Wilbur J. Cash was born in Gaffney, South Carolina and raised in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. As a child, he lived near a hosiery mill, which his father managed. He later attended Wake Forest University and served as editor of the school newspaper, Old Gold and Black. In college, while listening to various lectures, the idea for his 1941 classic was born. After his university studies, Cash wrote occasionally for H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury and started periodically writing Mind of the South. He also served meanwhile as a columnist for The Charlotte News and an editor of a small-town North Carolina newspaper, The Cleveland Press. As a columnist, he consistently criticized German Nazism and Italian Fascism, for he believed Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini were grave dangers to the free world.
Cash is most noted for his Mind of the South (1941). It was first printed as a series of eight essays in the American Mercury. According to Cash, the South was like a tree twisted by the years of change yet its tap root lie in the Old South. Cash presented the Southern mindset, according to historian James C. Cobb, as “crippled by racism, an exaggerated sense of individualism, a tragic proclivity for violence, and the ‘savage ideal’ of hostility to criticism or innovation.” In 1940, the North Carolinian predicted that economic and societal changes would require the South to adapt quicker than (and in ways) theretofore unimaginable; entrenched and stubborn Southern leadership, however, lacked the ability to change accordingly. Therefore, the South could never face reality, and violence would enforce reality.
Although Cash received praise from various and diverse editors and organizations, Southern Agrarians criticized Cash and his conclusions. Donald Davidson, a professor at Vanderbilt University, for one, rejected Cash’s claim of a proto-Dorian bond—a bond that unified all Southern whites, no matter their class, to oppress blacks. Davidson believed the large black population necessitated strict laws and that democracy was only possible in a homogenous society. The Vanderbilt professor contended that totalitarianism often occurred in the name of democracy. According to historian Paul V. Murphy, Davidson turned Cash’s “savage ideal on the North.”
In 1941, Cash traveled to Mexico, where he worked on a novel as part of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Twice before his applications had been rejected. But in 1938, Cash had befriended Jonathan Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, and this friendship helped his successful third attempt. While in Mexico City, Cash started fearing that he was being followed by Nazi spies. A day later he was found hanging from his necktie from a bathroom door hook. His body was cremated and never examined in the United States. Questions remain, for some, regarding the cause of his death.
James C. Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens, 1999); "W.J. Cash—Quandaries of the Mind," www.wjcash.org (accessed November 16, 2009); George Brown Tindall, The Emergence of the New South (Baton Rouge, 1967).