In his 1941 social history classic “The Mind of the South,” journalist W.J. Cash concluded the tome with a burn for those below the Mason-Dixon Line. As he saw it, the so-called New South was still simmering in its Old South vices: — among others, “violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas.” For Cash, the Southern mind-set was held hostage by a “savage ideal” — one that was immovable when it came to bona fide change.
In Tracy Thompson’s “The New Mind of the South” — her 21st-century view of Cash’s endeavor to take the temperature of the region — she also treks through the states of the Old Confederacy in an attempt to figure out where Southerners stand in the present. In her able blend of reportage, travelogue, and memoir, she discovers a region that’s anything but homogeneous. “Southerners like to portray the South as a region that’s resistant to change,” Thompson writes, “but the only tradition here is of change that comes quickly and with stunning force.”
One of the most intriguing and often overlooked shifts she identifies is the South’s changing demographics. According to Thompson: “Today the fastest-growing Latino population in the country is in the South — and not in Texas and Florida, but in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.” Affected by a surge of black remigration to the region, a momentous Asian migration, and a new generation that either cannot recollect or had nothing to do with the Jim Crow system, the “good ol’ boy” reign seems to be finally on the ropes in Thompson’s telling. Most Southerners Thompson spoke with, she says, believe the flood of foreigners “meant the end of all things Southern.”
But Thompson argues that the Hispanics sinking their roots in the South, for instance, “is not the spectacle of cultures clashing, but the spectacle of cultures merging.” In Thompson’s estimation, Hispanic sensibilities and traditions tend to be in synch with white Southerners: “Many of the Mexicans who have moved to North Carolina since the 1990s are country folks — conservative in politics and sexual mores, churchgoing, tightly connected in a network of extended family.”
Elsewhere in the Mississippi Delta (and in the South in general), she finds a mass exodus occurring in rural areas — once the basis of its “uniquely Southern version of agrarian values.” Yet, what’s maintained, according to Thompson, is an agrarian stress on the significance of collective consciousness. “And even though the South has been urbanized, suburbanized, strip-malled, and land-formed to a point that at times I hardly recognize it anymore,” Thompson writes, “it is still a place that bears the imprint of that deep sense of community and an almost tribal definition of kin.”
But all of this is not to suggest that Thompson — a Georgia-born Pulitzer Prize finalist (in investigative reporting) who now lives outside Washington, D.C. — is an apologist for the South’s ever-present faults. Refreshingly, the book critiques the still persistent belief that the Civil War was over states’ rights rather than slavery. Moreover, in a lengthy discussion of what Thompson deems the region’s “shadow history,” she takes to task Southern culture’s opportunely blind spots when it comes to its vicious history, such as lynching (though Thompson says genuine discussions over the matters are becoming far more common).
Elsewhere, the book raises hackles with Thompson’s hometown Atlanta: “It is Southern in the same unintentional way Scarlett O’Hara was Southern: shrewd, afflicted with a remarkable incuriosity about its own past, and an almost childlike attachment to its illusions.”
There are some occasional staggers, as when Thompson writes about the South’s entanglement with evangelicalism. In a chapter called “Jesusland,” Thompson concludes that “[t]he old fusion of evangelical religion and Southern culture is mostly gone; where it survives, it’s living on borrowed time.” This may be spot-on assessment, but her foggy presentation doesn’t make the claim altogether convincing.
Fortunately, those instances are rare. At its frequent best, “The New Mind of the South” is a lucid and inspired endeavor that gracefully handles the Southern paradoxes and polishes away rusted typecasts. Put better, it demonstrates, as one unnamed Southerner says, “All things Confederate are Southern, but not all things Southern are Confederate.”Eric Been, a writer and associate editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.