Michael O. Cushman’s ‘Our Southern Nation’

fbd1By Scott Terry

The bigger southern cities can hide it, but walk through smaller villages or ramble through the hinterlands, and you’ll see it: abandoned buildings, cracked sidewalks, ancient churches.  These cities smell like our grandparents’ collective attics – a convenient metaphor since both attics and southern cities cling to a past that blew away a long time ago.  Truly a civilization “gone with the wind.”

Doubt me?  Richmond and Norfolk can hide it, but walk through Suffolk Virginia.  You’ll feel you’ve missed out on past greatness.  Or check out Roanoke – same story: the meat has gone leaving a crumbling, brick skeleton.  North Carolina has more of the same:  Plymouth, New Bern, Sanford, Kinston, all relics of a past civilization the current residents know only through a few monuments, some old houses, and unintelligible (to the modern mind) social customs, the origin of which are a mystery.  It’s a mystery replete throughout the south.  Wherever there is chipped paint, broken windows, crumbling buildings, a sensation of past greatness and sorrow on the wind – there is the southern mystery.

Well, it’s not a mystery anymore thanks to Michael Cushman’s new book “Our Southern Nation: Its Origin and Future”.  Cushman unleashes a painstakingly thorough arsenal of citations aimed at demonstrating to those with ears to hear, that the South ought not be thought of as a cultural part of the United States.  Instead, it ought to be thought of as a unique civilization – a part of the so-called “Golden Circle”. 

Why is this important?  Anyone who has attended the recent tea-party rallies can tell you how pervasive non-Southern historical analysis has become.  The “Patriotic American” dresses like a New England Yankee and carries around fake boxes of tea.  These well-meaning conservatives have bought into a hostile interpretation of America’s history – a Yankee and Midlander interpretation – but it’s not a Southern view.  In our postmodern world, the objectivity of any historical paradigm is questioned and academics favor a sort of “multi-perspectival” or “subjectivist” approach – only, when it comes to the South, its view of history is said to be evil and unacceptable.  Other scholars, perhaps those less-inclined to bow knee to postmodernism, claim objective historical analysis is possible, but reject the Southern view on trumped up and inconsistent grounds.

In either case, the world needs Michael Cushman’s book as much as the crumbling buildings in Richmond need a new coat of paint.  We’re finite creatures and will only ever have a finite handful of facts which make up the everlasting river of history.  Each of us, each region, will have its own unique way of viewing the past – its own unique handful of the river.  And, as Cushman shows in his book, the Golden Circle historical paradigm presents a unique interpretation of the American south’s cultural relation to the Caribbean and areas surrounding it. 

It was a culture of planters, cavaliers, chivalry, and honor.  This was the South’s view of itself and key to developing its unique regional identity.  Without a clear view of its past, then, the South can never have a clear view of its present.  Cushman’s book gives us that clear view of the past and helpful suggestions for the present.

Maybe one of its weaknesses is that it maintains a dispassionate academic tone.  I’m sure some zealous Southerners, intent on rescuing their identity from extinction, will wish Cushman had damned the Yankees to Hell and called for a full charge on Washington.  But like Dabney pointed out in “Defense of Virginia”, maybe the Southern propensity for zeal and disregard for academic tete-a-tete, was a weakness?  For those of us who have spent time in academia, it’s refreshing to read a book like Cushman’s – it’s a tool, presenting all the intellectual ammunition a young Southern intellect could want.  I’d tell the young southerner that if he’s intent on damning the Yankees, he ought to do so fully prepped with intelligent historical analysis at his back.

… he ought to do it with Cushman’s book in his library.

Published on Mitre and Crown, 22 September 2015.