Saturday, November 17, 2018

Zachary J. Lechner's "The South of the Mind"

Zachary J. Lechner is a historian of post-World War II southern and US history. He is an assistant professor of history at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The South of the Mind: American Imaginings of White Southernness, 1960-1980, and reported the following:
My book investigates Americans’ fantasies about the white South during a particularly tumultuous time in US history: the 1960s and the 1970s. Even during the civil rights era, as news media accounts and nonfiction travelogues like John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley pilloried white southerners as distinctively un-American due to their backwardness and racial bigotry, alternative visions of the white South proliferated in popular and political culture. Such views often presented the white South not as an albatross that the rest of the country must claw from its neck, but, rather, as the possessor of lost values that non-southerners desperately needed to embrace.

One of the most fascinating of these positive imaginings, which I dub the Masculine South, appeared in the presidential campaign rhetoric of George Wallace in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the motion picture Walking Tall (1973), and James Dickey’s novel Deliverance (1970) and its 1972 film adaptation. The Masculine South addressed palpable concerns about the state of American manhood in the late sixties and early seventies, as the counterculture, the New Left, and women’s liberationists undermined societal gender norms. The Masculine South, then, functioned as a backlash against these challenges, appealing instead to the ideal of manly exertion. The mantra of the Masculine South could have been “When in doubt, kick ass,” a line overheard by rock critic Lester Bangs in a Macon, Georgia, bar in 1974.

Page 99 of The South of the Mind begins by noting how a failed assassination attempt on George Wallace in 1972, one that left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, made his “go-to presentation of himself as a virile man, willing to use violence to rescue white society . . . no longer tenable.” But I also argue that Wallace’s message of redemptive violence—deployed, in part, as a way to shore up what he perceived as the nation’s flagging masculinity—seeped into the era’s pop culture, mostly notably, in Walking Tall. The production, made on the cheap, nevertheless thrilled audiences on the drive-in circuit and elsewhere, with its “based on a true story” rendering of the life of Buford T. Pusser, a sheriff in 1960s McNairy County, Tennessee. The movie glorifies the former wrestler as a vigilante with a badge, who “wields an oversized hickory stick that he uses to beat on bootleggers and other lowlifes.” The Pusser character is essentially Wallace’s dream of state-sponsored violence come to life, in the form of a hulking, bear of a southern white man. The lame cries of effete federal officials, who might prattle on about an offender’s civil rights or the social conditions that could have caused him to pursue a life of crime, were silenced by the sharp crack of Pusser’s mighty club. In short, Walking Tall’s “rendering of the politics of violence in the rural South and the coverage it received in the national press reinforced the popular tendency to identify the region as a uniquely antimodern space where the use of force against unruly elements fortified the vitality supposedly necessary to ensure social control” in a nation that seemed to be falling apart.
Learn more about The South of the Mind at the University of Georgia Press website.

Writers Read: Zachary J. Lechner.

--Marshal Zeringue