W. J. Cash

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The cover of Cash's celebrated The Mind of the South

W.J. Cash, or Wilbur Joseph Cash, (May 2, 1900 – July 1, 1941) was an American author and journalist known primarily for his works about the American South.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Cash was born and grew up in the mill village of Gaffney, South Carolina He graduated from Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University) in 1922, and attended law school for a year there. During his final two undergraduate years, he served first as managing editor and then editor of the college newspaper, the Old Gold & Black. Cash left law school, declaring later that it "required too much mendacity," and taught college and high school for two years, before turning permanently to journalism and writing as his profession.

Newspaper career[edit]

During the period 1926-28, Cash undertook several newspaper jobs: a year in Chicago writing for the now-defunct Chicago Post; several months with The Charlotte News, during which he wrote a wistful, philosophical column titled "The Moving Row"; and a four-month stint during the fall of 1928 as the chief editor of a small, semi-weekly newspaper in Shelby, North Carolina, during which Cash excoriated the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-Catholicism at work, especially in the South, against the candidacy of Al Smith for the U.S. Presidency against Herbert Hoover.

During the period of primary writing on The Mind of the South (1929 through 1937), Cash lived with his parents, first in Boiling Springs, N.C. and then in nearby Shelby, N.C. When his contributions to the The American Mercury ended after the passage of the Mercury's editorship from H. L. Mencken to Lawrence Spivak, Cash supported himself with freelance weekly book reviews to The Charlotte News from 1935 through 1939, for each of which he received a meagre $3. These "book reviews" often became fierce analytical diatribes penetrating the mindset of Nazism under Hitler and Fascism under Mussolini, while at other times exploring the South through Southern writers such as James Branch Cabell, Erskine Caldwell, Lillian Smith, Ellen Glasgow, Claude McKay, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner. During this period Cash also wrote occasional editorials for The News, focusing primarily on the danger of Hitler and Mussolini to worldwide democracy, a topic on which he regularly expounded beginning in 1935, a topic which by the latter thirties would overtake his interest in the South and further delay completion of the book.

The strength of the freelance book reviews earned Cash a job as Associate Editor of The Charlotte News from October, 1937 through May, 1941; in this role, Cash wrote editorials on every conceivable topic, stressing the international situation. The Charlotte News, which closed its doors in 1985, was at the time a lively, progressive newspaper enjoying the largest circulation of any afternoon daily in the Carolinas and its broad readership expanded admiration for Cash's writing and extraordinary prescience on the developing war news out of Europe and the Pacific. His writing was considered so eerily predictive of coming events in the war that fellow staff writers at The News nicknamed him "Zarathustra."

Cash was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 1941 for his work during 1940 on World War II for the newspaper.

The Mind of the South[edit]

Frustrated with the duties at a small newspaper, Cash abruptly quit shortly after the 1928 election and began writing what would turn out to be eight articles for H.L. Mencken's American Mercury between 1929 and 1935, including the seminal piece "The Mind of the South," published in October, 1929. Blanche and Alfred Knopf, publishers of the Mercury, saw the piece, liked it, and asked Cash to write a book-length version. Thus was born the book of the same title for which Cash is primarily known. The book was delayed, much to the Knopfs' worry and frustration, for over a decade as Cash meticulously labored to perfect the work to its final conclusion in mid-1940, receiving help along the way from the noted University of North Carolina sociologist, Howard Odum.

On February 10, 1941, The Mind of the South was published by Knopf. The book, a socio-historical, intuitive exploration of Southern culture, received wide critical acclaim at the time and garnered for Cash praise from sources as diverse as the N.A.A.C.P., TIME, The New York Times, The Saturday Review of Literature and most Southern newspapers of note. (One note of negative criticism came from the Agrarian group out of Nashville.) TIME, for instance, stated, "Anything written about the South henceforth must start where he leaves off."

Cash in Mexico[edit]

In March, 1941, largely on the strength of the critical success of the book, Cash was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to spend a year in Mexico writing a novel, to be on the progress of a Southern cotton mill family from the Old South into the modern era. Cash had always considered himself to be superior at writing fiction to non-fiction, so stated in his October, 1940 application to the Guggenheim Foundation, and embraced the opportunity for a year to try his hand at a novel with great eagerness. Cash had made, first in 1932, then in 1936, two previous applications for Guggenheim grants: the first to have been a study of Lafcadio Hearn, to have been titled "Anatomy of a Romantic," using Hearn as an exemplar by which to study Southern romantics generally; the second to have been a study of the Nazi mindset by spending a year in Germany, a contrasting reprise of Cash's bicycle tour of pre-Nazi Europe during the summer of 1927. Likely because of Cash's lack of a published major work at the time, both applications were rejected. The third and successful application was sponsored by the Knopfs and by Raleigh News & Observer Editor and Guggenheim recipient, Jonathan W. Daniels, who had befriended Cash in 1938. The Fellowship carried with it great prestige at the time, Cash being placed in the select company of Daniels, Thomas Wolfe, and playwright Paul Green, as the only North Carolinians to have received the grant by 1941.

Cash, with his wife of five months, Mary Ross Northrop, also a writer and contributor to The News, embarked on the trip to Mexico in late May, 1941. Having been invited by University of Texas president Homer Rainey to provide the main commencement address to the 1941 graduating class on June 2 in Austin, Cash accepted and addressed some 1,500 graduates from the steps of the Main Building, focusing on the main developmental socio-psychological themes of the South through history into the modern era, titled "The South in a Changing World"; (a recording of this half hour speech still survives and is available for listening at the University of North Carolina Southern Historical Collection in Chapel Hill, as well as online).

Death and the "Nazi spies" controversy[edit]

At the time of Cash's death, Mexico City had the largest contingent of Nazi spies in North America outside the New York City area. The largest single spy arrest in United States history, which netted 32 spies in and around New York City, occurred the last weekend of June, 1941. On July 1, after telling Mary the previous day that he was being followed by Nazi spies, Cash was found hanging by his necktie from a bathroom door hook in the Reforma Hotel in Mexico City. Though there was no suicide note and no physical evidence other than the fact of his being hanged, the Mexican authorities ruled his death a suicide. His remains were cremated under rushed circumstances, and against his parents' telegraphed wishes. Thus, no examination of his remains was ever conducted in the United States. His ashes are buried in Sunset Cemetery, Shelby, Cleveland County, North Carolina. Nearby is the grave of Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr. (1864-1946), a Southern Baptist minister, playwright, lecturer, North Carolina state legislator, lawyer, and author whose writings Cash admired as a youth. He is perhaps best known for The Clansman, which was the inspiration for D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.

Since 1933, the Ambassador to Mexico had been Josephus Daniels, a genial and popular elder statesman, former newspaper editor for The Raleigh News & Observer, former Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, and good friend of President Roosevelt, who had his first government job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Daniels. Although the Ambassador's son, Jonathan, had co-sponsored Cash for the grant which took him to Mexico, the elder Daniels did not know Cash and had only met with him briefly during the month prior to his death.

For reasons which were not stated, on July 12, 1941, Daniels asked Mexico's foreign minister to arrest three German nationals who were suspected of being principals of the Nazi spy ring in Mexico. (Daniels had never made such a request in the whole of his eight-year tenure as Ambassador.) Those arrests did not occur, though 240 Nazi spies were arrested and deported from Mexico after Pearl Harbor, in February 1942.

Legacy[edit]

Since Cash's death, there has been active dispute whether he was in fact a suicide or whether, as he claimed, he was actually being followed by Nazi spies during the last day before his death. The latter theory is extensively explored at the website, "W. J. Cash: Quandaries of the Mind."

Two biographies have been published on Cash, W. J. Cash: Southern Prophet, by Joseph L. Morrison, Knopf, 1967, and W. J. Cash: A Life, by Bruce Clayton, L.S.U. Press, 1991.

In 1991, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Mind of the South, two widely hailed seminars on the South and the impact through time of Cash's book on the South were held at Wake Forest and at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Each seminar attracted numerous prominent scholars, journalists and political leaders in multi-day sessions, resulting in two published works of essays, W. J. Cash and the Minds of the South, L.S.U. Press, 1992, ed. by Paul D. Escott, and The Mind of the South Fifty Years Later, Univ. Press of Miss., 1992, ed. by Charles W. Eagles.

Cash's work has been the subject of continuing debate among scholars since publication and the subject of numerous treatises in academic journals. The book has never been out of print and a new edition was published in 1991 under the Vintage Books imprint of Random House. The first paperback edition was published in 1954, the same year of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ordering the desegregation of public schools. The book has enjoyed a wide and diverse readership through time and has often been assigned reading in course work in colleges and universities, both in and outside the South. The book had its greatest following during the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It has been described by many scholars as the virtual "bible" on the origins of Southern culture and required reading for any serious student on the social history of the South and its conflicts through time.

The following concluding paragraph from "The Mind of the South" is often cited as a distillation of the entire book:

"Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible, in its action -- such was the South at its best. And such at its best it remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism -- these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today."

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