Last month, I wrote that Southern manners have taken the edge off class conflict in the South. Let’s explore that proposition a bit more.
Fifty years ago, a North Carolina journalist named W.J. Cash published what quickly became a classic treatment of Southern history and culture, The Mind of the South. In that book. Cash did not deny that there are class distinctions in the South. Indeed, he emphasized them, as an aspiring 1930’s intellectual should. But he insisted that there had been an “almost complete disappearance of economic and social focus on the part of the masses.”
That’s typically Cashian overstatement, but can we agree that there hasn’t been anywhere near as much class consciousness in the South as you might expect?
Cash argued that the “essential kernel” of “the famous Southern manner” was simply the “kindliness and easiness” of Southern backcountry life, and he observed that the Southern etiquette of class has softened the distinction between rich and poor, just as the old etiquette of race continually emphasized the gulf of caste. The manners governing relations between the classes, he wrote, have served as “a balance wheel in the Southern social world and . . . a barrier against the development of bitterness”—or, you could as easily say, against the development of class consciousness.
In the Old South, Cash maintained, the yeoman seldom encountered “naked hauteur.” The gentleman “patronize [d] him in such fashion that . . . he seemed not to be patronized at all but actually deferred to.” The Civil War, in Cash’s view, meant only that “the captains knew [even] better how to handle the commoner, to steer expertly about his recalcitrance, to manipulate him without ever arousing his jealous independence.” And the rise of industry meant merely that “the old personal easy relations” of the countryside were brought indoors:
The [textile] baron knew these workmen familiarly as Bill and Sam and George and Dick, or as Lil and Sal and Jane and Lucy. More, he knew their pedigrees and their histories. More still, with that innocent love of personal detail native to Southerners, he kept himself posted as to their lives as they were lived under his wing; knew their little adventures and scandals and hopes and loves and griefs and joys.
This particular description goes on, and on, and it’s easy to make fun of it, but surely we can allow Cash some license in describing the human face of paternalism, since he was unsparing in his treatment of its defects. In any case, this is not just a flight of romanticism, grotesquely applied to the textile mill. Cash was onto something important.
I won’t soon forget what a Mississippi buddy said one time, when he stopped off to see us on his way home from a sociological convention in the Northeast. Over bourbon he said that he’d noticed something interesting about how some sociologists dealt with the staff of the convention hotel. “Damn Marxists,” he said, “go on and on about the workers—and they treat the help like dirt.”
Partly, of course, this is just the ordinary arrogance of Yankee intellectuals who, deep down, really don’t buy into all that dignity of labor stuff. One day at lunch I was talking educational policy with one of the breed, who clinched his argument by saying, “If kids don’t get a good education, they’ll wind up like him“—nodding scornfully in the direction of a cafeteria worker.
I didn’t know what to say. We both saw this man almost every day. He did his undemanding job cheerfully and well, and he was making an honest living, which is more than can be said for some tenured professors. It had never occurred to me that he was a bad example, but obviously my colleague despised the man for his insignificance.
But even if he hadn’t, his manners might have suggested that he did. From a Southern point of view, many Yankees, Marxist or otherwise, treat everyone like dirt. And if you’re working for one, those manners rub your face in the fact of your subordination.
Not long ago, my hometown was buzzing with the story of the Yankee newcomer who took a work crew to task for some fault with their work. The workers simply packed up their tools and left him sputtering in midcriticism. “Sonofabitch wants to boss you around like he owns you” was thought to be sufficient explanation.
That’s a significant phrase, isn’t it? “Like he owns you.” As legatees of a slave society—whether our ancestors were on the top, bottom, or side—Southerners may have a special understanding of the importance of independence, dignity, and pride. It makes sense that the fictive equality among white men should have been embodied in manners that didn’t bring into question the other’s worth or self-respect.
Those manners seem to be outlasting the conditions that gave rise to them—indeed, they’re usually extended now to Southern blacks, most of whom seem willing to return the favor—but they are threatened, and not just by northern newcomers. In fact, they were already threatened in 1940, as Cash recognized. He was deadly on the imported “Yankee cult of the Great Executive,” which appealed to “the vanity especially of the young men who had been educated in the Northern business schools.” Well, we have our own business schools now.
But there are still Southern enterprises run on the old principles, and those principles still shape the expectations of many Southern workers. A while back I took a class on a field trip to one of the few remaining family-owned textile mills in North Carolina. The trip had been arranged far in advance, but we arrived to find the place virtually shut down. The entire managerial staff and all but a skeleton crew of workers had gone to the funeral of a retired weave-room worker. Don’t look for that mill to be unionized any time soon.
A stone’s throw away, in Winston-Salem, we recently witnessed an instructive cultural conflict, when Reynolds Tobacco merged with Nabisco and acquired a new management team. Barbarians at the Gate, the best-seller about the RJR Nabisco leveraged buyout, tells the story of Ross Johnson, the new Canadian CEO. Compared to the junk-bond sharks who eventually stripped him of his company and his job, Johnson comes off as a rather amiable buccaneer, just a guy out of the Nabisco sales division who liked to fly around the country in private jets and hang out with professional athletes, but his Great Executive style was a striking change for RJR.
Mr. R.J. Reynolds and his heirs hadn’t exactly led lives of asceticism and self-denial, but they had been managers of the old-fashioned Southern variety. It was understood, for instance, that Reynolds executives drove nothing bigger than a Buick. When David Rockefeller came to Winston-Salem for a speech and asked for a limousine, there was none to be found in the entire city. In the 1950’s, one worker recalled, “I remember some mornings pulling up beside Mr. Whitaker [the president] in his little brown Studebaker. He’d give me a wave and I’d give him a wave back. We were going in to work together. We were all after the same thing.”
Well, Ross Johnson came to work by helicopter. Do you wonder why Winston-Salem never took to him?
Folks were especially cruel to Johnson’s trophy wife Laurie, a California girl widely known as “Cupcake.” (After she and her husband were given honorary degrees by a needy Florida college, she was known as “Dr. Cupcake.”) When Johnson got even by moving his corporate headquarters to Atlanta, observing as he left that Winston-Salem was too “bucolic,” bumpers blossomed with stickers saying “Proud to be Bucolic.”
Sure, there is deference in the South to men of high standing, but it can’t be taken for granted, and it depends on a measure of self-deprecation. Cash got that exactly right. Southerners usually treat each other as equals, whatever our private opinions.
That is, unless we want to insult someone. Like Ross Johnson. But that’s another story.
Leave a Reply