Old South meets New South
The story, whether spoken or written, depends on tension within the narrative in order to captivate the reader’s attention. This tension can exist between characters or setting or any number of things, but it must exist if the story is to be considered such. One of the primary characteristics of Southern literature is the tension between ideologies concerning race, sex, or economics. In Southern literature before the turn of the Twentieth-Century, these differences were epitomized by the tension between the North and the South, an indicator of the continuing struggles after the Civil War and Reconstruction. As the Twentieth-Century progressed, however, there was shift in the Southern paradigm. No longer was the ideology drawn between two differing geographical locations and their respective peoples (for the most part), but rather through an internal struggle of cultural awareness and social progress in terms of race, sex, and economics. Literature followed suit. The tension was no longer centered on faded ideas such as Southern romance, the Southern Belle, the plantation as a paradise lost, or the valor of the generals of the Civil War. Rather, there was a turn toward a greater realism, and an acceptance of a harsher truth. The newer generations to come from the South were becoming increasingly aware that Women were not dainty flowers; African Americans were not children needing the guidance of the white, male elitists; and the agrarian economic mode was no longer sufficient to keep pace with the increasingly industrialized greater United States. Race, sex, and economics would remain a primary interest, and these conflicts would come to date the literature giving it the characteristics that could qualify the writing as Southern literature; but in modern Southern literature, these characteristics do not stand alone; rather, they come to support a more universal theme of power shifting from one generation to the next. This is the inevitable passing of the baton, and by using the concepts of race, sex, and economics writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor identify the passing of power and the issues that give life to the transition, In this, the tension falls between generations, as some cling to older ideologies under the guise of traditional values while others looked to growing social trends that would come to define the country in the new century. This conflict is often referred to as the Old South versus New South, and this tension would take a center role in the literature of the South throughout the Twentieth Century and arguably into the Twenty-First. In this essay I will further explain this tension using Faulkner’s short story “Dry September” and O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger”. These stories focus on the promise of progress but leave the reader with a sense that progress is slow and that the blind path forward isn’t without confusion and fear.
The conflict of Old South vs. New South is a story of eventual progress. My choice of the word eventual is quite deliberate, in that this progress would be slow and perhaps yet to be fully actualized. Often the path of progress is a number of steps forward followed by a number of steps backward, marked in time by the transitions of power between generations. These generations are made up of individuals, each with their own issues, collectively playing into a greater social understanding. In 1931, Faulkner published a short story called “Dry September” which would demonstrate the reality of this eventual progress, as the slow, painful process that it is. The story covers the themes of race, gender, and economics under severe circumstances, bringing out the most extreme emotions in the characters at play. The themes of race and sex are interwoven with the theme of economic standing as the story describes the transition of power of one generation to the next focusing on two individuals, one transition being stunted and the other being violent and backward. The story begins with the rumor of a African American man attacking a white woman. The barber, Hawkshaw, tries to put the rumor to rest but the vigor of the youths prevails, misguided and violent as it is. Butch and McClendon (the youths), veterans of WWI, track down Will Mays (the accused African American) and attack him without any real proof of his crime. Hawk accompanies them to sway them from violence, but ends up participating. When recognized by Will Mayes, Hawk jumps out of the car thus washing his hands of the situation and potentially removing the only voice of reason from the mob. These sections; I and III of V, describe the race relations of the town and of the era, painting a decidedly bleak picture. The youths see Will Mayes as the Other, the enemy within, with the exception of Hawk, who becomes complicit when he abandons Will. In true Modernist style, Faulkner has described the stagnation of progress in the South, taking what should have been the most promising and virtuous of society and instilling in them a racism that takes the form of virtue in their own twisted minds. This is a corruption of the transition of power, and a telling sign of the times. The clash of Old South and New South can be seen in the interactions between Hawk and the youths. Hawk, argues that by knowing the two people involved that he can tell that Will Mayes was not guilty. This maintains the speculative tone of the work. The youths, on the other hand, still see the world through Old South eyes, invoking the North as an insult and placing too much stock in the color of one’s skin to the virtue of the person. They see the white man as the protector and the black man as the villain. The promise of progress lies in Hawk, who sadly abandons the cause after it becomes too intense. The youths represent the Old South paradigm, while Hawk represents New South paradigm.
The other transition of power between generations gone awry is that of Minnie Cooper. Though Minnie’s section only constitutes two fifths of the total story, without her this story becomes entirely about race. With her comes the theme of sex or gender, and this dualism hints at the altogether greater theme of the transition of power. Minnie is decidedly of the Old South mentality, and it appears that her inability to adjust to her New South reality drives her mad. From her world view, the ideal life would have been that of marriage, and when that doesn’t happen she becomes stagnant rather than seeking fulfillment. This stagnant life, along with the resentment of the future generation, drives Minnie into a state of delirium and finally upon hearing the news of what had happened to Will Mayes, she goes into a state of shock. In both the case of the youths and Minnie, the modern reader sees stagnation of progress, and this stagnation is the result of the conflict between New South and Old South.
O’Connor’s story, “The Artificial Nigger”, has a tension that is far less violent even as the theme remains roughly the same. This may be due to the fact that it is set further in the future than “Dry September” or because one of the characters is child rather than the hulking youth. The tension of this story is primarily between the grandfather and the boy as they venture into the city. Race and sex are strong themes in the story, as Nelson, the child, encounters both for the first time. Just as with Faulkner’s story, the themes of race and gender play an important role in dating the material and fixing it to a particular place, qualifying it as Southern literature; but as with “Dry September”, these themes are truly secondary to the universal theme of passing power from one generation to the next. The city comes to symbolize the New South reality, opposed to the Old South mentality of the rural region from which the old man and his grandson live.
Upon entering the city, Mr. Head and Nelson are confronted with the reality of the New South, an understanding that is divorced from their current paradigm. This concept relies on rural areas adapting more slowly to social progress than their urban counterparts due to greater isolation from mainstream ideology. Mr. Head and his grandson enter into the city and find that African American’s have not only progressed socially, but have begun to generate wealth that not is not only comparable to their own, but has long eclipsed it. Wealth then becomes an indicator of social worth. The African American characters, having greater knowledge of the city, come to represent the true bearers of an understanding, overshadowing the “wisdom” of Mr. Head – placing both Mr. Head and Nelson in the same position. It is the statue of the African American boy at the end which symbolizes the realization of this. Their paradigm is then altered, for whatever reason, but ultimately it is the city that awakens this shift from Old South mentality to New South understanding – every event that occurs between leaving the country to the point where the statue is seen is the process of this paradigm shift.