Review: The Problem South
Natalie J. Ring. The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2012. xiv + 334 pp. ISBN 978-0-82034-260-3.
Natalie Ring’s The Problem South is an important new study of the history of the New South era. It examines the growing chorus of voices in both the North and South that called for reform and uplift of the diseased, undereducated, and economically backwards southern states during the period 1880 to 1930. The vigorous and sometimes vicious criticism of the South famously flowed from northern writers such as H. L. Mencken, and came from liberals in the South as well—both black and white. These southern progressives agreed with their northern counterparts that the South was a problematic region that was holding back the nation. They emphasized that the unique problems of the South must be addressed through federal intervention and the utilization of social scientific approaches. And their solution for the “southern problem” was to bring to the region the overall progress, industrialization, modernization, and prosperity being experienced in the rest of America.
Despite the optimism of the New South message, most Americans continued to see the South as a place mired in tropical diseases and inefficient economic patterns and populated by lazy, undereducated African Americans and poor whites. What is unique about Ring’s treatment of this chorus of discontent is the connection she draws between it and the simultaneous rise of imperialism and global commerce in America. She challenges the more conventional view: that such calls for reform and uplift of the South reflected a growing post-Reconstruction desire on the part of both northerners and southerners to reunify the nation, and that this desire for reunification led to myth-making about both the Civil War and the romanticized antebellum South in order to smooth the transition back into a reunified nation. Instead, Ring prompts us to look at the New South era discussion of the “problem south” and the reform efforts of the period through the lens of post-colonialism.
Ring’s convincing argument proceeds by examining the popular image of the South as a region riddled with disease, especially tropical diseases such as ringworm, pellagra, and yellow fever, which provoked comparisons between the South and tropical, colonial regions like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. This reinforced Americans’ perception of the region as being distinct from the rest of the industrialized nation and a drain upon the nation’s overall productivity and progress. Reformers shaped a rationale for government intervention around this narrative, stressing the need for a strong, healthy workforce brought together by corporate America and philanthropic social outreach efforts. Ring continues by examining critiques of the southern economy’s over-emphasis upon cotton production. While the South’s cotton helped fuel the growth of America’s manufacturing industry, it was also viewed as a threat to the well-being of both the region and the nation. Reformers advocated a more diversified and modernized economy, one more aligned with the overall trajectory of America’s economic progress in the era. Additionally, Ring looks at the rising concern over the issue of poor whites in the South. Many northern and southern critics of the New South campaigned against the crop lien system, child labor, and other practices that were seen to contribute to the disproportionately high numbers of poor and illiterate whites in the southern states.
The Problem South is certain to have an impact on southern studies. Ring’s efforts to place discussions about the South’s problems within the context of American global expansion and colonialism, shifts and expands our understanding of the New South. Historians of southern religion will be disappointed that she does not do more with religion in her study. Aside from a few fleeting appearances of Christian leaders such as Atticus Haygood, Andrew Sledd, and Warren Candler, Ring does little to explore the role of religious voices in the discussions of the “problem south.” Historians interested in religion in the South will nonetheless find Ring’s new work compelling and illuminating and will hopefully feel challenged to test Ring’s post-colonial interpretation of New South reform efforts by examining religious critiques of the region in a new way. Did religious progressives pushing for moral, educational, social, and health reform in the South, for instance, simultaneously promote a similar agenda on colonial mission fields? Was the rhetoric used to describe the needs of such foreign mission fields the same used when describing the problems facing the southern states? Did they view the southern states, as Ring suggests, as a foreign country? Despite the lack of emphasis on religion and religious leaders, Natalie Ring provides a promising new lens through which to view the minority movement of progressives in the South who, instead of touting the moral superiority of the region, called attention to its social, economic, and moral shortcomings.