W. J. Cash

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W. J. Cash
BornMay 2, 1900
DiedJuly 1, 1941
Notable worksThe Mind of the South (1941)

Wilbur Joseph Cash (May 2, 1900 – July 1, 1941) was an American journalist known for writing The Mind of the South (1941), his controversial interpretation of the history of the American South.


Early life[edit]

Cash was born and grew up in the mill village of Gaffney, South Carolina. He attended Wofford College and graduated from Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University) in 1922, also attending 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 Evening 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 president against Herbert Hoover.

During the period of primary writing on The Mind of the South (1929 through 1937), Cash lived in Boiling Springs, North Carolina and Shelby, North Carolina.[1] When his contributions to 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]

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

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. Cash's aggressive style owed a great deal to Mencken.[2] 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 famous book. The text 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 addressed some 1,400 graduates, focusing on the main developmental socio-psychological themes of the South through history into the modern era, titled "The South in a Changing World."[3]

Cash had long suffered from depression. On July 1, 1941, Cash feared that Nazi assassins were following him. He committed suicide in his hotel room in Mexico City.[4]


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. 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 praised 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.[5]

The 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.[6]

According to biographer Bruce Clayton, the central themes in The Mind of the South were romanticism, violence, hyperbolic rhetoric, individualism, and white racial solidarity. Class consciousness was of minor importance.[7]

Cash emphasized continuity rather than change, thereby downplaying the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction and leading some critics to attack his generalizations.[8] C. Vann Woodward, while praising Cash's vigorous style, contends that Cash routinely ignored contrary evidence, missed the power of the southern aristocracy, downplayed blacks, and minimized the central importance of slavery. He also overemphasized the plain white farmers and the Piedmont region, as opposed to the more influential plantation owners in the Black Belt. Woodward rejected Cash's consensus thesis of unity and continuity.[9]


  1. ^ W.J. Cash at Earl Scruggs Center
  2. ^ Bruce Clayton, "W.J. Cash and the Creative Impulse." Southern Review 24.4 (1988): 777–790.
  3. ^ (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).
  4. ^ Morrison, 1967, p. 136 debunks conspiracy theories about his death.
  5. ^ Cobb, 1991.
  6. ^ Cash, 1941, pp. 439–440.
  7. ^ Bruce Clayton, W. J. Cash: A Life (1991).
  8. ^ Rubin, 1991.
  9. ^ Woodward, 1971.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ayers, Edward L. "W.J. Cash, the New South and the Rhetoric of History." in The Mind of the South: Fifty Years Later, edited by Charles W. Eagles (1992), pp 113–130. online
  • Callen, Shirley. "Planter and Poor White in 'Absalom, Absalom!', 'Wash,' and 'The Mind of the South'." South Central Bulletin 23.4 (1963): 24-36 online.
  • Clayton, Bruce. W. J. Cash: A Life (1991), a scholarly biography
  • Cobb, James C. "Does Mind No Longer Matter? The South, the Nation, and the Mind of the South, 1941-1991" Journal of Southern History 57#4 (1991), pp. 681–718 online
  • Dunbar, Leslie W. "The changing mind of the south: The exposed nerve." Journal of Politics 26.1 (1964): 3-21. online
  • Eagles, Charles W., ed. The Mind of the South: fifty years later (University Press of Mississippi, 1992).
  • Escott, Paul D., ed. W. J. Cash and the Minds of the South (Louisiana State University Press, 1992).
  • Fitter, Chris. "W. J. Cash and the Southerner as Superman: Philosophic Contexts of 'The Mind of the South'." Southern Literary Journal 28.1 (1995): 99-114 online.
  • Jansson, David R. "Internal orientalism in America: W J Cash’s The Mind of the South and the spatial construction of American national identity." Political Geography 22.3 (2003): 293-316. online
  • Jenkins, McKay. The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2005).
  • Mathis, Ray. "Mythology and the Mind of the New South." Georgia Historical Quarterly 60.3 (1976): 228-238 online.
  • May, Robert E. "Cashing in on Dixie?." Reviews in American History 34.3 (2006): 342-349. excerpt
  • Morrison, Joseph. L. W. J. Cash: Southern Prophet: A Biography and Reader (1967) online
  • Morrison, Joseph L. "The Obsessive 'mind' of W.J. Cash." Virginia Quarterly Review 41.2 (1965): 266-286 online.
  • O'Brien, Michael. "W. J. Cash, Hegel, and the South." Journal of Southern History 44.3 (1978): 379-398. online
  • Rubin, Louis D. "W. J. Cash after fifty years." Virginia Quarterly Review 67.2 (1991): 214-228 online.
  • Weaks-Baxter, Mary. Reclaiming the American farmer: the reinvention of a regional mythology in twentieth-century southern writing (LSU Press, 2006).
  • Woodward, C. Vann. American counterpoint: Slavery and racism in the North-South dialogue (1971) pp 261–284. online

Primary sources[edit]

  • W.J. Cash. The Mind Of The South (1941) online

External links[edit]