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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 912

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This is the grave of W.J. Cash.

Born in Gaffney, South Carolina in 1900, Wilber J. Cash grew up in the mill ownership class of these small upcountry towns. His father ran the company store in the town. He lived there until he was 12, when his father moved to North Carolina to enter a business partnership. Cash then went to what became Wofford College and then Wake Forest University. He wasn’t the Baptist his father was. He hated the future Wofford. And when his father demanded he go to Wake Forest, he really didn’t want to go listen to a bunch of fire and brimstone again.

Cash hated studying the law. So he dropped out. He taught for a couple of years at local schools but didn’t find that particularly satisfying. He wanted to write. So he decided to become a journalist. This meant leaving the South for the first time, which was a critical moment in Cash’s life. He moved to Chicago for a bit. Though he didn’t stay all that long, it gave him new perspective about his region. It’s also worth noting here that Cash’s family were largely Republicans. This wasn’t all that uncommon for upcountry families. It also meant that he was less engaged in Old South myths and the racist violence that were at their core. When he moved back to North Carolina to work on newspapers there, the second KKK was at its peak. Cash routinely excoriated it in print.

Cash also started writing more nationally. H.L. Mencken really liked the work of this young man and routinely printed him in The American Mercury. That ended after Lawrence Spivak took over from Mencken, but had still provided him a name. He got paid a bit by being a freelance book reviewer for The Charlotte News, which evidently was enough money to keep him going. What this did as well is sharpen his mind in opposition to fascism and authoritarianism generally. By now, we are in the mid-30s. Fascism was on the rise. Cash would routinely read the latest books on what was happening in Germany and Italy and write about what a threat it was to America and to basic human values. So this is an uncommon southern man. In 1937, he became the associate editor of The Charlotte News and spent the next four years writing editorials on the evils of fascism and pushing relatively progressive causes, certainly in the context of the Carolinas.

Beginning in 1929, Cash put his complex thoughts on the South into a book manuscript. He worked on what became The Mind of the South for eight years before it was mostly finished in 1937, though it was not published until 1941. This is one of the most important works on the region ever written, up to the present. That’s because it was a serious look at the pathologies of racism in the region right in the middle of the Jim Crow period. The book started with an article he had written for Mencken with the same title and he just built on it for a decade. Knopf had wanted to publish it almost immediately, but Cash refused to let it go, continuing to rework it. The final paragraph basically sums it up:

Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible, in its action — such was the South at its best. And such at its best it remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism — these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today.

Cash did have some blind spots. Like most southerners of the period, he downplayed the role of slavery in the region’s history and he was not ready to reject the Dunning School version of Reconstruction He also didn’t really understand the South. What he understood was the Appalachian upcountry. He didn’t really know, say, Louisiana at all. These are big blind spots. But for 1941, talking about southern pathologies was not something one did, not if you were a good respected southerner. So this was a big deal. The book has never been out of print, 80 years later. It became hugely influential during the 1950s and 1960s, as Americans of all races and regions tried to understand the violent resistance to civil rights in the South. In fact, it went into paperback in 1954, the same year of Brown v. Board of Education. It became required reading for many and the jumping off point for southern studies for a generation. Interestingly, the book received very little negative feedback. It was widely reviewed and positively reviewed, including in the South. The Southern Agrarians didn’t like it, but those guys were a bunch of reactionaries anyway.

The book sold great. So Cash won a Guggenheim Fellowship and headed to Mexico to write a novel. But he was also struggling with mental illness, which had long been a problem for him. This was part of the reason he took so long to write the book. He spent two years in the early thirties unable to write at all. By the beginning of summer 1941, he was determined that Nazi assassins in Mexico City were following him. Scared and depressed, he killed himself during a psychotic episode on July 1. He was 41 years old. Sad stuff.

In 1969, C. Vann Woodward wrote a lengthy essay in the New York Review of Books about The Mind of the South. You can read the first chunk of it before you hit the paywall but anyone with any kind of library account, including public libraries, should be able to access the entire thing through databases. It’s well worth reading.

W.J. Cash is buried in Sunset Cemetery, Shelby, North Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit other great writers about the South, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Zora Neale Hurston is in Fort Pierce, Florida and William Faulkner is in Oxford, Mississippi. Unfortunately, I have no information on where Woodward is buried; perhaps his ashes were scattered. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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