Thursday, May 22, 2014

The South and America since World War II, by James C. Cobb

James C. Cobb’s The South and America since World War II (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) argues that the characteristics that distinguish the Southern region from the rest of the United States actually are traits that conjoin the South with the rest of the nation.  Cobb uses the historian’s method of weaving a narrative around facts, anecdotes, and statistics (demographic and economic data, polls, and so on).  For those unaccustomed to reading accounts formulated in this way, the going at first can be slow, but gradually one adjusts.  I found the first four chapters the most interesting.  They trace the progress of race relations in the South since 1945, first by establishing their nature to begin with, then by tracing the legislative, cultural, and other changes that brought about the current uneasy but clearly improved state of affairs.  These pages are interesting because they present a compact, intense, and shocking account of race relations in the south from 1945 through the early 1960s.  They were shocking to me even though I lived through much of this period and remembered many of the events recounted.  I emerged from these pages understanding more clearly than before that one cannot remove the issue of race and racism in talking about what makes the South Southern.  To announce that one is a “loyal Southerner” is to announce (unwittingly or not) complicity with the South’s racial history. I don’t mean to suggest by highlighting the interest of the civil rights chapters that the rest of the book is dull—by no means.  I especially enjoyed the chapters on blues music, country music, and the rise of rock n’ roll.  The later chapters on the business economy of the modern South, political developments, locally and nationally, and on the literature and music of the contemporary South (the B52s and REM are not mentioned) are equally interesting.

A central theme is the distinctiveness of the Southern character.  What does distinctiveness mean?  Is it a description of the region, or of the individual who claims Southern identity as his own?  Cobb examines these questions.  During the Civil Rights movement, as he shows, many Southerners worried that the South would lose its regional character and become more like the rest of the country.  Such an argument takes as its premise, unfortunately, that the Southern character is inherently tied to racism and racial divisions.  That is, “How can the South maintain its special character if blacks have equal rights?”  Few people stated the question so blatantly, but such thinking often underlay their protests about the endangered South (read “the endangered racial hierarchies of the South”).

Cobb shows that the agricultural nature of the South was waning for much of the 20th century, and that the South was rapidly becoming a place with a mainly urban population (by 1960, he notes, the South had more urban than rural residents).  Agriculture became increasingly mechanized through the use of tractors, cotton pickers, and other machinery.  As a result it become more profitable to farm on a large scale, which made small-time farming less competitive.  One figure that reflects changes in agriculture is that the number of mules used by Southern farmers fell by 350,000 during the decade following the war.  Not coincidentally, the number of tractors skyrocketed during the same period. 

Cobb explores various arguments since the 1960s about how Americanized the South was or is becoming.  He finds the assertion that the South was losing its character questionable.  Rather, the rise of conservative values across the nation might seem to suggest that the rest of the nation was becoming more Southern.  (The popularity of Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace outside the South in the early 1970s supports this notion).  Cobb prefers to see the rise of such values as proof that the South and the rest of the nation had much in common to begin with.

Cobb is a good writer.  Clearly linked to, but not duplicative of, his Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford, 2005), The South and America since World War II is informative, provocative, and readable.  


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