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The Southern Country Editor.

The title of this book is misleading. It is much more than the history of Southern country newspapers and the role of their editors. Rather, the book offers a most generous slice of Southern society and thought following the Civil War through the early 1900s as reflected in the pages of various Southern weekly journals. The newspapers reveal the divided mind of the South and a region of both continuity and change.

The Southern-born author, Tom Clark, who enjoyed a distinguished career as a historian of the South, occasionally chides the editors. However, he is not absolutely certain as to whether or not the editors reflected the views of their readers or reinforced them.

The columns of the weekly rural papers showed that farming and the weather were central themes in the lives of the readers. Accounts of church meetings, baptisms and revivals, barbecues and quilting parties made good copy. But to relieve the drabness and routine of Southern rural life and to sell newspapers, the editors also filled their pages with the grotesque, the bizarre, and the morbid. They printed what excited and titillated their readers. More often than not editors pandered to the prurient interests and exploited the ignorance of their poor and undereducated readers. Especially in this way the papers revealed the thought of Southern country folk.

The editors published stories about natural disasters, three-legged chickens, mad dogs, men and women reared by animals, rainfalls of frogs, fish and human flesh, huge and sinister snakes, strange animal tracks, and grisly murders. Readers followed these accounts with great relish. But regrettably, Clark observed, the country editors abnegated their role. They should have been concerned about the huge economic losses the South experienced because of superstition and ignorance. "Backwardness, illiteracy and reactionary attitudes are wasteful and expensive," Clark concluded (p. 146).

The editors also reflected and reinforced the ideas of their society by promoting the cult of domesticity. In this way women lost some of their personal freedoms. Like the male subscribers, the editors viewed white men as the protectors of female virtue; yet the editors frequently printed all the sordid details surrounding cases of seduction and fornication.

When the editors wrote about the black man, they revealed their own prejudices and those of the rural folk who read their journals. In the economic order of the South, the editors believed, the black man had to be supervised by the white, and to maintain the Southern social order, black suffrage had to be restricted. Repeatedly, the editors referred to the African-American in pejorative terms. They believed that the Negro was lazy, suited only for a technical education, and at worst a "sensual fiend" and a "wild, ignorant animal" (p. 196).

Violence toward black men persisted in the frontier-like region of the post-war South, especially in the form of lynchings. Most editors disapproved of lynchings because they were a threat to law and civilization; others approved of the lynch mob because they feared the Negro and desired to preserve white supremacy. Clark believes that the public mind also was divided on the issue of mob violence. Apparently, both editors and public agreed, however, that even the most lurid details of lynchings had to be published.

The single, most progressive issue that united the editors was their crusade against one-crop farming, which they believed kept the economy of the South on the brink of economic disaster. Clark also praised the editors for their "amazing perspective" on the insidious nature of the crop-lien laws which kept Southern agriculture impoverished.

Also to their credit, the editors promoted better schools, sidewalks and roads, and condemned the prevalence of loaded pistols and the use of tobacco. They were passionate supporters of the Lost Cause; nevertheless, they supported national reconciliation.

The editors might have enjoyed their occasional crusades, but their best writing went into politics. Indeed, Clark concluded, the country paper was probably the most important single influence on Southern political opinion and served to create the politically solid Democratic South.

The critiques of the book when it first appeared in 1948 were generally good. However, one reviewer believed that Clark should have devoted more attention to printing methods and another argued that too much information was taken from too few newspapers.

These few caveats aside, the book still provides some of the best insights available into the mind of Southern editors and their constituencies. In the introduction to this volume, Gilbert Fite provides a brief biographical sketch of the author and observes that The Southern Country Editor "is a volume that richly deserves to be kept in print" (p. vii). This reviewer agrees.
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Author:Fraser, Walter J.., Jr.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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