to the full complement of Willoughby Barnard’s descendants, including his 36 great-grandchildren. The next time I “make the time to come home,”” she wrote in a snide note mailed with my copy to California, “we ought to gather round Willoughby’s field grave for a ceremony of remembrance.”

I considered making the trip to stand over Willoughby’s bones, not for my own sake but to gaze upon Fritz as she reverently undertook her mission. Because I knew Fritz. Because we were kids together. Because when Fritz came down from Woodbridge, Virginia, to visit her North Carolina cousins, she came dressed “fancy,” her mother’s fashion style. Chiffon dresses, multi-tiered ruffles. Anklet socks edged with lace. In that outfit Fritz attempted to play in a farmyard of cows, cow pies, chickens, drooling curs, worms, fleas and sticky dirt. Which meant it was only a matter of time before Fritz in a white, sheer, ruffled dress stepped a white polished shoe into a cow pie and, in her frantic attempt to escape cow shit, lost her balance and fell into a ditch whose waters coursed below the outhouse.

“But let me take care not to exaggerate,” in Cash’s felicitous rendering.

Let me take care.

When Cash died, he had supposedly started work on a novel described as a “novel of the South,” the first of a proposed trilogy, spanning multiple generations. How might those subsequent novels have read? In The Mind of the South, Cash described both Faulkner and Wolfe as writers who “hated the South with the exasperated hate of a lover who cannot persuade the object of his affections to his desire.” He called the “Faulkners,” the “Caldwells,” “romantics of the appalling.” Then asked: “Or am I mistaken in thinking that the essence of romanticism is the disposition to deal in the more-than-life-sized, the large and heroic, the picturesque and vivid and extravagant?”

The critic of rhetoric and romanticism falling sway to both.

Fundamental to romantic literature: the primacy of personal vision.

Self-inflicted death: a finale favored by romantics.

Born J. W. (Joseph Wilbur) Cash, the author reversed those initials and published as W. J. The son of South Carolinian Southern Baptists, he went north a state to Wake Forest College. He tried law school for a year, taught for a stretch, then settled into a journalism career. He wrote for the Chicago Post, H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, The Charlotte News. The book The Mind of the South grew out of an article of the same title, published in The Mercury. Cash worked on the book manuscript for more than a decade while living with his parents in the North Carolina mountains. A large man, myopic, balding, he disliked public speaking. Doing so, his throat closed up on him. But along with fame came invitations to speak. And when invited to speak, he spoke.

In the space of a year, Cash’s last, he published the book that made his reputation, won a Guggenheim grant, married, delivered the commencement address at the University of Texas, and ventured to Mexico where he died, July 1, 1941, age 41, a celebrity author of five months, a half-year groom. In 1967, in the Red Clay Reader, his remarried widow published “The Suicide of W. J. Cash,” her unromantic, unsentimental account of her husband’s mind state in Mexico City and of finding Cash dead, hanging by his necktie in the La Reforma Hotel.

As the title suggests, Mary Cash Maury did not believe Nazi spies served as Cash's hangmen. She briefly describes their journey from North Carolina to Austin, the longer, more exhausting train ride “along the spine of Mexico.” She mentions the Mexican heat, its disquieting effect on her husband.

Cash wrote this about Southern heat:“There are … days in July and August when the nerves wilt under the terrific impact of sun and humidity and even the soundest grow a bit neurotic.”

Mexican heat makes Southern heat feel balmy.

Mary Cash Maury mentions intestinal distress, bouts of diarrhea, the fact that Cash was having trouble “accommodating his fingers to the small keyboard of the new portable typewriter he had bought in San Antonio.” She mentions that her husband, when frustrated, bit his hands. She describes how he described to her the Nazi plot to kill them both and her subsequent attempts to “reason” with him. She recounts telephoning a fellow reporter, asking him to break the news of Cash’s death to his parents. And then she describes the funeral, held in the First Baptist Church, Shelby, N.C., conducted by a cousin on his mother’s side. First the cousin apologized to God and the assembled for “cousin Wilbur’s suicide.” Next he apologized for Wilbur’s “having maligned so many of (the) South’s great men and institutions.” Then he assured the crowd that, despite committing those most foul and insulting transgressions, Wilbur “had in reality been a very good boy.”

Cousins.

Leave them behind, keep your distance, die, and still they get in their digs.

What I left, when I left the South, wasn’t only depleted cropland—although I left plenty of that too. My desire to leave was inchoate, a propellant as opposed to an explanation. I was as homesick as I had been flu-sick. But homesick for what? Irrevocably gone by then, what I called “home,” took for home, knew for home. As un-resurrectable as Willoughby Doxier Barnard. As lost as the cause he soldiered for.

“I have perhaps given the impression in passing,” to borrow again from Cash, that I don’t care about that loss, the distance between here and there, the gulf between now and then, the separation of me from mine. But that impression would be false. The hurt be what it feels, as my blood kin are apt to say. It be what it feels.

 

Kat Meads’s most recent book publication is a novel, The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan (Chiasmus Press, 2006). Recent essays have appeared in The Southern Review, Drunken Boat, and Fugue. She lives in California. (3/2007)


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