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As Gaston himself acknowledges, the dissertation on which the book is based was inspired by Woodward's chapter "The Divided Mind of the New South" in Origins of the New South , and the central figures of that chapter are the figures Gaston chose to consider. While his treatment of the Lost Cause was significantly less jaundiced than Woodward's, he generally followed Woodward's assessments of matters ranging from the character of the southern economy to the character of Booker T. Above all, Gaston, like so many liberal southern historians of his time, followed Woodward in his view of historical writing as handmaiden to the urgency of the time.

For both, the burden of the southern historian was to be "critical"; and, as his new afterword makes plain, Gaston continues to shoulder that burden today.

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In the afterword Gaston chooses, not to reflect on how time has dealt with his earlier arguments, but to comment on the last thirty years of southern history, launching a scathing attack on what he views as a generation of "reaction," characterized especially by the conservative campaign to "airbrush" Martin Luther King's radical critique of American society and transform him into a prophet of "equal opportunity" pp.

How well does this style of history hold up? In many respects, The New South Creed holds up quite well. Gaston's analysis of the relationship between the Creed and the emerging Cult of the Lost Cause is fuller and, I must say, subtler than Woodward's. This, by the way, is not to be critical of Woodward, who was after different game; his primary intent was not to explain the Cult but to demolish its lingering, pernicious hold on white southern culture.

In drawing on older works such as William R. Taylor's Cavalier and Yankee , and in setting the Cult in the larger context of the local-color literature of the late nineteenth century, Gaston provided a framework within which such commentators as Gaines Foster and the current crop of "memory" scholars could develop further insights.

His critique of the New South publicists' confusion between natural "wealth" and actual wealth --the product of human brain and muscle transforming raw materials into that which humans value--gets close to the heart of the problem of southern poverty. And yet there remains in The New South Creed a blurry line between a "critical" use of history and a polemical one. This is typified by the ambiguous use of the term "myth.

The resulting argument, while compelling in many respects, is in others a bit beside the point. By treating the likes of Henry Grady and Richard Edmonds as "thinkers," for instance, Gaston in many ways overlooks what they in fact were, namely representatives of the grand old American tradition of boosterism and promotional bunkum. One reviewer at the time noted that the argument would have benefitted from making use of the booster context, about which there was already an extensive literature. Several specific points are noteworthy here. First, booster rhetoric may have served broader ideological and "mythic" purposes, but much of what Gaston describes served the needs of specific businessmen pursuing specific business strategies.

Anyone looking through the Manufacturers' Record of the s, for instance, will be struck by the enormous amount of attention it gave to various promotional schemes along the Appalachian spine based on coal and iron. Gaston sees this obsession with natural resources as "naive," and if one regards it as an effort to think through the needs of southern economic development, he is largely correct.


A more reasonable explanation of Edmonds's resource obsession, though, is simply that he made his money as a publicist for land speculators. The close connection between land speculation and American boosterism has been frequently explored; land promoters, of course, needed an initial come-on to lure investors, and in a relatively undeveloped region resource endowment was frequently all they had.

With the emergence of Birmingham and Chattanooga as iron centers in the s a major speculative "bubble" in southern iron lands formed, lasting until its collapse in the early s. However, while such speculative frenzies are, for better or worse, apparently intrinsic to American capitalism, the rhetorical froth surrounding them is not the sum total of the capitalist myth. As Gaston himself notes in passing p.

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  • Insofar as Gaston identifies the New South with this sort of bubble psychology, he mistakes a part for the whole. To be sure, over-the-top claims could be heard in quarters distant from the iron bubble, but others have found in the extravagance of booster rhetoric different implications than Gaston does. Boosters generally engaged and still do in what Daniel Boorstin has termed "the rhetoric of anticipation"--a sort of rhetorical time warp in which present opportunity and future glory blur indistinguishably.

    That such promotion could easily cross the line into fraud--as it commonly did, especially with Edmonds--is important, but it also represented something more significant--the late-nineteenth-century upsurge among many white southerners of a sense of "boundlessness" that contradicted the grim postbellum realities they sought to transcend. The rhetoric of a Grady might pull the wool over people's eyes, but it also inspired southerners--mostly white, but black as well--to embrace new possibilities.

    And embrace it many of them did--and in the process the "myth" began to create its own content. However, in his concentration on journalists and orators--specialists not in thinking through developmental problems but in stirring passions--Gaston neglects the entrepreneurial activity that was actually attempting to realize the Creed in brick and mortar. The one southern industrial entrepreneur he treats, the North Carolina industrialist-publicist Daniel Augustus Tompkins, appears in these pages almost exclusively as a publicist. But Tompkins the publicist was a rather dreary laissez-faire apologist; Tompkins the industrialist was a genuine innovator, and far more interesting.

    a study in southern mythmaking

    By background an engineer, trained by the great Alexander Holley, Tompkins thought comprehensively about the problems of getting industrialization off the ground, paying attention not only to technology but also finance, management, and marketing; his promotional efforts helped create two southern industries--cottonseed products and cotton textiles--and furthered advances in infrastructure and education as well.

    And to those small-town businessmen the "myth" was experienced as "reality. The region, after all, fell into a very deep economic hole in the s and s, and Grady's rhetoric glossed over the immense problems it faced. But most acolytes of the New South Creed had far less grandiose goals in mind than restoring lost regional glory; more important to them was the success of their own businesses and the development of their own communities. Altruistic claims notwithstanding, the emerging southern middle class had little interest in attacking mass southern poverty except insofar as they could use it to their own advantage, as "cheap labor"; that attitude was, and remains, the scandal of the New South Creed.

    But, in small towns and growing cities across the region, southerners saw the New South coming together before their eyes. Moreover, contrary to Gaston, the Creed did not necessarily foster complacency; rather, it led figures such as Walter Hines Page another spokesman Gaston doesn't quite know what to do with to press for more comprehensive programs of modernization.

    The "New South" movement, Gaston tells us, ended by ; actually, after that time it fed into the larger stream of southern progressivism. The modernizers, of course, suffered from their own blindnesses and countenanced their own injustices; not only was their movement, in Woodward's phrase, "for whites only" despite a now amply documented parallel stream of African-American southern progressivism , but their elitist, top-down approach was antidemocratic and unresponsive to mass concerns, whether from blacks or whites.

    The new South creed; a study in southern mythmaking

    But they also extended public services, developed infrastructure, and made the first tentative steps toward spreading opportunity and enhancing the welfare of the underclasses. So for all the bunkum, the promoters of the New South Creed could boast some genuine achievements; they helped alter the region's trajectory, pointing it toward its modern self. Which leads to what was, for me, the single most startling assertion in the book: the claim that the southern economy was, as of the time of its publication in , a "continuing failure That the South of remained rife with economic ills not least the existence of kwashiorkor on the doorstep of Hilton Head was, and certainly should be, "a failure about which there is little argument today.

    Most students of economic development would call that pretty damn impressive, especially given that the South was catching up to a nation that at the time was experiencing the greatest sustained period of growth in its history. Moreover, that growth, while leaving many southerners out, was lifting many others up, as educational levels sharply improved, opportunities diversified, and the material rewards of American life became accessible to far more southerners than ever before--including, increasingly, black southerners.

    Gaston claims that "for the myth of the New South the events of the Second Reconstruction [were] more devastating than any previous assault" p. Indeed, the scolding tone of Gaston's afterword indicates a belated recognition of this fact.

    To Gaston, as to many southern liberals of the time, the Second Reconstruction should have been such a challenge. For that reason, he tells us, the modern conservative elevation of the "color-blind" Martin Luther King above the "real," radical-prophetic King, is a blatant falsification of history. Maybe; my own suspicion is that King was far more complex a man than either of these images suggests. But who the "real" King was surely matters less here than the fact that the outcome of the Civil Rights Era was so easily assimilated to a New South Creed that is more hegemonic now than it has ever been.

    Back in , Gaston served as faculty adviser to a liberal, interracial student group, the Human Relations Council. He helped bring Rev.

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    Martin Luther King Jr. He participated in protests to integrate a local movie theater and restaurant, getting beaten and arrested in the process.

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    After he retired in , Gaston continued writing essays about that history in which he had participated. Often praised and awarded for his involvement and courage in civil rights activities, he was quick to credit others, including students, black and white. Edward L.

    Lewis, who became a historian of the South as well, commented on how Gaston and his wife, Mary who died in , opened their home to graduate students, held his grad classes there and hosted many other events. He said they were like another set of parents to him and particularly welcoming when he came to UVA.

    Waking to the sad news that the historian Paul Gaston has died.