a red truck driving through a corn field

Review Essay: The Midwest Is Not the South

Works discussed: W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., A New History of the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2023); James C. Cobb, C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022); Jefferson Cowie, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power (New York: Basic Books, 2022); Imani Perry, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2022); Charles Reagan Wilson, The Southern Way of Life: Meanings of Culture & Civilization in the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2023).

In late 2022, Princeton University professor Imani Perry was awarded the National Book Award for her South to America, which explains her travels through the South while mixing in her commentary and notes on various historical episodes. She starts in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia then proceeds to Virginia then to Kentucky and ultimately winds her way through North Carolina, Maryland, Washington DC, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and, after a jaunt out to the Bahamas and Cuba, she ends in Houston, Texas. She describes the aristocratic pretensions of Virginia, the inequality underlying the Kentucky Derby where the old planter class gets “tore up” on mint julips, the Southern origins of dollar stores, and cracker and shotgun houses in Florida. She explains Black institutions such as Pearl High in Nashville and historically-Black colleges and prominent Black locations such as Beale Street in Memphis and the Ensley neighborhood of Birmingham and movement hubs such as the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Much of what she describes is deeply Southern: primitive Baptists in Huntsville, the chicken processing plants of Mississippi, the Parchman prison farm in Mississippi, the Atmore-Holman prison (“Alabama’s Attica”), the patriarchal, aristocratic, and martial culture of the South, and the persisting remnants of the slave trade everywhere in New Orleans. Perry’s ostensible goal is to demonstrate how her travels throughout the South takes the reader to America, as in her title South to America, and thus reveal the “soul of a nation.” With the extreme particularity of her descriptions, however, she proves the opposite, or how singular the South is, or at least how different it is from the American Midwest, as do the other books considered here. Her book is part of an ill-conceived effort to flatten out the historical landscape and obscure regional distinctions, an effort that includes a comment by a graduate student in history who once told me that “everyone knows that Minnesota is just a cold Mississippi.”[1]

At several points in Perry’s book, the regional distinctions stand out, even if Perry fails to highlight them. She notes how Louisville borders on the Midwest and thus it is a more moderate Southern city and she explains that FedEx was based in Memphis because the company is strategically, for a shipping company, located near the center of the country without having to contend with Midwestern winters. She notes that John Copeland, an African American man who was “literate and from Oberlin, Ohio,” joined John Brown (who was raised in Hudson, Ohio) on his raid on Harper’s Ferry, but does not explain Oberlin’s role as a bastion of abolitionism or Brown’s early Ohio years.[2] (4) Perry notes how Sherman marched through Sandersville, Georgia—home of Elijah Muhammad, who would build his empire in Chicago, a fact not noted—and how the “White folks never stopped making Black people pay for that humiliation.” (216) Perry does not highlight Sherman’s Ohio home, or his boss’s, General Grant’s, or the tense sectional friction between the Midwest and South that echoed through hundreds of Midwestern Grand Army of the Republic lodges for decades after the war. She says Ida Wells escaped Memphis and went to the Midwest and settled in Chicago, where she maintained her crusade against lynching, without explaining Chicago’s role as a refuge. She notes Charles Chestnut’s writings in North Carolina, but does not explain that he learned to read in Cleveland or that he quickly returned to Ohio and became a wealthy businessman, escaping the South, which would not tolerate such climbing, and enjoyed freedoms he could never have in North Carolina.[3] Perry mentions Richard Wright, but does not dwell on the major regional distinctions he noticed as he made his way from Mississippi to Chicago.[4] In her trip through the Black Belt Perry stops in Montgomery, whose lynching memorial includes an inscription from Beloved (1987) by Ohio-born Toni Morrison and a recognition of those former slaves who made it to Ohio, the inter-regional significance of which is uncommented upon. Perry also could have expanded on the thinking of the Students for a Democratic Society radical Carl Oglesby, whose parents were southern but who was born in Akron, Ohio and understood the Midwestern working class and saw the deep distinctions between the Midwest and the South. These distinctions caused him to extrapolate his views into a broader recognition of the “global south,” or the poorer and more undeveloped half of the planet, as an analogue to the backward American South.[5] Perry does recognize that Gordon Perry, the photographer, could see the South more clearly and understand how “‘Southern’ means something over and against other regions,” because he was a “son of the Midwest” (Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois).[6] (315) It is here that Perry might develop the point about South/Midwest distinctions, but the thought ends abruptly. I lose more hope when, while I am simultaneously listening to the audio book, she mispronounces Cairo, Illinois.

Perry’s failure to highlight crucial and continuing regional distinctions leads to the big problem with her book. Namely, Perry tries to make the South stand in for the entire nation. Her subtitle is A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. Perry resists the notion that the South is “out of step, off rhythm, lagging behind, stumbling.” (xvi) In so doing Perry disregards more than a century of analysts and chroniclers who saw the South as apart, different, more broken, and a problem to be fixed.[7] To see the South as a “backwards corner” of the nation, a place of unique sins, is a “mis-narration of history and American identity,” according to Perry. (xix) Reviewers follow her lead. The National Public Radio reviewer of South to America concluded that by treating the South as different it “is actually a denial of the core of what the country is.”[8] Instead of proving that the South is the “soul” of the United States, many of Perry’s examples, as indicated by the overlooked differences with the Midwest noted above, prove something else altogether. They reveal Southern uniqueness and how much work remains to be done to tell the story of the Midwest to a broader audience, which has no shortage of Southern studies to consult, but very little in the way of Midwestern history.

Perry misfires early in her journey, in Harper’s Ferry, where she notes that her project took inspiration from Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place (1971). She later explains to an art collector in Georgia that with her book she is “trying to write something in the vein of Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place.” (261) This is not a simple matter, as reading Murray is akin to absorbing a 200-page-long staccato sentence of sundry directions and bewildering voices, albeit one with nuanced attention to regional divisions, as shown here between Northern and Southern whites:

Man, you ain’t seen no bad-assed crackers like them bad-assed crackers we had down my way. Man, I’m talking about some mean and gentlemen I mean some sure enough mean-ass peckerwoods. I’m talking about some hoojers so goddamn mean and evil they breathe like rattlesnakes. Man, hell, what you talking about is just some old pore-assed white-assed damn trash. I’m talking about some bad-assed peckerwoods, and you better believe it. You ain’t never in your born days seen no bad-assed crackers like them bad-assed crackers we had where I come from. You know them crackers around Bay Minette, Alabama, and on down toward Flomaton and into that old pineywoods country down in North Florida; you know how bad them dried-up-assed rosum-chewing squint-eyed crackers looking like they always sighting down a gun barrel at you, used to be out around Leaksville, Missippi, and all out through in there? Sheeeet, man, them old crackers ain’t nothing to these old goddamn crackers I’m talking about![9]

And on Murray goes, all through his travels to Greensboro, Atlanta, Tuskegee, Mobile, New Orleans, Greenville, and Memphis.

Before he left on his trip to the South, Murray went to visit the historian C. Vann Woodward in his office in Sterling Library at Yale University. To Murray, Woodward is a reminder of the old life insurance men who would come to his boyhood home in Mobile, Alabama and put their fancy shoes on the second step of his porch while taking notes in their policy books. Murray asks Woodward about the difference between “so-called field Negroes and house Negroes” because that was apparently a hot debate back in the 1960s, but also presses Woodward to “respect the massiveness of experience, the concreteness of Southern life,” and to avoid abstraction in his response.[10] This attempt to search out and rub elbows with Woodward was not uncommon according to a new biography of the man. The historian James Cobb, who has done much to highlight Southern distinctiveness, has written an extensive treatment of Woodward’s intellectual journey which begins with a description of hangers on at academic conferences trying to work their way into Woodward’s space, failing to “respect his characteristically polite reserve.”[11] (x) Woodward’s central accomplishment in his long and storied career was to divert Southern historiography away from apologetics and defensiveness and toward a hard-nosed realism about the chronic problems besetting the South, not the least of which was a deepening racial regression during the later 19th century when other regions, most particularly the Midwest, were marching toward greater racial liberation.[12] In Origins of a New South (1951) and other publications, Woodward thrashed the post-Civil War Redeemers as corrupt sellouts. Because of their actions, the “rural masses of both races found themselves caught up in the seemingly endless and hopeless cycle of tenancy, dependency, and debt that was the sharecropping and crop-lien system.” (114) Woodward sought to knock down the reputation of the Redeemers, whose legacy was being seized upon by post-World War II Southern resisters to civil rights, by explaining that the “contemporary South remained so backward and troubled in so many ways precisely because” of the Redeemers’ actions. (124)

Regardless of the Redeemers’ culpability or the details of Woodward’s interpretation, the big-picture conclusion remained obvious: the South was different. In a famous essay, Woodward discussed the “old monuments of regional distinctiveness”—which he saw as the “one-horse farmer, one-crop agriculture, one-party politics, the sharecropper, the poll tax, the white primary, the Jim Crow car, the lynching bee”—as “indisputable proof that the South was different.”[13] Woodward emphasized that the South had a “historical experience dramatically different from that of the North” and explained the “exceptional position of the South within America itself” and noted that the South was not unlike many other countries which were weighed down by a “heritage of frustration, failure, and loss that set southerners apart as the only Americans for whom ‘history’ was not just ‘something unpleasant that happens to other people.’” (212-13) Woodward wanted Southerners to “embrace the true roots of their region’s identity in its distinctly ‘un-American’ past” and recognize they “were bound to each other by a distinct ‘collective experience’ shared by no other Americans.” (215) Older southern historians thought Woodward was selling them out—he was seeking the “pinnacle in Yankeeland” at Yale—but he succeeded in making the university a center of southern history.[14] (127) His colleague Howard Lamar, another southerner, would bring Western history to Yale at the same time (Woodward did not think much, however, of the doyenne of Western history, Patricia Nelson Limerick, who he thought had a pre-cooked agenda).[15] Midwestern history at Yale, alas, was and remains a distant idea at best.[16]

The field of southern history that Woodward built and mastered and populated with his graduate students remains lively. In the new collection of essays A New History of the American South, editor W. Fitzhugh Brundage carries the torch of Southern history forward and, as he does so, he takes pains to extend Imani Perry a helping hand. Brundage recognizes both Perry’s attempt to show that the South is “profoundly American” and her resistance to viewing the South as exceptional, all while largely dismissing work contradicting Perry, including that of V.S. Naipaul (who found “a whole distinctive culture, something I had never imagined existing in the United States,” and a place still obsessed with hating the Buckeye General W.T. Sherman).[17] (xxii) The problem with this maneuver is that the evidence in Brundage’s collection works against the Perry Thesis. In her chapter in A New History of the American South, Kate Masur discusses the kidnapping of Solomon Northrup and explains how it “dramatizes the nation’s increasingly stark regional differences” and how the case highlights regional battles over expanding west, the centrality of cotton and the domestic slave trade to the South, the “antimodern rejection of individual liberty and free expression” in the South, the “stark border” between regions policed closely by the South, regional religious splits, how the slave states “had an identity and destiny that stood apart from the rest of the nation,” and how disputes during the 1840s and 1850s would “draw regional differences ever more sharply.” (228, 238-39, 243, 249) In his chapter, Gregory Downs notes the widespread view, at least by the 1840s, of the “South as a distinct, and blameworthy, part of the nation, the cause of the United States’ divisions,” while also noting the internal divisions within the South. (257) After the Civil War, Southerners regained their previous hold on power and “launched open warfare” against Reconstruction governments and, as a former Union-general-turned-Reconstruction-governor in Mississippi commented, African Americans were “returned to a condition of serfdom—an era of second slavery.” (294) And so, Downs explains, came the “planters’ violent imposition of oligarchic rule” and in “many ways the South of the 1880s was a region apart”—poorer, less literate, “a symbol of economic and social backwardness”—with a “regional identity” that was “profoundly powerful.” (295, 297). In his chapter, Blair Kelley explains how, in the Plessy era, the “white supremacists that governed rural areas violently suppressed any expression of Black independence, even when Black people were operating strictly within the rules of segregation.” (337) Kelley’s chapter brings to mind the new book by Margaret Burnham, which recounts the particulars of the extreme cruelty of the Southern racial regime in the decades after Reconstruction (and how Blacks routinely sought to escape it by fleeing to Detroit and how Michigan governors, like Frank Murphy and others, would refuse to allow the extradition of Blacks back to the South where they assumed Blacks would face the worst).[18] In her chapter in the Brundage collection, Natalie Ring explains that Southern reformers, especially those focused on the rural South, understood well the problems of “high illiteracy rates, underfunded schools, woefully inadequate public health standards and high infection rates, and agrarian poverty.” (359)

Brundage might have taken the conclusions of his authors about Southern separatism more seriously before suggesting that we flatten out the differences between American regions in our effort to understand the American past. Or he could have just taken closer notice of Senator “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, who he mentions as earning Time’s designation as a “conscientious objector to the 21st century,” a good reminder of the differential workings of time and progress among distinct places. (xiv) Instead of taking these cues, Brundage takes a few potshots at the mid-century work of John Gunther, who would have seen Cotton Ed in action and who was a direct witness to the South and its peculiar ways. Gunther was also a Midwesterner, Chicago-born, and a graduate of the University of Chicago who worked at the Chicago Daily News and had a calm decency about him—“He was never pompous, never self-promoting, never stuck-up,” reports fabled super editor Robert Gottlieb—and had a keen eye for the particularity of places and their special valences and significance (in the early 1930s he even interviewed Hitler’s midwife and ended up on the Gestapo’s death list).[19] Gunther’s wide vision and deep insights about the extreme conditions in the South in the years after World War II should not be so glibly dismissed. Gunther saw Cotton Ed’s South Carolina as a “stubborn and rebellious entity with pronounced sectionalisms” and “very backward by most criteria” (he saw Cotton Ed as “probably the worst senator who ever lived”).[20] His opening chapter on the “flame headed, obdurate, and irrational” South is subtitled “Problem Child of the Nation” (or, contra Perry, the opposite of the nation’s “soul”) and recounts his shock at rural slums (“beyond doubt the most revolting in the nation”) and rates of illiteracy (South Carolina and Louisiana led the nation).[21] In the value of farm property by farm, Mississippi was last, Arkansas 47th, Alabama 46th (this is when there were only forty-eight states), etc. To highlight the regional differential, Gunther notes that Iowa farm property values were third-highest in the nation. In the percentage of farms having tractors, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas were last in the nation; the Dakotas were first and second (“the South is not Omaha,” Gunther makes clear).[22] Gunther discusses at length the acts of violence committed against African Americans and concludes that, despite all his world travels, he had no “concrete knowledge” or “fingertip realization” of the “grim enormousness” of the Southern race problem prior to his trip.[23] The segregation in Southern cities, Gunther said, “out-ghettoes anything I ever saw in a European ghetto, even in Warsaw” and concluded: “What I looked at was caste and untouchability—half the time I blinked remembering that this was not India.”[24]

How unique the South is, or uniquely terrifying, comes home to the reader quickly in Jefferson Cowie’s new book about Alabama, Freedom’s Dominion, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. Cowie chose to focus on Barbour County in particular because it was the birthplace of George Wallace, whose rhetoric was heavily grounded in place and time and the tradition of a specific region. Wallace’s first inaugural speech was an “homage to the specifics of place,” to the towns of Barbour County—Haigler’s Mill, Spring Hill, Baxter’s Station, Horns Crossroads, Baker Hill, Eufala, Clio—and life in the Chattahoochee Valley, which divides Alabama and Georgia. (1) Wallace, Cowie explains, “understood history in terms of place as well as time: settings of rich soil, old churches, familiar streets, sharecropper shacks, opulent mansions, and buried ancestors.” (2) As a young man, Wallace stood where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederate states and vowed to be governor one day. Cowie’s book is framed around the fierce resistance of this particular place to national encroachments and the all-encompassing fear of federal power upending local settings. His particular focus is the city of Eufaula, high on a bluff above the Chattahoochee River, and its planter class and slave market and centrality to the “most naked and vicious dimensions of the American slave regime.” (100) Eufaula’s newspaper signaled its defiance of outside control and its embrace of regional identity by changing its name from the Eufaula Democrat to the Spirit of the South. In Alabama, elite planters controlled politics (an open “town hall politics” was a foreign concept), plantations dominated agriculture instead of small-scale family farms, and slave labor was the core of the economy, not a set of yeomen farmers and a “sturdy and demanding working class,” as in the Midwest. (100) Slaves out past 10:00 pm were subject to 39 lashes. Anyone caught teaching a slave to write was subject to a $500 fine. Tyranny prevailed.

There are critical signs of the differences between the South and the Midwest in Cowie’s book too, although they are not highlighted. It was Midwestern armies that pulverized the old slave system in the South, after all, and Midwestern Congressmen who voted to support Reconstruction and to pass national civil rights laws. These stark facts loom in the background of the events Cowie describes. With a second glance at some of his specific examples, regional distinctions can be found laced throughout Cowie’s book and brought to the surface. Henry Knox, Washington’s Secretary of War, was annoyed with the white people below the Ohio River who had contempt for the central “civil power” and indulged their “angry passions” against the federal government. (93) Southerner Sam Houston vowed to find and shoot Ohio Congressman William Stanberry for his statements about Houston’s corrupt practices, an episode that caused a national stir. Eufaula sent troops to Kansas to fight off the Yankees and Midwesterners who were moving in to try to prevent the imposition of slavery in the new state. When Lincoln of Illinois won the presidential race in 1860, Eufaulans erected a mock gallows in town and burned the “black Republican” in effigy. (109) Union general James Harrison Wilson, an Illinoisian and graduate of McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois, returned the favor by burning the University of Alabama in 1865. After the war, the Midwesterner U.S. Grant kept his federal armies in Alabama, prosecuted the Klan and other Redeemers, and helped African Americans win elective office. Finally, Southern terrorism and fanatical resistance and northern weariness with Reconstruction ultimately allowed the return of one-party Democratic rule, the rapid growth of the convict lease system (the African American share of the Alabama prison population went from 8% in 1871 to 91% in 1877), and—without Grant’s armies—the disfranchisement of African American Republican voters. New voting restrictions reduced the number of registered African American voters by 98%. Soon monuments to Confederate generals were erected throughout the South and lynching became rampant. In 1921, the new Republican president and former Ohio governor Warren Harding went to Birmingham and called for the restoration of African American rights to the cheers of African Americans and the jeers of whites. St. Louis Republican Leonidas Dyer also introduced a bill in 1918 to make lynching a federal crime, a move which Harding supported.

Cowie brings the story into the post-World War II era when the regional divisions remain highly visible (as Gunther described at the time). Cowie explains the fears of the African American David Frost, who worried about even accidentally brushing up against a white woman and the violence that would follow, a depiction which offers a contrast with Richard Wright’s famous experience with a waitress in Chicago. In the years after the war, George Wallace was appalled at the Missourian Harry Truman’s support for civil rights and recoiled from the Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey’s ringing call for action on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention.[25] In the 1950s across eight southern states there was no known African American attending a white school, in contrast to the Midwest, where school integration had been known since the early nineteenth century. While Wallace famously stood in the schoolhouse door, protesting the integration of the University of Alabama, many colleges in the Midwest, on the other hand, had been integrated since the 1830s. The South—as Woodward and Gunther and many others made clear—was just different. When Robert Kennedy was trying to deal with Wallace and Alabama when he was Attorney General, he said “It’s like foreign country. There’s no communication. What do you do? I’ve never been asked if I’m a communist before” (Gunther similarly reported that “I felt that I wasn’t in the United States at all, but in some utterly foreign land”).[26] (327) Not infrequently the South was seen as an alien country, or, to be more precise, an internal colony, as some scholars have described it, or the opposite of the nation’s core or center or “soul,” as Perry would have it.[27] Wallace knew how different the South was in Northern eyes and how it was seen as backward and poor. When he was up north, he liked to mock the stereotype of himself as “jes an ig’rant ol’ hookwormy redneck from Alabama” who “ain’t had no education and didn’t wear no shoes ‘til I was thirty.” (334) Wallace was trying to change Midwestern states, to make them different, to make them abandon their historical aversion to the South, and to bend their politics Southward. He tried to lure in “sturdy natives of the great Mid-West,” underscoring how the Midwest was a different place and allied with different forces, but a region that he hoped he could flip and convince to join his crusade. (13)

To understand how different the South was, and how much it saw itself as unique, one only needs to wade a few chapters into Charles Reagan Wilson’s bulky new book The Southern Way of Life. Wilson has been working for a lifetime to explain how deeply distinctive the South is and has worked on this book in particular since 1989. Wilson taught at the University of Mississippi for over three decades and directed the Ole Miss Southern Studies program in addition to the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. The South, Wilson explains, diverged sharply from other regions from the earliest days of the colonial era. Wilson marches through the broad conceptions of “Southern Civilization,” the “Southern Way of Life,” and “Southern Living,” which are all related but also associated with different periods of Southern history. Drawing on the famous contemplation of Southern identity by W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South, Wilson highlights the “primordial ties” that bound the South together, the region’s devotion to the “maintenance of all that was felt to be Southern” and a “scarcely less militant will to yield nothing of its essential identity,” and a dedication to a “single plexus of ideas of which the center was an ever-growing concern with white superiority and an ever-growing will to mastery of the Negro.”[28] (3) In addition to white supremacy, the South was glued together by an embrace of agrarianism, aristocracy, manners and etiquette, honor, evangelicalism, romanticism, and leisure (laziness to outsiders). The “specter of lost regional identity” in the decades after the Civil War, Wilson explains, “led southern whites to assert the southern identity with a vengeance.” (9) Outside criticism and mockery of the South only deepened this identity. The “recurrent dissection by nonsoutherners of sick southern ways,” according to Wilson, “was the key to the appearance of a defensive regional ideology.” (35) Southern sectionalism led to a common belief that the nation was divided, as one southerner pointed out, into “two systems of civilization” and “two distinct peoples” which were “separate, distinct, antagonistic, and repellant.” (47)

All this highlights the impossibility of Perry’s quest to find “the soul of a nation.” The soul metaphor should be discarded, as romantic and literary and transcendent as it may be in its appeal. Nations do not have souls. They have regions and sub-regions with varying topographies and peoples and cultures that contend for power and influence in a national government. The emerging Midwest of the first half of the 19th century fought hard to undermine the influence of the Southern Slave Power, which Midwesterners saw, not incorrectly, as largely controlling the federal government. When Southerners lost this control after a Midwesterner was elected president, the Southerners rebelled and left the Union. After the Civil War, the Midwest was the ascendant region whose sons became president and whose economy boomed and which had the nation’s most people. This was the Midwestern Moment in American life. If the nation had a soul in the post-Civil War era up until World War I it was Midwestern. The South at that time was marginal and poor and defeated. The Midwestern Moment would fade, however, offering a reminder that designating a nation’s soul is not wise, but that recognizing periods of history when particular regions hold sway or have heightened influence makes perfect sense. This is why Frederick Jackson Turner—far more importantly than his one-off about the frontier—focused on regions, believing that “[t]here is no more enduring, no more influential force in our history, than the formation of and interplay of the different regions of the United States.”[29] A critical part of finding and seeing regions is recognizing the deep and profound differences between them and not ahistorically blending them all together. Finding these particular distinctions requires attention to detail, to facts on the ground, and the avoidance of abstractions, as Murray emphasized to Woodward. One of our closest observers of American life, Joan Didion, consistently counseled the need to tend to details, which she put into practice when contemplating her home in the West during a trip, like Perry’s, through the South.[30] Didion’s aversion to abstraction and theory—the reason she could never go to graduate school, she said—should be a warning to us all to stick to hard realities and eschew futile searches for imaginary souls.[31]

[1] On the recent effort to conceal regional distinctions, see Henry Kamerling, “‘On the Edge of Extinction?’: Region, Identity, and the Pliable Contours of Southern History,” Middle West Review vol. 4, no. 1 (Fall 2017), 43.

[2] See Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War (New York: Penguin, 1991).

[3] Michael Flusche, “On the Color Line: Charles Waddell Chestnutt,” North Carolina Historical Review vol. 53, no. 1 (January 1976), 8-9.

[4] Jon K. Lauck, “‘I’m a Rootless Man’: Richard Wright and the Limits of Midwestern Regionalism,” 44 MidAmerica (2017), 78-95.

[5] Oglesby used the term in an article in Commonweal in reference to Vietnam and, in his view, the American “dominance over the global south.” Oglesby, “Vietnamism Has Failed…The Revolution Can Only Be Mauled, Not Defeated,” Commonweal, March 21, 1969, 11; Grant Segall, “Carl Oglesby Rose from Akron to Lead the SDS,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 14, 2011. Oglesby was expelled from the leftist Students for a Democratic Society “after an SDS tribunal pronounced him insufficiently Marxist and more than sufficiently bourgeois.” Margalit Fox, “Carl Oglesby, Antiwar Leader in 1960s, Dies at 76,” New York Times, September 14, 2011.

[6] Parks grew up on a farm in Kansas, the youngest of a family of 15. His mother died when he was 15 but before she died she arranged to send him to St. Paul to live with an older sister. Parks’s break came while he was a fashion photographer in Minneapolis and Chicago. Barbara Baker Burrows, “Remembering Gordon Parks,” American Art vol. 20, no. 3 (Fall 2006), 118; Milton Moskowitz, “Gordon Parks: A Man for All Seasons,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education no. 40 (Summer 2003), 102.

[7] See Natalie J. Ring, The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012). “No other section has ever been referred to as a problem,” Edward Shapiro once explained, “much less the country’s number one economic problem, as the South was by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s, and no other section has ever been advised to put on shoes as was suggested by President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.” Edward S. Shapiro, “Frank L. Owsley and the Defense of Southern Identity,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly vol. 36, no. 1 (Spring 1977), 76.

[8] Justin Kenin, “Author Imani Perry Explores the South to Reveal the Soul of America,” National Public Radio, All Things Considered, January 23, 2022.

[9] Murray, South to a Very Old Place (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 15-16 (italics in original).

[10] Murray, South to a Very Old Place, 23. These thoughts are derived from a scene in William Faulkner’s Light in August (New York: Smith & Haas, 1932).

[11] For Cobb’s work on Southern distinctiveness, see Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). I confess to doing the same to Woodward at an Organization of American Historians conference in Atlanta during the 1990s, or I least took time to stop and chat with the legend in a hotel hallway, as was the wont of eager graduate students.

[12] See chapter 4 in Lauck, The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest, 1800-1900 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022). Cobb explains that Woodward’s interpretation became less persuasive over time as other historians found evidence that Southern segregation had deeper roots than Woodward’s findings indicated, an interpretative turn which only heightens Southern distinctiveness.

[13] Woodward, “The Search for Southern Identity,” Virginia Quarterly Review vol. 34, no. 3 (Summer 1958), 323.

[14] In another example of ongoing regional differentiation, Woodward always felt like an outsider at Yale because he was a Southerner who was trained in the South and this “kept him just the least bit out of step in northern intellectual circles.” Views in the “Boston-Detroit latitudes,” in Woodward’s phrase, were different than below the “M&D [Mason-Dixon] Line.” Cobb, Woodward, 227-28.

[15] Lamar’s plan as a Yale graduate student was to study Alabama, but when he discovered someone else working on his topic his advisor told him to check into the new manuscript collections that had just arrived at the Yale archives relating to the settlement of Dakota Territory and so Lamar turned toward the West. See Jon K. Lauck, “The Old Roots of the New History: The Intellectual Origins of Howard Lamar’s Dakota Territory,” Western Historical Quarterly vol. 39, no. 3 (Autumn 2008), 261-281 and “How South Dakota Sparked the New Western History Wars: A Commentary on Patricia Nelson Limerick,” South Dakota History vol. 41, no. 3 (Fall 2011), 353-81.

[16] George Pierson, a direct descendent of the first president of Yale who had earned all his degrees at Yale, was the chairman of the history department who recruited Woodward. Cobb, Woodward, 230-40. Pierson was particularly anti-Frederick Jackson Turner, who did the most to give the Midwest part of the spotlight. Pierson did not think much of what happened beyond the Hudson River. Lauck, “Old Roots,” 264, 269-70.

[17] Naipaul, A Turn in the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 233.

[18] Margaret A. Burnham, Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners (New York: W.W. Norton, 2023), 3-44. See also the extensive review by Eric Foner, “A Regional Reign of Terror,” New York Review of Books, April 6, 2023 (italics added).

[19] Gottlieb, “Robert Gottlieb on the Man Who Saw America (And We Mean, All of It),” New York Times, June 26, 2021. Gunther “traveled more miles, crossed more borders, interviewed more statesmen, wrote more books and sold more copies than any other single journalist of his time. At least 15 of his books were translated into more than 90 languages.” Albin Krebs, “John Gunther Dead; Wrote ‘Inside’ Books,” New York Times, May 30, 1970.

[20] Gunther, Inside U.S.A. (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1947), 654, 675.

[21] Gunther, Inside U.S.A., 662-663, 666.

[22] Gunther, Inside U.S.A., 662.

[23] Gunther, Inside U.S.A., 679.

[24] Gunther, Inside U.S.A., 680.

[25] See Samuel G. Freedman, Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023).

[26] Gunther, Inside U.S.A., 658.

[27] Robert J. Hind, “The Internal Colonial Concept,” Comparative Studies in Society and History vol. 26, no. 3 (July 1984), 543.

[28] Wilson is quoting Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978 [1941]), 106.

[29] Turner quoted in Michael C. Steiner, “The Significance of Turner’s Sectional Thesis,” Western Historical Quarterly vol. 10, no. 4 (October 1979), 440.

[30] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017).

[31] Didion, “Why I Write,” New York Times, December 5, 1976.

Photo by Kelsey Todd @ Unsplash

Jon K. Lauck

Jon K. Lauck is a native of rural Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of books including The Lost Region and From Warm Center to Ragged Edge. Lauck has worked as a lawyer, professor, and political advisor and now serves as adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota and as Editor-in-Chief of Middle West Review. His latest books are The Good Country and Heartland River.