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.