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

Who am I?

After receiving my Ph.D. in history, I spent the next forty years teaching courses in Southern history and culture. Over that span, I somehow managed to publish roughly a dozen books and fifty articles focusing on the American South. All of this is to say that I have been involved in the "Making Sense of the South" business for quite a while now. This may help to account for the historic vintage of most of the books I list below, I suppose. Yet it should not imply that I am either ignorant or by any means dismissive of more recent additions, but rather that I am simply more interested in crediting the historic importance of books that have been critical to shaping its direction and expanding its parameters.

I wrote...

Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity

By James C. Cobb,

Book cover of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity

What is my book about?

"Of books about the South there is no end. Nor will there be so long as the South remains the region with the most distinctive character and tradition," observed political scientist V.O. Key in 1949.

Despite the sense that some of its distinctions may have faded in the interim, more than 70 years later, the South continues to attract the attention of writers and scholars of all stripes. I set out in Away Down South to examine its progression over what is now some two-and-a-half centuries. In this, however, I relied not only on the written but the spoken word. I also drew on the rituals, symbols, myths, and various musical forms whereby blacks and whites alike managed, both as William Faulkner's Shreve McCannon put it, to "tell about the South" s they saw it and related to it.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Mind of the South

Why did I love 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.

By W.J. Cash,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mind of the South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ever since its publication in 1941, The Mind of the South has been recognized as a path-breaking work of scholarship and as a literary achievement of enormous eloquence and insight in its own right. From its investigation of the Southern class system to its pioneering assessments of the region's legacies of racism, religiosity, and romanticism, W. J. Cash's book defined the way in which millions of readers— on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line—would see the South for decades to come. This fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Mind of the South includes an incisive analysis of Cash himself and of his…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Lawrence W. Levine,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Black Culture and Black Consciousness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Black Culture and Black Consciousness first appeared thirty years ago, it marked a revolution in our understanding of African American history. Contrary to prevailing ideas at the time, which held that African culture disappeared quickly under slavery and that black Americans had little group pride, history, or cohesiveness, Levine uncovered a cultural treasure trove, illuminating a rich and complex African American oral tradition, including songs,
proverbs, jokes, folktales, and long narrative poems called toasts-work that dated from before and after emancipation. The fact that these ideas and sources seem so commonplace now is in large part due this book…

Book cover of The Burden of Southern History

Why did I love 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."

By C. Vann Woodward,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Burden of Southern History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

C. Vann Woodward's The Burden of Southern History remains one of the essential history texts of our time. In it Woodward brilliantly addresses the interrelated themes of southern identity, southern distinctiveness, and the strains of irony that characterize much of the South's historical experience. First published in 1960, the book quickly became a touchstone for generations of students. This updated third edition contains a chapter, Look Away, Look Away, in which Woodward finds a plethora of additional ironies in the South's experience. It also includes previously uncollected appreciations of Robert Penn Warren, to whom the book was originally dedicated, and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Warmth of Other Suns as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this beautifully written masterwork, the Pulitzer Prize–winnner and bestselling author of Caste chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.

From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Gavin Wright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Old South, New South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this provocative and intricate analysis of the postbellum southern economy, Gavin Wright finds in the South's peculiar labor market the answer to the perennial question of why the region remained backward for so long. After the Civil War, Wright explains, the South continued to be a low-wage regional market embedded in a high-wage national economy. He vividly details the origins, workings, and ultimate demise of that distinct system. The post-World War II southern economy, which created today's Sunbelt, Wright shows, is not the result of the evolution of the old system, but the product of a revolution brought on…

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