The best books that "tell about the South"

James C. Cobb Author Of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity
By James C. Cobb

The Books I Picked & Why

The Mind of the South

By W.J. Cash

The Mind of the South

Why this book?

Though published in 1941, this book remains, for my money, at least, the most insightful book on white southerners. In an account equally rich in provocative thought and vivid phraseology, Cash explored the roots of the historically fierce masculine individualism, and near-visceral hostility to new ideas—the "savage ideal," he called it—that not only kept the South a hot mess most of the time, but sustained it as "not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it" right up to the eve of American entry in World War II. Cash trembled at the prospect of the powerful, likely irreversible new forces unleashed by this momentous development colliding with the South's historically rigid resistance to change. When the time came, however, the region would show a “capacity for adjustment” that would have astounded its reproving, though still affectionate son, had he not taken his own life just short of five months after his book appeared.


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Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom

By Lawrence W. Levine

Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom

Why this book?

Though the title suggests a rather exclusive focus on black culture, this incisive yet impassioned book shows that culture continually evolving and adapting, as traditional African practices and beliefs interacted with those of the whites who first enslaved African peoples and later consigned them to the hardship and humiliation of the Jim Crow system. The result is a brilliant, engaging, almost seamless narrative of the ongoing cultural synthesis that shaped the identities of both blacks and whites, in the South, and ultimately, throughout the nation.


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The Burden of Southern History

By C. Vann Woodward

The Burden of Southern History

Why this book?

C. Vann Woodward easily ranks as the greatest historian of the American South to date, and his pre-eminence in the field was already established when this volume of his essays first appeared in 1960. Woodward's masterful sense of irony permeates this collection, in which he offers original alternative perspectives on the South's experience both within and apart from the nation's experience. The essays themselves were also marked by a literary grace rarely found in historical writing of any era. Though Flannery O'Connor was hardly given to praising southern writers not named Faulkner, after devouring the collection, she reported to a friend that she had "taken up reading C. Vann Woodward" because "this man knows how to write English."


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The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Why this book?

It might seem a bit strange to look to a book about people who left the South to get a better sense of the meaning of southern identity. Yet, Isabel Wilkerson offers just that in this moving account of the experiences of three participants in the "Great Migration" of southern blacks to northern cities between 1915 and 1970. No aspect of her book is more compelling than her discerning sensitivity to the uneven mixture of active bitterness and latent affinity that so many black migrants seemed to feel toward the South they never quite managed to leave behind.


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Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War

By Gavin Wright

Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War

Why this book?

In this intriguing and highly readable book, Gavin Wright essentially explores both the immediate and long-term economic consequences of slavery for the South. In doing so, he makes a persuasive case that, for the greatest part of its history, much of what passed for a distinctive southern culture and mindset can also be understood as a function of the persistence of its distinctive low-wage regional economy.


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