Cracks in the Treasury of Virtue

A review of Division and Reunion: America, 1848-1877by Ludwell H. Johnson, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1978. 301 pages; and The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movementby Otto Scott, New York: Times Books, 1979, 375 pages.

It was Flannery O’Connor who remarked, in one of her short essays, that people will believe anything about the South as long as it is strange enough. She was speaking of the obstacles to acquiring a proper understanding of fic­tion with a Southern setting, but she could just as well have been referring to Southern historical writing. There is probably no subject under the sun that has spawned a greater amount of nonsense.

People who would never dream of passing judgment on contemporary Uganda or Elizabethan poetry without years of study feel no hesitation in passing sweeping judgments on the South. They embody their “knowledge” and conclusions not only in TV epics but in works of serious history.

Division and Reunion (... Ludwell Harrison Johnson Best Price: $33.32 (as of 03:05 EST - Details) This is an old phenomenon, one that has made us aware of the peculiar uses to which the South has habitually been put in the psychological life of non-Southern Americans. The non-Southern American has been repeatedly tempted, since the 17th century, to employ the South as a scapegoat in a pecu­liarly Puritan technique of self-gratification. Northerners of a certain type have used hostility to the South as a means of establishing their own identi­ties, even of asserting their own heroic virtue. That the South is the center and embodiment of all evil, that it is a pollution of which America must be purged, has been a recurrent theme. These attacks, of the kind Edmund Burke con­demned as ‘”an indictment of a whole people.” have been made upon a region which has done the attacker little or no harm. But attacks on the South typi­cally have nothing to do with the evils and ills of our section, serious as they may be. It is extremely rare that we have received constructive criticism as opposed to blanket condemnation.

There has been a variation of sorts, whereby Northerners, for their own purposes, have projected favorable images upon the South. After the Civil War, the South was romanticized by Northerners who had become disgusted with the world they had created. Ironically, when this treatment went out of fashion, other Northern writers chalked it up as just one more sin of the South. Southerners’ penchant for romanticizing their past, it was said, made them an absurd, dangerous people whose fantasies prevented them from coping with their own defects and problems.

Another peculiar permutation on the theme is that anything Southern that is to be praised —George Washington, for instance, or Davy Crockett, or coun­try music —is discovered to be not really ‘”Southern” after all. Anything American to be condemned (social disintegration and racial strife in Northern big cities, for example) is discovered somehow to be a result of the South’s sins. In fact, one of the chief motivating factors for the great batch of books on slavery in the last few years has been the desire to find a way of blaming the long dead planters of the Old South for the inhumanity and hypocrisy of urban American life. This enterprise becomes more and more suspect as soci­ological evidence accumulates that black people in the South suffer less from crime, unemployment, and broken families than in the great liberal cities of other regions. The Secret Six : John ... Otto Scott Best Price: $39.99 Buy New $109.99 (as of 09:25 EST - Details)

But the point is, all this historical investigation has not so much to do with determining the truth about the Old South as it does with an implicit self-grat­ification for the critic, a process which Robert Penn Warren denominated the “Treasury of Virtue” some years ago in a neglected masterpiece, The Legacy of the Civil WarThe critical defect in much of the literature about the South, even much that is intelligently and responsibly done, is the Implied Comparison.

The South is always found wanting by the investigator, always found to fall short of his standards. But the standards are never stated. One may deplore inequality of wealth in the Old South, for instance, without ever being required to look into the question of whether such inequality was any greater (or even as great) as in the North or Europe. One may investigate and con­demn violence or militarism in the Old South endlessly, without ever having to say how it compared with the like elsewhere. The virtue of the “Elsewhere,” by comparison, is simply assumed. To vindicate it is the chief motive for the investigation, not to discover the facts.

The standard, really, is the Treasury of Virtue, the writer’s self-congratulation on being one of the elect, on not being a sinner such as they.

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