U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On John Egerton and Southern Intellectual History

The passing of John Egerton, noted Southern historian and scholar, has caused many historians to reflect on the career of a legendary thinker. Egerton’s best known for two works (at least among historians): The Americanization of Dixie, which changed thinking on the questions of “What is Southern?” and “What is American?” for decades to come; and Speak Now Against the Day, a seminal work on the history of the Civil Rights Movement before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. For American intellectual historians, both works play an important role in understanding both the history of the American South, and recent trends in intellectual thought among Southern leaders.

With Egerton’s death, I’ve come back to the discussions on this blog about American Studies. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s worth thinking about how American, Southern, and African American Studies all depend on one another for intellectual energy. His work The Americanization of Dixie is a testament to thinking of the South both as a different region from the rest of the country and as part of the larger United States, never able to avoid being affected by the rest of the nation’s culture and intellectual influence. Yet, what Egerton posited (and what scholars in a variety of debates have been arguing ever since) is that, for all intents and purposes, the United States has become more and more like the American South.

This “Southernization of America” thesis made a major impact on American political, social, and cultural discourse when it was first argued in 1974. It’s not let up since then, shaping the historiographical debates over the rise of American conservatism and the fall of the New Deal, as well as continuing the debate about race and racism across American society. “Is the South becoming more American, or is American becoming more Southern?” has dominated this discourse and, with books coming out arguing for or against the South’s central position in the nation becoming more conservative since the 1960s, the question doesn’t appear to have lost any importance.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but think of Speak Now Against the Day as an intellectual godfather to Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s “long civil rights movement” thesis. After all, Speak Now Against the Day highlighted the efforts of civil rights protestors before the “classic” narrative, which begins with Brown v. Board of Education and culminates with either the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Egerton’s work reminded readers that resistance to segregation in the South wasn’t a new strategy for Black Americans in the 1950s. Furthermore, as with any good history of race and the South, he also mentioned the efforts of some white Southerners, moderate or progressive in orientation, who hoped to save the region from its worse impulses on race.

It would be a mistake on my part to not mention Egerton’s incredible work on the development of Southern foodways studies. While not traditionally part of intellectual history, foodways studies is beginning to make a significant impact on cultural and social history. Again, it was all part of Egerton’s attempt to understand the American South in a fresh light. Frankly, it’s worth looking at if only to consider another method by which to think historically. After all, folks have to eat. And families, towns, entire societies can pride themselves on how they prepare food. John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History is a classic of the genre of foodways studies.

Overall, what Egerton represented is the classic Southern intellectual, whose relationship to the South is always that of a questioning, yet hopeful friend. Exasperated by its worse failings, yet always aware of its greatest promise in a way that most other observers many not be aware of, many Southern intellectuals have contributed to an understanding of the South as a unique place. Thinking of recent scholarship on the subject, such as Natalie Ring’s The Problem South or William Hustwit’s James J. Kilpatrick, it can’t be emphasized enough how Southern intellectuals can take myriad ideological shapes. Or, reflecting on Jason Sokol’s There Goes My Everything, these questions of race and “Southern-ness” aren’t just for the intellectuals, but have often been reflected on the ground by intense soul-searching for Southerners of all races. Writing about the mind, heart, and soul of the South is, on the surface, an easy way to get your name out there. But then one considers who has actually done it—Charles Chesnutt, William Faulkner, W.J. Cash, Lillian Smith, C. Vann Woodward, Ralph Ellison, Richard Weaver, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker, and John Egerton, just to name a few—and you realize it’s not for the faint of heart. What Egerton did was speak to an old intellectual tradition, while giving credence to the sometimes hopeful, sometimes fearful idea that once again we’re living in a New (Newer? Newest?) South.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Robert,

    Excellent post as usual. Since you mentioned foodways, you should definitely check out SoFAB, it’s a relatively new museum with big ideas: http://southernfood.org/

    There’s also a new blog called The Bitter Southerner which has several articles dealing with what it means to be modern and in the South.

  2. Thanks! And I need to check out both of those websites. I think I’ve heard of “The Bitter Southerner” before, but I’ll bookmark both the sites right now.

  3. This “Southernization of America” thesis made a major impact on American political, social, and cultural discourse when it was first argued in 1974. It’s not let up since then, shaping the historiographical debates over the rise of American conservatism and the fall of the New Deal, as well as continuing the debate about race and racism across American society. “Is the South becoming more American, or is American becoming more Southern?” has dominated this discourse

    “Southern” = “White” = racist

    Aside from the passing mention of southern cuisine, this is the syllogism on view here.


    This is the South, NOT the Confederacy
    BY KAREN L. COX OCTOBER 25, 2013

    As the government shutdown dragged on, journalists everywhere, on the left and the right, raised the level of their rhetoric in search of what they believed to be the appropriate scapegoat for their wrath. The American South, it turned out, was one of their favorites.

    The Washington Post’s Colbert King offered a sardonic editorial in which he used the metaphor of the Confederacy to describe today’s Tea Party. Over at Salon.com, Stephen Richter of The Globalist wrote that the shutdown was a reminder that the Civil War never ended. Richter argued that “the South is once again rebelling against modernizing shifts in American society” and makes the analogy that “Southerners and white conservatives everywhere” fear that offering healthcare to Americans is akin to “freeing the slaves.” Of course, the article would not have been complete without illustrations of the Confederate battle flag.

    Well, thanks for nothing.

    I mean, I give credit for the creation of “southern studies” as a leftist heaven–every day’s not just 1964 and the March on Washington, it’s the 1940s or even the 1840s in Alabama. And it’s all true–The Institute for the Study of Why Crackers Suck [although the food’s not bad].

    Glory be. But admittedly, legitimate scholarship. However…

    “Is the South becoming more American, or is American becoming more Southern?” has dominated this discourse

    Only in certain circles. To the rest of us, it’s frankly offensive to tar all of “white” America with cracker history: it’s the politics of one of our political parties, not legitimate scholarship.

    A Modern Timeline of Liberals Claiming That Opposition to Obama = Racism
    Matt Welch|Jun. 8, 2012 6:55 pm

    08/23/08: Jacob Weisberg, Slate: “Racism is the only reason Obama might lose.”

    08/07/09: Paul Krugman, New York Times: “[T]he driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the ‘birther’ movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.”

    09/13/09: Jimmy Carter, MSNBC: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man[.]”

    01/19/10: Keith Olbermann, MSNBC: “[T]he Tea Party movement [is] perhaps the saddest collection of people who don’t want to admit why they really hate since the racists of the South in the sixties insisted they were really just concerned about states’ rights….[I]n Scott Brown we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against woman and against politicians with whom he disagrees.”

    03/27/10: Frank Rich, New York Times: “How curious that a mob fond of likening President Obama to Hitler knows so little about history that it doesn’t recognize its own small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht….The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play.”

    10/19/10: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: “Tea Party ranks [are] permeated with concerns about race and national identity….Tea Party organizations have given platforms to anti-Semites, racists, and bigots. Further, hard-core white nationalists have been attracted to these protests, looking for potential recruits and hoping to push these (white) protesters towards a more self-conscious and ideological white supremacy.”

    01/25/11: State Rep. Jim Moran (D-Virgina), Al-Hurra: “[GOP success in mid-term elections] happened for the same reason the Civil War happened in the United States. It happened because the Southern states, the slaveholding states, didn’t want to see a president who was opposed to slavery. In this case, I believe, a lot of people in the United States don’t want to be governed by an African-American, particularly one who is liberal, who wants to spend money and who wants to reach out to include everyone in our society.”

    08/22/11: Rep. Andre Carson (D-Indiana): “Some of these folks in Congress would love to see us as second-class citizens. Some of them in Congress right now of this tea party movement would love to see you and me…hanging on a tree.”

    03/27/12: Dahlia Lithwick, Slate: “And now we know the [Supreme] court is worried about freedom: the freedom to live like it’s 1804.”

    06/04/12: Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Washington Post: “By attacking labor unions, flooding Wisconsin with outside cash and trying to cleanse the electorate of people who don’t look, earn or think like him, [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker has taken aim at more than a single campaign cycle or a series of policies; his real targets are the pillars of American progressivism itself.”

    06/08/12: Cassandra Jackson, Huffington Post: “[T]he war on affordable health care is a war on Blacks and Latinos.”

    Etc. Oh yeah, and Oprah the other day. So goes the narrative. “White” America is getting more “southern” which equates to “racist.”

    • The march was in 1963, of course. I usually leave mental typos uncorrected, but that didn’t seem prudent in this case.

      I don’t think I’m being unfair to “southern studies.”

      The study of the American South is one of the core concentrations in UNC’s American Studies Department.


      From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the contemporary Sunbelt, the South has been America’s crucible for social and cultural change. Whether in race, religion, politics, agriculture, economic development, immigration, art, music, literature, food, or material culture—the South’s influence on the nation and the world is profound.

      It sounds only a little less interesting other ethno-geographical studies. Aside from food and a handful of interesting writers, there’s little to recommend it as even a semester’s survey course.

      And if we didn’t have the racist crackers, the “field” would likely not exist atall.

  4. This is why I’ve written about the importance of Southern Studies being in constant communication with American and African American Studies. I’ve grown tired of the lazy portrayal of the South as being a reactionary monolith. Reading any decent Southern history, one immediately recognizes that the history of the “white South” by itself is very, very diverse ideologically and politically.

    That’s why I’m particularly fascinated by Egerton’s book “Speak Now Against the Day.” He delves into a period that, until recently, was ignored by most historians when discussing the Civil Rights Movement. And in doing so, he shows that white Southerners weren’t exactly a unified force in regards to civil rights.

  5. And trust me when I state that I’m not equating “Southern” = “white racist”. My final paragraph points to the diversity of Southern thought precisely because more scholars need to get away from that thinking. I’m only highlighting the Southernization thesis because it has been used in conjunction with thoughts about the conservative turn in American political history. In fact, even historians who take that position (the importance of the South to the conservative turn) don’t entirely agree that it’s all about race. I’m thinking of Joseph Crespino and Matthew Lassiter, among others, who point to several factors as explaining the rise of conservatism in recent American history. I mention their work because an edited collection of theirs, “The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism,” really goes a long way towards tackling the issue of Southern exceptionalism and race since the 1960s.

    • RG, I question that without southern white racism as its centerpiece, that “southern studies” would exist in any significant fashion atall. [The food and the novelists are something to talk about when taking a break from race.]

      As for the argument that southern doesn’t equal white doesn’t equal racism, I am aware of that argument, although I don’t think it carries among the intellectuoids.
      I really respect that you’ve familiarized yourself with and are apparently open to the arguments of “The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism,” basically that it was acid, amnesty and abortion as well as the economic concerns of a rising middle class that swung the Solid South to the Republican column, not a lemmings-like leap to moral perdition following Strom Thurmond to the GOP. [Thurmond was the only Dixiecrat senator to switch parties–the rest, such as Robert Byrd and Al Gore, Sr., remained Dems in good standing.]

      I do trust you are not using this “field” as a cudgel in the culture/politics wars, RG, but I estimate that the very word “conservative” is inextricably linked with racism throughout the literature. And it appears that Egerton’s book “Speak Now Against the Day” is fond of the word “progressive” when speaking of the good guys in the dark days of segregation.

      What a coincidence that those words map so well to the two major political parties these days.

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