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FW: Bertrand on Cobb, _Redefining Southern Culture_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington
    Message 1 of 3 , Oct 25, 2000
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      fyi...aj wright // ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...] On
      Behalf Of H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington
      Sent: Wednesday, October 25, 2000 7:00 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: Bertrand on Cobb, _Redefining Southern Culture_


      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-South@... (October, 2000)

      James C. Cobb. _Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the
      Modern South_. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999. x + 251 pp.
      Notes. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8203-2111-7; $17.95 (paper), ISBN
      0-8203-2139-7.

      Reviewed for H-South by Michael T. Bertrand, mbertran@...,
      Departments of History and Southern Studies, The University of Mississippi

      The Search for (a Modern) Southern Identity

      For most of the twentieth century, scholars preoccupied with the South have
      been determined to sound the region's death knell. Yet whether the
      presumed passing has been linked to the introduction of new curatives
      (mechanical cotton pickers, electricity, bulldozers, air conditioning,
      skyscrapers, cable television and the Internet) or to the eradication of
      old infections (pellagra, hookworm, sharecropping, demagogues, and Jim Crow
      segregation), southern culture has stubbornly resisted the embalmer's fluid
      grasp. The numerous and various reports of the region's demise, to
      paraphrase Mark Twain, have obviously been greatly exaggerated.

      In his own ironic epitaph for Dixie, _Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and
      Identity in the Modern South_, James C. Cobb explains why the culture of
      the lower right corner of the United States continues to defy
      extinction. His approach is one that places the South and southern culture
      in a global context. Instead of searching for that which makes the region
      atypical, he is intent on highlighting the characteristics and conditions
      that it has shared with other subcultural terrains. By exploring the South
      in this manner (and he suggests that "southernology" for its own sake will
      eventually become unjustifiable), the longtime southern historian seeks to
      understand how traditional cultures respond to the forces of
      modernization. Emphasizing that the former Confederacy's experiences
      represent the universal rather than the unique, he concludes that the
      American South has endured by constantly modifying or adjusting older
      habits and routines to novel demands and realities.

      It is this larger perspective that unites the eight essays found in this
      work. Cobb, who currently serves as the Spalding Distinguished Professor
      of History and department chair at the University of Georgia, has long been
      recognized as a notable scholar of southern economics, politics, and
      society. Although most of the articles collected here have already seen
      the light of day (six have appeared in such venues as the _Journal of
      Southern History_, the _Journal of Popular Culture_, _Georgia Review_,
      _Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South_, and
      _The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of
      Regional Identity_, with the oldest of the pieces dating back to 1982),
      they are organized and presented in a thematic fashion that amplify their
      continued relevance.

      Like the most acclaimed southern chroniclers, Cobb demonstrates a rare
      intuitiveness concerning his native region that subtly informs his
      scholarship; unlike many of the others, however, he shows an appreciation
      for popular culture that makes his range of topics that much more
      impressive. He is able to jump from economic formation to musical
      evolution and the flowering of literary introspection with nary a
      pause. His grasp of regional historiography is impeccable. Leading off
      the anthology is "Beyond Planters and Industrialists: A New Perspective on
      the New South," an analysis that establishes the book's cosmopolitan tone.

      Rather than heed conventional interpretations that blame particular
      individuals or groups for the region's slow industrial growth and descent
      into poverty, he argues that larger impersonal economic and social forces
      arrested southern development. The essays that follow likewise embrace a
      revisionist disposition and should interest the lay person as well as the
      professional historian. Particularly noteworthy are assessments of Wilbur
      J. Cash's _Mind of the South_, the Southern Renaissance, and late twentieth
      century affluent yet estranged individuals seeking a shared community by
      embracing commercialized fabrications of their ancestors' history.

      Among the many insights Cobb brings to his reexamination of regional life
      are three that deserve special attention. First, he argues that industrial
      development and modernization do not necessarily have to comply with the
      models established by Great Britain and later emulated by the northern
      section of the United States to be verifiable. The South's progression in
      fact diverged from the archetype, largely because lack of capital and a
      surplus of low-wage laborers compelled entrepreneurs and investors to take
      the most economically efficient and profitable paths possible.

      This meant building mills and factories to suit rather than to
      revolutionize a historically agricultural and rural region. There was
      little need to invest in labor-saving and culture-altering technology or to
      import immigrant workers who would have brought about demographic
      diversity. The result? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century
      southern culture ultimately retained its traditional agrarian and
      provincial character even as it adapted to new and alien economic
      systems. As Cobb contends, this may not have exemplified the presumably
      liberal transformative process generally associated with modernization, but
      the South's conservative response represented change nonetheless. In other
      words, the southern experience was not aberrant or abnormal, just different.

      Second, the author provides further food for thought when he emphasizes
      that historians hoping to fathom the modern South should redirect their
      attention from the routinely acclaimed Civil War- Reconstruction and
      Populist eras to the less chronicled yet just as decisive ten years leading
      up to and through World War II. Cobb points out that between 1935 and 1945
      the region may have indeed undergone its greatest makeover. The impact of
      the New Deal and war mobilization on southern agriculture, migration
      patterns, urban growth, race relations, and working women was tremendous
      and would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. He makes a strong
      case that this decade symbolized _the_ crucial period in the region's
      history.

      A third major contribution lies in placing the southern propensity for
      mythmaking into a larger historical context. Through interpretative lenses
      provided by Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawn, Cobb demonstrates that the
      "invention" of tradition and national identity was not unique to the
      South; he lists a number of strife-torn nations that have undertaken
      comparable retroactive rituals. Similarly, inventing the "Old South"
      allowed proponents of the "New South" to legitimize their vision of a
      progressive and harmonious future by linking it to what many wanted to
      perceive as a glorious and extraordinary past. Hoping to ensure a stable
      social, economic, political, and racial climate in the midst of a rapidly
      changing present, white southerners from all walks of life propagated and
      accepted a mythical version of the region's history. It was a distortion
      that set the stage for the numerous conflicts between fact and fiction
      (including, but not exclusive to the black freedom struggles) that rocked
      the twentieth century.

      Cobb tackles other issues -- such as the recent trend of African Americans
      making their claims to a southern identity and heritage customarily assumed
      to be lily white, the debates over the Confederate battle flag, the
      relationship of blues to racial and class alienation, and the expanding
      popularity of country music - - with competence and sensitivity. The book
      as a whole, however, does have its flaws, least of which is the lack of an
      index. Many of the essays, because they tread similar ground, are often
      repetitive. Also, particularly for the articles on music, there is an
      impressionistic quality that implies an antiquarian devotion to favored
      recordings and artists embellished by a ephemeral plunge into secondary
      sources.

      Nevertheless, _Redefining Southern Culture_ will stand the test of time
      because it painstakingly puts to rest the longstanding and superfluous
      historiographical debates emphasizing either regional continuity or
      regional discontinuity. Influenced by both Wilbur J. Cash _and_ C. Vann
      Woodward, Cobb demonstrates convincingly that southern society has
      experienced a great deal of change while a constantly adapting southern
      culture has remained essentially intact. Combined with an effective and
      often witty writing style and use of language, Cobb's ability to advance
      his analysis beyond a seemingly permanent intellectual quagmire contributes
      greatly to our understanding of the modern South.

      Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied
      for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and
      the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@....
    • bunn002
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      Message 2 of 3 , Nov 2, 2000
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        >===== Original Message From alabamahistory@egroups.com =====
        >fyi...aj wright // ajwright@...
        >
        >-----Original Message-----
        >From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...] On
        >Behalf Of H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington
        >Sent: Wednesday, October 25, 2000 7:00 AM
        >To: H-SOUTH@...
        >Subject: Bertrand on Cobb, _Redefining Southern Culture_
        >
        >
        >H-NET BOOK REVIEW
        >Published by H-South@... (October, 2000)
        >
        >James C. Cobb. _Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the
        >Modern South_. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999. x + 251 pp.
        >Notes. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8203-2111-7; $17.95 (paper), ISBN
        >0-8203-2139-7.
        >
        >Reviewed for H-South by Michael T. Bertrand, mbertran@...,
        >Departments of History and Southern Studies, The University of Mississippi
        >
        >The Search for (a Modern) Southern Identity
        >
        >For most of the twentieth century, scholars preoccupied with the South have
        >been determined to sound the region's death knell. Yet whether the
        >presumed passing has been linked to the introduction of new curatives
        >(mechanical cotton pickers, electricity, bulldozers, air conditioning,
        >skyscrapers, cable television and the Internet) or to the eradication of
        >old infections (pellagra, hookworm, sharecropping, demagogues, and Jim Crow
        >segregation), southern culture has stubbornly resisted the embalmer's fluid
        >grasp. The numerous and various reports of the region's demise, to
        >paraphrase Mark Twain, have obviously been greatly exaggerated.
        >
        >In his own ironic epitaph for Dixie, _Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and
        >Identity in the Modern South_, James C. Cobb explains why the culture of
        >the lower right corner of the United States continues to defy
        >extinction. His approach is one that places the South and southern culture
        >in a global context. Instead of searching for that which makes the region
        >atypical, he is intent on highlighting the characteristics and conditions
        >that it has shared with other subcultural terrains. By exploring the South
        >in this manner (and he suggests that "southernology" for its own sake will
        >eventually become unjustifiable), the longtime southern historian seeks to
        >understand how traditional cultures respond to the forces of
        >modernization. Emphasizing that the former Confederacy's experiences
        >represent the universal rather than the unique, he concludes that the
        >American South has endured by constantly modifying or adjusting older
        >habits and routines to novel demands and realities.
        >
        >It is this larger perspective that unites the eight essays found in this
        >work. Cobb, who currently serves as the Spalding Distinguished Professor
        >of History and department chair at the University of Georgia, has long been
        >recognized as a notable scholar of southern economics, politics, and
        >society. Although most of the articles collected here have already seen
        >the light of day (six have appeared in such venues as the _Journal of
        >Southern History_, the _Journal of Popular Culture_, _Georgia Review_,
        >_Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South_, and
        >_The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of
        >Regional Identity_, with the oldest of the pieces dating back to 1982),
        >they are organized and presented in a thematic fashion that amplify their
        >continued relevance.
        >
        >Like the most acclaimed southern chroniclers, Cobb demonstrates a rare
        >intuitiveness concerning his native region that subtly informs his
        >scholarship; unlike many of the others, however, he shows an appreciation
        >for popular culture that makes his range of topics that much more
        >impressive. He is able to jump from economic formation to musical
        >evolution and the flowering of literary introspection with nary a
        >pause. His grasp of regional historiography is impeccable. Leading off
        >the anthology is "Beyond Planters and Industrialists: A New Perspective on
        >the New South," an analysis that establishes the book's cosmopolitan tone.
        >
        >Rather than heed conventional interpretations that blame particular
        >individuals or groups for the region's slow industrial growth and descent
        >into poverty, he argues that larger impersonal economic and social forces
        >arrested southern development. The essays that follow likewise embrace a
        >revisionist disposition and should interest the lay person as well as the
        >professional historian. Particularly noteworthy are assessments of Wilbur
        >J. Cash's _Mind of the South_, the Southern Renaissance, and late twentieth
        >century affluent yet estranged individuals seeking a shared community by
        >embracing commercialized fabrications of their ancestors' history.
        >
        >Among the many insights Cobb brings to his reexamination of regional life
        >are three that deserve special attention. First, he argues that industrial
        >development and modernization do not necessarily have to comply with the
        >models established by Great Britain and later emulated by the northern
        >section of the United States to be verifiable. The South's progression in
        >fact diverged from the archetype, largely because lack of capital and a
        >surplus of low-wage laborers compelled entrepreneurs and investors to take
        >the most economically efficient and profitable paths possible.
        >
        >This meant building mills and factories to suit rather than to
        >revolutionize a historically agricultural and rural region. There was
        >little need to invest in labor-saving and culture-altering technology or to
        >import immigrant workers who would have brought about demographic
        >diversity. The result? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century
        >southern culture ultimately retained its traditional agrarian and
        >provincial character even as it adapted to new and alien economic
        >systems. As Cobb contends, this may not have exemplified the presumably
        >liberal transformative process generally associated with modernization, but
        >the South's conservative response represented change nonetheless. In other
        >words, the southern experience was not aberrant or abnormal, just different.
        >
        >Second, the author provides further food for thought when he emphasizes
        >that historians hoping to fathom the modern South should redirect their
        >attention from the routinely acclaimed Civil War- Reconstruction and
        >Populist eras to the less chronicled yet just as decisive ten years leading
        >up to and through World War II. Cobb points out that between 1935 and 1945
        >the region may have indeed undergone its greatest makeover. The impact of
        >the New Deal and war mobilization on southern agriculture, migration
        >patterns, urban growth, race relations, and working women was tremendous
        >and would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. He makes a strong
        >case that this decade symbolized _the_ crucial period in the region's
        >history.
        >
        >A third major contribution lies in placing the southern propensity for
        >mythmaking into a larger historical context. Through interpretative lenses
        >provided by Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawn, Cobb demonstrates that the
        >"invention" of tradition and national identity was not unique to the
        >South; he lists a number of strife-torn nations that have undertaken
        >comparable retroactive rituals. Similarly, inventing the "Old South"
        >allowed proponents of the "New South" to legitimize their vision of a
        >progressive and harmonious future by linking it to what many wanted to
        >perceive as a glorious and extraordinary past. Hoping to ensure a stable
        >social, economic, political, and racial climate in the midst of a rapidly
        >changing present, white southerners from all walks of life propagated and
        >accepted a mythical version of the region's history. It was a distortion
        >that set the stage for the numerous conflicts between fact and fiction
        >(including, but not exclusive to the black freedom struggles) that rocked
        >the twentieth century.
        >
        >Cobb tackles other issues -- such as the recent trend of African Americans
        >making their claims to a southern identity and heritage customarily assumed
        >to be lily white, the debates over the Confederate battle flag, the
        >relationship of blues to racial and class alienation, and the expanding
        >popularity of country music - - with competence and sensitivity. The book
        >as a whole, however, does have its flaws, least of which is the lack of an
        >index. Many of the essays, because they tread similar ground, are often
        >repetitive. Also, particularly for the articles on music, there is an
        >impressionistic quality that implies an antiquarian devotion to favored
        >recordings and artists embellished by a ephemeral plunge into secondary
        >sources.
        >
        >Nevertheless, _Redefining Southern Culture_ will stand the test of time
        >because it painstakingly puts to rest the longstanding and superfluous
        >historiographical debates emphasizing either regional continuity or
        >regional discontinuity. Influenced by both Wilbur J. Cash _and_ C. Vann
        >Woodward, Cobb demonstrates convincingly that southern society has
        >experienced a great deal of change while a constantly adapting southern
        >culture has remained essentially intact. Combined with an effective and
        >often witty writing style and use of language, Cobb's ability to advance
        >his analysis beyond a seemingly permanent intellectual quagmire contributes
        >greatly to our understanding of the modern South.
        >
        >Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied
        >for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and
        >the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@....
        >
        >
        >Archives for the list can be viewed at
        >http://www.egroups.com/archive/alabamahistory
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