W. J. Cash

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W. J. Cash

Although W.J. Cash (1900-1941) wrote only one book, The Mind of the South, before his untimely death in 1941, his work is recognized as one of the best single-volume histories of the American South ever published.

A native son of the Carolinas, W.J. Cash grew up with an intimate knowledge of the region's culture, society, and history. An aspiring writer, Cash first taught English after graduating from North Carolina's Wake Forest College, a career that fell short of his long-term literary ambitions. Cash then pursued an intermittent career as a journalist, honing his insights on the American South by working for a number of newspapers. Yet his failing health and high-strung temperament allowed him to work for only short periods before retreating to his parents' home to regain his mental and physical strength. In 1936, based on a series of articles that he had written for the nationally renowned American Mercury magazine, Cash received a contract from publisher Alfred A. Knopf to produce a single-volume history of the South. Cash began work on what would turn out to be his only book, The Mind of the South, that same year. Hailed by critics from across the nation upon its publication in 1941, Cash's book was recognized as a classic work and the author was transformed from a struggling journalist into a leading intellectual authority. Tragically, Cash's poor health, which contributed to an increasingly unstable personality, prevented him from enjoying his success. Less than a year after the publication of The Mind of the South, Cash committed suicide while staying in Mexico City on a Guggenheim grant.

Milltown Childhood

Cash's authority as an expert on the South derived in part from his family's deep roots in the region. For several generations, various branches of the Cash family spread out around North and South Carolina, mostly as small farmers. A few Cash ancestors may have owned slaves, but none of them ever ascended into the South's dominant planter class. Cash's father, John William Cash, was born on one such small farm in Clifton, South Carolina, in 1872. His father also ran a sawmill in Clifton, but the size of the family, which grew to include ten children, meant that John William Cash had to look for career opportunities elsewhere. Moving to Gaffney, South Carolina at the age of seventeen, Cash followed his brother, who had secured a job as the manager of a new cotton mill there. The town numbered less than 5,000 people, but the arrival of the mill promised a bright economic future for Gaffney, located just south of the border with North Carolina. Cash became a clerk at the Gaffney Manufacturing Company Mill's store, and impressed his bosses with his steady work habits, polite bearing, and God-fearing ways. The fact that he had little formal education beyond a few years at the Gaffney Male and Female Seminary was not a barrier to the honest and hardworking young man.

A regular worshiper at the Cherokee Avenue Baptist Church in Gaffney, John William Cash began courting music teacher Nannie Mae Lutitia Hamrick, who also served as the church's organist. Married on December 30, 1896, the Cashes began married life in a modest wood frame house in Gaffney. Their first child, a daughter, died at the age of two from Bright's Disease; thus, when Joseph Wilbur Cash arrived on May 2, 1900, he was the eldest child in the family. Wilbur Cash, as his family always called him, was later joined by two brothers and a sister; two other children died in infancy. Later, Cash used the reverse of his initials, W.J. Cash, as his professional byline, although his colleagues called him Jack. In his childhood, however, Cash earned another nickname, "Sleepy," in reference to both his droopy eyelids and his sometimes distracted nature. One often repeated anecdote even had Cash falling asleep while reading a book, causing him to fall off of his front porch.

Indeed, although he loved reading, Wilbur Cash was an indifferent student in his early years. After his family moved to his mother's hometown, Boiling Springs, North Carolina in 1913, however, his work habits improved. At the time of his Boiling Springs High School graduation in 1917, Cash was named class historian, a mark of his scholastic achievement. By that time, Cash's father was running a general store founded by his father-in-law and added to the family's income by starting a taxi service for soldiers stationed in nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina. Given the Cash family's economic status and Wilbur Cash's own intellectual promise, he surprised everyone by foregoing college to enlist in the Students' Army Training Corps, part of the American military effort on the home front during World War I. In 1917 and 1918 he served at a number of military encampments in the United States, performing everything from carpentry work to clerical duties. Unfortunately, a bout with frostbite left Cash's eyelids with a greater permanent droop. Combined with his rather squat stature, Cash's dowdy appearance contributed to his already introverted nature.

Upon his discharge at the conclusion of the war, Cash entered Wofford College in Spartanburg. Wanting more independence, Cash transferred to Valparaiso University in northern Indiana for the 1919-1920 academic year; however, the cold weather did not agree with him and he returned to the Carolinas to enter Wake Forest College in Wake Forest, North Carolina in 1920. Settling in at Wake Forest, Cash gained an outstanding scholastic reputation, particularly for his work on the school's newspaper, the Old Gold and Black. After his graduation in 1922, Cash remained at Wake Forest to begin law school; after finishing a year towards his law degree, however, he abandoned his legal studies. Instead, he began a career as an English teacher at Georgetown College in Kentucky. Cash's year at Georgetown College ended badly, however. After falling in love with a student, Cash found that he was impotent during their first tryst. Badly shaken by the episode, Cash did not return to Georgetown for a second year; he was also tormented by his sexual failing and questioned whether he would ever recover his sense of masculinity.

Intermittent Career as a Journalist

Cash taught at the Hendersonville School for Boys in North Carolina in 1924, but put aside his career as an educator to take up journalism as a reporter for the Chicago Post in 1925. Cash already had some experience in the field, as he had worked for the Charlotte Observer the summer after he abandoned law school in 1923. Although he was a well regarded staff member at the Post, his tenure there was brief. Stricken by failing health related to hypothyroidism— a glandular deficiency of the thyroid, which gave him bouts of goiter as an adult—Cash returned to his parents' home to recover. He attempted to work for the Charlotte News in 1926, but his return to work was once again ended by health problems, which doctors also attributed to an underlying nervous condition. Following his doctors' advice to exercise and relax his mind, Cash spent much of 1927 touring Europe. He worked for the News briefly upon his return, and in 1928 accepted a short-lived assignment as editor of the Cleveland Press in Shelby, North Carolina.

Although the Cleveland Press folded soon after Cash's arrival, his career as a writer took off after 1929 with a series of articles published in the nationally respected American Mercury magazine, edited by the legendary H.L. Mencken. One article, "The Mind of the South," which appeared in American Mercury in October 1929, later served as the title of his book. Combined with the other essays, Cash's profile as an observer of all things southern gained him a book contract with New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf in March 1936. Cash's career as a journalist also picked up steam; he rejoined the Charlotte News in November 1935 and was promoted to associate editor at the paper in late 1937. Although his unsteady temperament and health—and a growing dependence on alcohol—caused Cash to miss work on a fairly routine basis, he remained at the News until 1940. Cash also conquered his innate shyness towards women when he met Mary Northrop in Charlotte in 1938. Like-minded in their love of literature, the couple married on Christmas Day in 1940.

Wrote The Mind of the South

Cash delivered the final pages of his manuscript for The Mind of the South to his publisher in late July 1940, over a decade after he first published the article that gave the volume its title. An ambitious work, the book affirmed that the South's history, as envisioned in the image of "the Old South," remained a strong influence on twentieth-century southern society. Unlike other regions of the United States, the past bound the South to specific patterns of race relations, gender roles, and community identities that prevailed despite the upheavals of technology, mass marketing, and urbanization. "So far from being modernized," Cash wrote in his introduction about the region, "In many ways it has actually always marched away, as to this day it continues to do, from the present toward the past."

While emphasizing the importance of a frontier mentality on the southern mentality, Cash looked to the cotton boom years from 1820 to 1860 as the crucial years of southern history. It was the latter period that southern elites used after the Civil War to create a mythological past for the South, one based on the dominance of the planter class in unity with other whites, regardless of economic status. This racist bond worked not only to the detriment of African-Americans, but against poor whites as well. As Cash observed, the myths that the southern elites invoked to retain their dominance over the rest of society were so powerful that "The grand outcome was the almost complete disappearance of economic and social focus on the part of the masses." Translated into a "democracy of feeling" that demanded political and economic deference from poor whites in exchange for recognition of "the common brotherhood of white men," this bond reinforced the racial hierarchy of slavery well into the twentieth century. As Cash wrote, modern southern society fixed upon a seemingly "ever-growing concern with white superiority and an ever-growing will to mastery of the Negro" in order to reassure poor whites that "a white man, any white man, was in some sense a master." As in the Old South, "Economic and social considerations remained, as ever, subordinate to those of race—and country."

In addition to detailing the racist bond among southern whites, Cash also observed the ways in which the region's frontier mentality reasserted itself in the modern era through its emphasis on individualism. Not only did white southerners refuse to admit to having any "primary dependence" on others; in Cash's analysis, they also developed "an intense distrust of, and, indeed, downright aversion to, any actual exercise of authority beyond the barest minimum essential to the existence of the social organism." This anti-authority trait led to a tendency toward outright violence, as Cash noted, particularly when one's honor or racial status was offended. It was not a coincidence, then, that the South became "peculiarly the home of lynching," and that southern cities had violent crime rates that far surpassed every other region of the country.

Success and Untimely Death

In explaining how the mindset of the Old South had persisted despite the upheavals of the Civil War, Reconstruction, Populism, the Great Depression, and the New Deal, Cash's work was almost universally hailed as a masterpiece upon its publication in 1941. Critics were especially impressed with the author's ability to explain the importance of racism in working to the benefit of southern elites, a topic that had rarely been explained in such convincing detail. Not only did The Mind of the South receive excellent reviews in national publications such as Time, Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Saturday Review of Literature, but in the leading regional newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News and Baltimore Evening Sun as well. Although a few southern critics were taken aback by Cash's unflinching analysis, the critical raves far outnumbered the negative reviews.

After he got word that he had won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, Cash looked forward to writing his first novel. With his wife, he traveled to Mexico City in June 1941 to begin work. Tragically, however, Cash suffered a series of psychotic episodes that increased his anxiety, paranoia, and depression; convinced that Nazi agents were following him, he ran away from his wife and checked into another hotel, where he was later found hanging from his own necktie. At the time of his death on July 1, 1941, Cash was only 41 years old.

Although he produced only one book, Cash's contribution to the understanding of the American South was a masterpiece. Never out of print since its initial publication, The Mind of the South remains essential reading to any student of southern history, society, and culture. As Louis D. Rubin, Jr. wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review upon the 15th anniversary of the book's publication in 1991, "If I wish to get a sense of the workings of that elusive but very real entity known as the 'mind' of the Southern community, and how it operated at those and other points in history, Cash's book will offer certain kinds of insights that no other study can provide."


Clayton, Bruce, W.J. Cash: A Life, Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Morrison, Joseph L., W.J. Cash: Southern Prophet, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.


Backlist, July-August 2000.

Sewanee Review, Summer 1998.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1991. □

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