The Roots of Modern Southern Leftism, Pt. 1: The Novelists

Part Two continues here.

Modern Southern Leftism – it’s like a redundant oxymoron. I maintain that the Southern worldview is inherently Rightist, because it is a manifestation of a set of traditional principles which were passed to us from our primitive forefathers. Our worldview still exists, although in a weakened state – why? Because the tendrils of Leftism, spread  primarily through our sometime friends at the North and weakness within ourselves, have penetrated our people and are busily about their work of destruction. Here I will attempt to trace some of the mechanisms by which this disease was introduced in the hopes that it will give us some insight on how to go about weeding it out.

Leftism was present in the South from the start of our autonomy – of this there cannot be doubt. Thomas Jefferson was the standard-bearer of egalitarian sentiment in the early United States, and his philosophy found many friends among Southern planters and yeomen. Once tensions escalated between the dual visions of the North and South, however, the Southern aristocracy began to see the error of those ways and the South actually became more hierarchical and traditionalist as the 19th century progressed. Leftism was almost strangled in the South for good – until 1865. The War resulted in one of the most catastrophic losses of property for a people in the history of the West, causing the bulwark which the antebellum South had erected against progressivism, the traditionalist aristocracy, to lose their foundation of legitimacy.

The ground in which modern Leftism in the South grew – I identify it as “modern” to differentiate it from the Jeffersonian strain – was fertilized by postbellum Southern apologists who sought to rehabilitate the Southern image in the eyes of the North. While political and military leaders mostly either refused to be Reconstructed or retired from public life after the war, authors such as John Esten Cooke and Thomas Nelson Page sought to simultaneously glorify the Old Order while paving the way for rehabilitation between the sections. One motivation was money; the ruined South certainly had little money to spend on works of fiction. Accompanying that was the feeling that the former way of life needed to be memorialized for future generations, as well as a sincere desire to see the country reunited. In the introduction to one novel, Page wrote that he had “never written a line which he did not hope might bring about better understanding between the North and South, and finally lead to a more perfect Union.”

These writers primarily used two devices to achieve this – frequent depictions of romantic love between Southerners and Northerners and a relatively sympathetic portrayal of the Northern cause (simultaneously never deprecating the Southern). In describing the battle at Port Republic, Cooke wrote:

Three times the Federal artillery was thus lost and won, in spite of the most desperate fighting. All honor to courage wherever it displays itself, under the blue coat or under the gray; and the Federal forces fought that day with a gallantry that was superb. They died where they stood, like brave men and true soldiers – an enemy records that and salutes them.

On the subject of racial equality, the Southern opinion remained unanimously against. However, here also began rumblings in favor of the view that the Negro deserved some measure of justice for “wrongs,” most aptly represented by George Washington Cable. Descended from Germans on one side and New Englanders on the other, he was raised in multicultural New Orleans and apparently endowed with a Puritan conscience. In Old Creole Days, he chose the quadroons, a class of women possessing around one quarter Negro blood and often very white-looking (allegedly, some were even blonde haired), to illustrate his views of the injustices of the racial caste system:

“Why did they make that law?” he replies. “Well, they made it to keep the two races separate.”

Madame Delphine startled the speaker with a loud, harsh, angry laugh. Fire came into her eyes, and her lips curled with scorn. “Then they made a lie, Père Jerome! Separate! No-o-o! They do not want to keep us separated; no, no! But they do want to keep us despised.”

She laid her hand on her heart, and frowned upward with physical pain. “But very well! from which race do they want to keep my daughter separate? She is seven parts white. The law did not stop her from being that; and now, when she wants to be a white man’s good and honest wife, shall the law stop her? Oh, no.”

She rose up, “No; I will tell you what that law is made for. It is made to-punish-my-child-for-not-choosing-her-father! Père Jerome – my God, what a law.”

Here we see the universal Leftist trope – disregard the teleological foundation of a given law or custom because sometimes the results are less-than-optimal, then characterize the law as immoral or driven by a hateful mindset. Now, Cable was still an incorrigible racist by today’s standards: “Social equality is a fool’s dream,” he remarked in The Silent South. He “merely” advocated the granting of certain civil rights while maintaining the framework of segregation; which, as we know, is enough to get the ball rolling down the long decline of Leftism.

Of course, fiction writers are nearly always over-possessed of romanticism, and want to see a happy ending of reconciliation between sometime belligerents. Why did apologists and critics like Cooke, Page, and Cable enjoy such influence? Because the literary world had become unmoored from the more pragmatic aristocracy, their unrealistic ideas of fairness and peace became boundless. Fairness and good feelings are all very well and good in the abstract, but they are hardly useful ideals when the fate of entire peoples hang in the balance. Unhappily for the long-term interests of the South, these conciliatory ideas enjoyed much popularity throughout the postbellum United States.

These authors have one unifying ideal – that of “progress,” of the need to “catch up” to the modern world by removing certain pillars of the traditional South. They operated under the illusion that the South could be only slightly Americanized, and would maintain its regional character and worldview indefinitely. None of them would have agreed with or supported the ultimate manifestations of their ideas, the destruction of the Southern way of life, which we are living out today. They quite innocently sought compromise with the prevailing currents of the time – and hence created the hairline cracks through which Leftism inevitably ruptures society.

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6 thoughts on “The Roots of Modern Southern Leftism, Pt. 1: The Novelists

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/02/20) | The Reactivity Place

  2. Allen Tate’s “Three Types of Poetry” discusses Southern Romanticism as a subset of Romanticism in general. I frankly agree in his diagnosis that Southern Romanticism is a psychological response to the hubris of self-will against nature and the will of God. The Southern Romantic is angry because reality does not conform to his will, but lacks the arrogance and overconfidence to become a scientific positivist (ie. only the physical world exists, nothing exists which cannot be perceived by the senses). Because he lacks this arrogance, he resorts to a Romantic fantasy of a “perfect society” where everything conforms to his pleasure, and anything he dislikes is excluded from reality.

    This author is a perfect case – because he dislikes certain race laws, they are illegitimate. He doesn’t have any rational grounds to oppose them, it is pure sentiment (and overwrought literary sentimentality) which forms the basis of his argument.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Roots of Modern Southern Leftism, Pt. 2: The New South | Losing The Creek

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