When History Speaks,
A Conversation with Dan Carter
Editorís Note: Dan Carter is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. His career focus has been the twentieth century South, its culture, race relations and politics. Four book length publications have made him one of the regionís most outstanding historians. Although this senior scholar now talks of his plans for retirement, he remains active, contributing the lead essay to the 2004 manifesto by liberal Southern authors entitled, Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent, edited by Anthony Dunbar. In October of 2004 he delivered a series of lectures in Australia on the changing role of race in American politics over the last fifteen years. These lectures will be used as the basis for an expansion and update to his book, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich.
by John L. Godwin
CCV: Tell us a little about your origins and your background...
Carter: Well, I grew up in Florence County, eastern South Carolina on a tobacco farm. My father was actually a small builder who started out as a carpenter and as a farmer... in the thirties he worked for the WPA and then started a small construction company. I worked on the farm and then worked with my father in construction... I spent a couple of years at what was then the University of South Carolina at Florence. I had been offered a job by the editor of the Florence Morning News and actually worked about forty hours a week and went to school for a couple of years...and then went on to Columbia for a career in teaching.
CCV: What about your early influences, what historians early on contributed most to you, or what teachers influenced you?
Carter: I certainly had a number of teachers who made a big difference. I had a couple at Florence. Jack Thompson and Jack Russell, taught American history and English history. They were both very young and were open to ideas. This was South Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s, and they introduced me to ideas that I hadnít thought about. And there were othersÖ And as far as historians...Like so many others, for my generation and for others as well it was C. Vann Woodward, as far as a single historian. And as far as a single book, it was the Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that provided so much insight into what history could teach us about the past and about the present. But, I was a very eclectic reader, and in some ways reading Southern fiction was probably as important for me as anything else in my younger days. Reading Faulkner was important, I read almost every one of his novels.
CCV: Woodward has certainly been a towering figure. But he has also had his share of criticism. Recently this has been heard in Nation magazine and elsewhere. Has the criticism been fair?
Carter: Well, there are things that C. Vann Woodward wrote that I donít completely agree with. I have a different perspective on. But I certainly have respect for that guy. He had respect for things that I wrote. Twenty years ago C. Vann Woodward was clearly a product of his times as we all are. His outlook was shaped by the thirties and the depression and was in many ways remarkably liberal on issues of race, for example, for his time. But this was a thirties and forties liberalism, not eighties or nineties. His biography of Tom Watson, was clearly a product of the times. Iíd have to say it is almost wishful thinking. Watson was never the racial liberal that Woodward described. But to me, Woodward still speaks to us in a powerful way. His understanding of power relationships and socioeconomic relationships, I think is more true to the times than the new social history that has in some ways drifted away from an understanding of how economics shapes society...
CCV: Do you think Southern history has a place in American culture? And if so, what is that place?
Carter: Gosh. Well... the South has played a role in different ways. From the outside, in a way... this may sound like a whining Southerner. Like, they are always picking on us. But in some ways Southern culture, particularly the white Southern culture, has been a convenient way of Americans exercising their participation in the historic dilemma of race relations, it has always been... thank God weíre not Southern men and weíre not like those Southerners. And so thatís one way Southern culture has been a kind of scapegoat at times for the failures in American society. In other ways the South has been a kind of fantasy land. It has represented a kind of idyllic vision, in spite of the racism that has existed, the moonlight and magnolias has been, from a more sophisticated perspective on the past, a way of seeing in the South the oil industry and the money grabbing and crass materialism as part of this fantastic portion of the South where the family and traditional values are more important...So the South has become this symbolic place. It becomes a kind of Petri dish where we can explore all these ideas about American society, ideas about slavery and about segregation and about race and other areas as well...I think it is why it has been relevant, and it is still relevant today...
CCV: Have Southern historians been adequately critical of the region? Have they been honest? Or defensive, even apologetic?
Carter: There was certainly a period from the early stages of writing about the South, from the turn of the century through the thirties and the forties, when most white Southerners were extraordinarily defensive about the South. But I think since the 1960s, particularly the generation of Southerners and historians or scholars writing about the South were so critical in fact I think in some ways they lost their connection with the population...There are ways in which professional historians since the sixties, seventies and eighties, their views parted from the general population...
CCV: Do you consider yourself a Southern historian?
Carter: Well, what I try to see myself as is more the intersection between regional and national history, particularly on race exploitation and politics. But I certainly donít shy away from the description of myself as being a Southern historian.
CCV: Youíve certainly taken on the status quoóyouíve examined Southern conservatism. Youíve done as much as any to illuminate the role of the South in U.S. politics. What has motivated you?
Carter: Well thatís a hard one. I like to think that Iíve got a kind of lovers quarrel with the region. That Iím certainly very attached to the region and see many things that I love, that I feel very positive about. But I also feel...well, this is going to seem a little pretentious, but Iíve also lived abroad for three years and I really in some ways see myself as much a cosmopolitan as a I do an American, in the sense that Iím not very nationalistic. I donít have a sense of being an ardent defender of Americanism, any more than I am a Southerner. And I think it grows out of something so fundamental, but I suspect it started when I was growing up in the Baptist Church environment. It was certainly not evangelical, but the emphasis on self-examination in my religious roots. Itís not an oxymoronóIím an ardent Unitarian, that self-critical aspect of childhood is still part of it. I donít think you can be a whole human being if you simply accept the way that you are. The same is true of your own culture, if you simply accept it and glorify it. I donít see how anyone can look at the world and the culture in which we live and simply say this is the way we ought to live. And when you place the way we are against the way we ought to be that is described in the teachings of Jesus, but also in all the great religious traditions of the world, thereís a tremendous gap. And so as an historian I try to empathize, I write with a sense of moral consciousness about what we ought to be instead of just who we are...
CCV: Was W.J. Cashís book, Mind of the South, an important one for you?
Carter: You know, itís interesting. Itís one of those books, itís like Thomas Wolfeís Look Homeward Angel. I read that book when I was seventeen years old, and I read it again the next year when I was eighteen. It was just, it spoke to me so much when I was that age. And I read W.J. Cash when I was about the age of twenty. Things were changing so dramatically about race and our conception of what the good South was. It spoke to me powerfully then. It doesnít speak to me in the same way today. Iíll give you an example. I also read Harringtonís The Other America, which was also an important book. But this is a book that still speaks to me, in a way maybe more than Cash. It holds up better I think.
CCV: Let me ask you about some of your own books. Youíve written some important ones. Which have had the biggest impact?
Carter: Probably my first book (Scottsboro) has been read more widely, probably seventy-five, close to a hundred thousand copies by now. Which is nothing compared to the mass reading of some books. But it has been read repeatedly particularly by students, and read by more people. But I suspect that the Wallace biography has had more impact because it has drawn more attacks. Thatís usually a sign of influence. If people donít argue with you about it then it may not have much of an influence. But itís interesting, the book that I think in some ways in terms of really an intellectual challenge was actually the book that got little attention at all. My book on Reconstruction. Itís a quite different kind of book. In that itís somewhat, very bleak. What Iím trying to do historically is to look at white Southerners and see the extent to which alternatives are possible... Particularly a group of white Southerners who really did see the world as having changed and broke through the fog of the world they lived in 1865-66 and tried to imagine a different kind of South. And yet they failed...Itís really an attempt to challenge the hubris that we all have as Americans...
CCV: Do you think Southerners have gotten over the Civil War?
Carter: They still in the back of their minds... it doesnít have the same kind of resonance. Thatís partly because of the economic prosperity that has come to the region. Also in some ways the white Southerners have won the civil war. The fact that you, for a whole twenty years, for twenty-five and more years, from Nixon to the Bushes in which Southerners have really been deferred to and told why should you be resentful?... For the last twenty years the federal government has hardly been ďwhipping upĒ on white Southerners. The sense of victimhood is still maintained, but you turn it on liberal elites and the media. But we donít have the sense that the federal government is defending the rights of African Americans.
CCV: Do you think that Southern historians, or todayís historians, get enough attention from the press?
Carter: No I donít... But, I concluded that thereís been a dumbing down in almost every aspect of the media. You couple that with the fact that only about twenty-five percent of the American people get their information from newspapers and magazines. Most of it comes from cable television and so-call news networks, you know, news, broadcast news... No we donít learn very much from the media about Southern history. But, we donít learn very much about anything...One book I read on that, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It was published in the mid-1980s, and it is so prescient in terms of the way in which it shows the combination of corporatization of the American media and the rise of entertainment. It dominates everything. It has changed the way in which citizens look at politics, look at society, look at the information they get... I think there was a period in which newspapers actually had news in them. And today the truth of the matter is now that except for a handful, newspapers donít have any news in them... You can go back and get transcripts of earlier talks and shows. And itís just astonishing to see the change that takes place from the 1970s to the 1990s...Itís part of a whole industry issue...Now itís two people shouting at each other. Itís entertainment designed to jack up ratings. For every show like Bill Moyers there are thirty shows that I think leave people stupider than they were when they turned it on in the first place...
CCV: How about the book that you worked on recently, Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent. You worked on that with a group of scholars. How would you describe that?
Carter: It was an attempt I think, growing out of the reality of our frustration. But I canít speak for everybody in the group. We did have some discussions in which, for all the pros and cons of Southern experience and the positives and negatives, that one of the reasonsóand here Iíll leave my historianís task asideóthe reasons we are in such a heck-of-a-fix now as far as having someone in the White House, in reference to values, and in reference to a sense of judgment that we think is disastrous, is because of the South. It is the white South that has served as the foundation for conservative policy. And for us as Southerners we have an obligation to say that these people donít speak for us. There have been these voices of dissent, it was always hard to say but important to say that George Bush, his values that his administration espouses that are so solidly based in white conservative Southern culture. I donít mean just Southerners, obviously not, but white Southerners disproportionately supported this administration. Electorally, George Bush would not be president were it not for the solid support of the white South. As reflected in the electoral college. And so we felt an obligation to say that we donít agree with this preemptive war. We donít agree with his militaristic emphasis on the issues of terrorism. We donít agree with his attempt to strip away the safety network for those who are vulnerable in Southern society. We donít agree with his attempt to take away civil liberties. We donít agree with his attempt to destroy the environment, or at least to take away protections. We donít agree with his so-called religious values...
CCV: Do you think the effort, that the message has reached the people who needed it?
Carter: No. I mean the reality is we tried. And we had a number of public readings. All of us took part in a conference...But the truth of the matter is we were talking mostly to one another. Oh, there were some occasions when we had high-spirited debates. I think thatís just a reflection of the fact that it is so difficult to set up situations where we can listen to one another. There is something about the nature of liberalism. If you are liberal you are willing to accept that maybe you donít have all the answers. And so you listen. You are willing to listen to the other side. But there is not much of a venue for that. So we didnít reach those people. We live in this very partisan time. Walter Lipmann said something once, and I hadnít read it in thirty years, but I remember being so struck by it, and that is thatóyou never know the moment when the switch goes on, when the people who have adamantly refused to listen to new ideas, to listen to criticism and new ideas, and suddenly the switch comes on and they are willing to listen. And he talks about it in terms of historical moments. For example in the nineteenth century when radical populists and reformers were raving against the excesses of corporate interests and nobody would listen. And suddenly a switch went on and then people listened. It led to the Progressive Era. And so you may think itís falling on deaf ears, but you never know...
From Carolina Civic Voice
Vol. 6, No 3, Fall 2006