Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity
© 2007 James C. Cobb
What does it mean to be southern, beyond a fondness for turnip greens and cornbread? The answer is an evolving one, as the South’s distinctiveness has changed its expression throughout the United States’ history. Away Down South follows national and southern attitudes about southern-ness from settlement days to the present. The Civil War, the South’s stand against the rest of the nation, sets the stage for most of the book, including reconstruction and the continuing problem of race relations. The work looks at the southern mind and heart, exploring not only intellectually-steeped expressions of the South like I’ll Take my Stand and The Mind of the South, but delves deeply into southern literature, black and white. The South as a concept remains negative throughout. Not that the South is without its virtues, but from the country’s beginnings James C. Cobb maintains that the south has been seen both by itself and the rest as a country as a place apart; first a wild frontier infested by poisonous snakes and Indians, a no-man’s-land fit only for criminals, and later as the cesspool of American culture; the hiding place of aristocracy, slavery, ignorance, and all things foul. Having no France across the Channel, or a Germany across the border, the South is the “other” which the rest of the country, with progressive, industrial New England as its model, can hold itself superior. The south’s wild gave way to plantations and then Jim Crow, but regardless of changes the taint of ‘other’ remained. This is a view not preached by Cobb, a man of the south himself, but the attitude haunts the imagination of the southern intellectuals and artists who later claim the story. What makes Away Down South stand out for me is the space given to black southerners, who left the fields for the northern cities only to return in part to the southland. Despite its tragic history, its story is one they share; the southern scene is the one fixed in their memories of home. That coming-to-terms with the past can’t help but hold a fascination for a southern student of history such as myself.