Honoring the mind of W.J. Cash
His 1941 racial treatise puts him in the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.
By Pam Kelley, Reading Life Editor
Posted: Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010
In 1941, Charlotte’s W.J. Cash published “The Mind of the South,” a biting treatise on the culture of the South – its racial intolerance, class system, violence. A few months later in Mexico, he apparently committed suicide.
Today, with an output of that single memorable book, Cash joins four writers being inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.
So this seems a fine time to revisit the man who lived in Church Street’s Frederick apartments, wore a battered fedora and once referred to Charlotte as “a citadel of bigotry and obscurantism, in love with Presbyterianism, Babbittry and the Duke Power Company.”
“The Mind of the South” has never gone out of print. It still gets assigned in high school and college classrooms. [ Manuscript excerpts from Mind of South.] Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South even displays one of its quotes. Writing about Charlotte’s participation in an early 20th-century skyscraper boom, Cash says the Queen City “had little more use for them than a hog has for a morning coat.”
“There’s a sense of resonance when I read the book – a sense of yeah, he’s right, I still see that,” says Ed Southern, executive director of the N.C. Writers’ Network.
Says Levine Museum historian Tom Hanchett: “He’s one of the great people who got the psyche, particularly of white folks, in this part of the South.”
Still, historians over the years have questioned some of Cash’s analysis and criticized his depictions of blacks and women. That’s not surprising, Wake Forest University historian Paul Escott says. “He was critical of his region, but he didn’t free himself entirely of the way people were thinking in the 1920s and ’30s.”
Cash, born in Gaffney, S.C., moved to Boiling Springs as a boy. He graduated from Wake Forest College before becoming associate editor of the defunct Charlotte News in the late 1930s.
Cash’s work pushed later historians to reassess the reactionary and racist aspects of Southern culture, Escott says. “Many things he says are correct.”
Jack Claiborne, former associate editor of The Observer, says Cash often exaggerated for effect, much like H.L. Mencken, his editor at the American Mercury.
Yet the boosterism he attributed to Charlotte still exists, Claiborne says. “That’s a product of the fact that we were told we were insignificant, and we were trying to be significant.”
Needless to say, “you’ll not find the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce offering W.J. Cash as an important Charlottean,” Claiborne says.
Cleveland County, where Cash is buried, hasn’t been eager to enshrine him either. He never made it into the Cleveland County Historical Museum Hall of Fame, though another writer, Thomas Dixon, was a charter member. Dixon wrote racist romances, including “The Clansman,” which was made into “Birth of a Nation,” a groundbreaking silent movie that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.
In Southern Pines today, however, Cash receives a bigger award, joining literary giants such as Thomas Wolfe, Paul Green and O. Henry.
Escott is accepting the Hall of Fame award in Cash’s honor. In his remarks, he plans to quote Cash’s description of the South as a society full of “intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, (and) an exaggerated individualism and a too-narrow concept of social responsibility.”
Escott finds that quote full of significance. The South has changed. The racism and economic backwardness that stunted Cash’s society, he says, were transformed by the civil rights movement and New South prosperity.
But to what extent, he wonders, could Cash’s assessment of the South apply to our nation, as a whole, today?
Pam Kelley: email@example.com; 704-358-5271.