The Myth of the Old South

Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character, by William R. Taylor. Braziller, 384 pages. $6.00.

One of the most fascinating--and elusive--kinds of history is the interpretation of national or sectional myth; the attempt to describe and analyze the sources and influence of the fictions in which people clothe their deepest feelings about their characters, individual and social. It is a peculiarly relevant sort of history to write today, when the power of such myths is greater than ever, and the danger they represent if unexamined so appalling.

In addition to its specific virtues as a solid and much needed piece of work in nineteenth century American history, Professor Taylor's book can be recommended for the example it gives of just such an attempt at patient and thorough examination. In their own day, the rival conceptions of the shrewd, hard-trading, thick-skinned Yankee, and the landed, generous, sensitive Cavalier were much more than the propaganda cliches to which they have declined since; for, as Professor Taylor shows, it is the desperation with which educated Southerners sought to make this vocabulary come alive, and embody the South whose death they believed they were witnessing, which defined the importance of this lconography to them. Speaking, for example, of William Gillmore Simms--whose novel The Partisan neatly contrasts the hard-bitten but effectual Yankee, Millhouse, with the dreamy, introspective, high-born Porgy--Taylor writes. "The need to see the predicament of the South in all its complex and tragic dignity drove Simms toward a larger view, toward myth rather than toward propaganda... As he grew to accept the idea of a separate Southern destiny and as he came to feel that an impending doom was settling over his world, his imagination turned compellingly toward the great figures of tragic literature."

For Taylor's underlying point is that the desperate, furious myth-making of the period 1820-1860 was the product of a social order increasingly aware of its failure to grow and mature, and increasingly fearful that "Yankees" would exploit that failure. (Is such myth-making in itself a sign of the dissolution of a society? Taylor does not say so, but I think he suggests that the question, at least, is a reasonable one.) Taylor's Prologue consists of a description of the fascinating and wide-ranging correspondence which ex-Presidents Adams and Jefferson carried on for ten years prior to their simultaneous deaths in 1826; the measure and reason which characterized their discussions of North vs. South, hard work vs. gracious living, education vs. natural genius soon disappeared from the discussions of these problems by later Southerners. Their correspondence "seemed, by the summer of 1861, to belong to another, faraway age."

The Method

Taylor is impressively effective in suggesting this mounting tension which marked the sectional debate in the 45 years between its beginning and the secession of South Carolina. His major method is the careful reading of the "second-rate" literature of the period, which he rightly believes is more likely to yield a reliable impression of the period's deepest social concerns than would its high art. So the popular novels and writings of William Wirt, Simms, Sarah Hale (of Godey's Lady's Book) and a great many others are subjected to a close scrutiny the likes of which their poor authors probably never counted on. One reason this method is so productive is that the authors were by and large men and women engaged in public affairs, in business, government or politics, and thus were actually confronted with the crucial decisions and central questions of that era of growing ill-feeling.

Moreover, by organizing his materials mainly in biographical sketches, Taylor succeeds in making his inherently vague subject matter substantial and consequential. The knowledge that real people once gambled their careers and--sometimes--their sanity on these propositions, gives the reader some idea of the weight they once carried--if the fact that their essential sterility helped produce the Civil War didn't suffice to do so.

The Romantic Hero

However, Taylor's exclusion of any first-rate author but Cooper perhaps overdoes a good thing. Precisely because the Southern Cavalier so closely resembled the Romantic hero--doomed, indecisive, in love with decay--it is a shame that Taylor does no more than mention Poe (in a casual reference to Roderick Usher) and the lesser-known Southern Gothics.

His failure to use these materials leaves the conception of the Cavalier, although it is of course central to the study, a little blurred. Admittedly, the Cavalier is necessarily a hazy figure; but the book might have gained in depth if the insights of the period's finest sensibilities had been added.

Also, I would have enjoyed a general discussion of the use and limitations of this sort of history. As I suggested above, it is a particularly important and fruitful approach to the problems which are of special concern to contemporary historians; and Professor Taylor's remarks on it, after his immersion in the sources for this book, would be well worth having.

But these are trifles; in its own terms Cavalier and Yankee is a resounding success, both profound and sensitive. And in his Epilogue, Taylor makes what is perhaps the basic point about the "Southern mentality," when he writes: "If there was a line (between 'North' and 'South'), and increasingly Americans agreed that there was, it possessed no geographical definition. It was a psychological, not a physical division, which often cut like a cleaver through the mentality of individual men and women everywhere in the country."