Book Review: Cracker Culture by Grady McWhiney

Bottom Line Up Front: Required reading for anyone interested in the origins and essence of Southern culture. Go here to buy.

Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South is an essential book for understanding the “mind of the South” which has flummoxed and eluded outsiders for centuries. Grady McWhiney, born in Louisiana and educated at Columbia, clearly and concisely presents the evidence for his oft-overlooked and underappreciated thesis – that Southern culture, at least that of the lower-class “Crackers,” is primarily an evolution of the ancient Celtic culture of early Southern settlers, who largely came from Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and Wales. Mr. McWhiney goes about his task systematically and categorically, presenting reams of evidence which, while mostly anecdotal, tend to press his points home by sheer force of weight.

For the unfamiliar, it should be noted at the start that there has never existed a singular “Southern culture.” Deep Appalachia, for example, shares few commonalities with the coastal South, and there exists thousands of variations in between, dictated by geographical, historical, and biological peculiarities. With some exceptions, the glue which binds these varieties together is their shared lineage, cultural and biological, with their Celtic forebears. This has also been among the most significant dividing lines between the Northern and Southern cultures. McWhiney uses various methods of analysis, but taken as a whole is seems the South was settled mostly by Scot-Irish and other Celts – among British settlers, the Celtic to English ratio in the South tends to range from 60%-80%, with the ratio more-or-less reversed for the early Northern states.

McWhiney introduces what will become a prevailing theme early – Northern and English abhorrence of Celtic ways. He writes:

The English, in general, found Celtic ways barbarous and disgusting; they spoke of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales as “frightful” places and of Celtic people as being “wicked,” “savage,” and “indolent drunkards.” ….

The New England Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up English as well as Yankee views on the subject when he explained that “what we think of when we talk of English traits really narrows itself to a small district. It excludes Ireland, and Scotland, and Wales…. As you go north into … Yorkshire, or you enter Scotland, there is a rapid loss of all grandeur of mien and manners; a provincial eagerness and acuteness appear; the poverty of the country makes itself remarked, and a coarseness of manners [prevails]…. In Ireland, are the same climate and soil as in England, but less food, no right relation to the land,… and an inferior or misplaced race.”

Celts, in turn, despised the English. They resented English self-glorification, English attempts to outlaw and to abolish Celtic culture and traditions, and English claims that they were responsible for what civilization existed in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Stop me when it starts sounding familiar.

While Yankees felt a special kinship towards England – Emerson said that the Yankee “is only the continuation of the English genius into new conditions, more or less propitious” – Southerners found little to admire. Mary Chesnut was typical when she wrote, “The British is the most conceited nation in the world, the most self-sufficient, self-satisfied, and arrogant.” This was no accident of history. In Mr. McWhiney’s words, the Celtic and English worldviews of the 17th and 18th centuries “were not just different – they were antagonistic.” It was inevitable that their animosity would be imported into the Americas.

The Celts brought with them to the Old South leisurely ways that fostered idleness and gaiety, a society in which people favored the spoken word over the written and enjoyed such sensual pleasures as drinking, smoking, fighting, gambling, fishing, hunting, and loafing. In Celtic Britain and in the antebellum South family ties were much stronger than in England and in the antebellum North; Celts and Southerners, whose values were more agrarian than those of Englishmen and Northerners, wasted more time and consumed more liquor and tobacco and were less concerned with the useful and the material. Englishmen and Northerners, who favored urban villages and nuclear families, were just the opposite; imbued with a work ethic and commercial values, they were neater, cleaner, read and wrote more, worked harder, and considered themselves more progressive and advanced than Celts and Southerners.

Mr. McWhiney does an admirable job of explaining that many of the so-called “negatives” of Celtic Southern culture, such as nomadic lifestyle, indolence, and substandard living conditions, were not byproducts of the slave society but simply imported from the Old World. Even if slavery did suppress white labor, it is not at all clear that these Crackers would have eschewed their leisure time for additional work. When one Yankee do-gooder told a Southern farmer that “a set of books on scientific agriculture” could teach him to “farm twice as good as you do,” the Southerner replied, “Hell, son, I don’t farm half as good as I know how now.” Celtic Southerners commonly worked for only the amount of time it would take to procure the necessities of life and a minimum amount of comfort, preferring to devote the rest of their time to hunting, visiting, drinking, and other leisure activities – little different from 18th century Scotland and Ireland.

Northerners were often perplexed by this perceived Southern laziness. Mr. McWhiney explains:

Like his Celtic ancestors, the Southerner cared little for what outsiders thought of him; he was pleased enough with where and how he lived. Though he was perhaps not as opulent as he might have liked, his condition represented a compromise between the comforts desired and his unwillingness to work especially hard to obtain them. His rural and pastoral traditions shaped his needs and wants in housing as it did in other things.

A far cry indeed from Yankee industry. This satisfied and fulfilled existence is an integral component to John Crowe Ransom’s concept of the “Established Society” – one that makes a steady and conservative peace with nature, rather than one in which the “pioneering spirit” takes a permanent hold. Yankee austerity and industry presented many material benefits, truly, but at the cost of a churning and constant transformation of their lifestyle until it becomes – as today – unrecognizable. Celtic “laziness,” while perhaps not conducive to luxurious civilization on a grand scale, results in a contented person who spends his days in the simple enjoyment of life, rather than an everlasting striving for more, more, more.

Another manifestation of Celtic simplicity was in the use – or lack thereof – of money and economics. Whereas the English and Yankees placed primary importance on monetary worth – one German questioned “the spiritual state of a country which… estimates a man’s value in terms of his income” – Southerners “disdained people who devoted their lives to the making of money.” As one Englishman put it, there was “no part of the world where great wealth confers so little rank, or is attended with so few advantages” as in the South. As a result, many ignorant and trusting Crackers were routinely exploited by Northern “dollar-chasers.” However, Mr. McWhiney cautions against believing that the Crackers were stupid, or simpletons. While they disdained reading and education, they were often very witty, demonstrated a “quickness of comprehension,” and were “well supplied with common sense.” Theirs was simply an intelligence adapted to their surroundings and mode of life – a funny quip was more conducive to their happiness than a library of scientific tomes.

I would not recommend Cracker Culture to a newcomer to Southern history or culture. Because Mr. McWhiney primarily uses contemporary accounts from Northerners and Englishmen to make his case, one can get the impression that the antebellum South was simply a great miserable mudpit in which wholly uncivilized barbarians drank, stabbed, shot, and lazed themselves to death. As I said, Mr. McWhiney is categorical and systematic; he is concerned with his subject alone and does not stray from it. While the case for his thesis is the better for it, this book simply must be supplemented with other studies in order to receive a holistic picture of what antebellum Southern life was like.

Mr. McWhiney discusses in detail Celtic vs. English, and Southern vs. Northern, work habits, drinking, clannishness, fighting spirit, hospitality, values, and morals, in each instance demonstrating the strong connections between the Old World and the New. He closes with an explicit statement on the innate and essential differences between the Northern and South civilizations, something we here at LTC like to harp on. By 1861, both Northerners and Southerners were ready to put their two great worldviews to the test of battle:

In 1860 George Fitzhugh announced that the division between Southerners and Northerners was more than a “sectional issue” – it was a clash between “conservatives and revolutionaries;… between those who believe in the past, in history, in human experience,… and those who … foolishly, rashly, and profanely attempt to ‘expel human nature,’ to bring about a millennium, and inaugurate a future wholly unlike anything that has preceded it.” That same year William H. Herndon proclaimed that “Civilization and barbarism are absolute antagonisms. One or the other must perish on this Continent…. There is no dodging the question. Let the natural struggle, heaven high and ‘hell’ deep, gon on…. I am thoroughly convinced that two such civilizations as the North and the South cannot coexist on the same soil…. to expect otherwise would be to expect the Absolute to sleep with and tolerate ‘hell.’”

The Celtic influence on the Southern mind persists today, even if many of its manifestations have been mitigated by our modern society. “The South” today is strongest in those small towns which have seen little outside immigration and thus have by-and-large protected their Celtic blood. Mr. McWhiney’s book does us a valuable service in tracing our cultural heritage back into the Old World.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Cracker Culture by Grady McWhiney

  1. The argument seems a bit overstated. Fischer finds about 40% of “backwoods” settlers (those who settled the Appalachians and Gulf Plain) came from the West Midlands and Northumberland, and of those who came from Ulster, an unknown number were previously banished from Northumbria to Ireland. The phrase “God’s own country,” which is common in Tennessee and the Gulf States, is drawn directly from North English culture and is the current county motto for Yorkshire County (England). Rather than Celtic, I think Fischer’s use of “Borderlander” is more appropriate, as Southern culture is informed by the way of life of those who lived along the conflicted boundaries between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon nations, partaking of both. Using Celtic creates confusion, as Highland Scot and Catholic Irish culture has little influence on the South, except through 19th Century romanticism. Southern kin culture, for example, is more similar to lowland Scots and North English (Both groups being non- or little-Normanized Anglo-Saxons) than the famous clans of Rob Roy.

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  3. Did the book take any pains to differentiate the Tidewater from the Deep South? I think the so called dislike of overly hard work and “shop keeping” could be more associated with Tidewater aristocrats than hillbillies.
    He seems to lump the English into one group. When those who settled east coast came from factions who were already warring back in England. Tidewater which was founded by the Cavaliers could hardly expected to be similar to Puritan and Pilgrim dominated New England.

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    • Hey Fogey. To your question, no, not much. The book has a “Plain Folk of the Old South” feel; IIRC he barely touches on Tidewater culture. His focus is more on the interior and hill regions where the Scot-Irish primarily settled. Of course, like anywhere in America, it’s difficult to make hard-and-fast distinctions as to ethnography, and McWhiney is duly restricted from too much nuance in his thesis.

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  5. I read cracker culture, and first of all, its more of a romantic reimagining of history that actual history, The Scots-Irish component of the South was always a minority, and even to call the Scots-Irish themselves “Celtic” is probably a stretch (20% of protestant settlers in Ireland were French Huegenots, after all). Even the Ulster settlers from Scotland came from the Anglicized lowlands, James I specifically chose them because they had no cultural connection to the Celtic Irish (An earlier idea to use Highlanders was dismissed because of the fear that the Gaelic speaking Highlanders would make common cause with the native Irish). McWhiney himself even gives himself an out, by including all of Western and Northern England in the zone that he considers “Celtic”. And in any case, the Scots Irish spread all over the U.S., not just the south, and fact the heart of Scots-Irish immigration was western Pennsylvania. So the entire thesis is suspect at the get-go. Ironically, the most “Celtic” of all the U.S. regions at the time of the Civil war was probably New England, by absorbing so many Irish immigrants.

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    • As a descendant of French Huegenots whose family line actually ended up in the deep south I really enjoyed reading this book. Great article!

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