Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. By Grady McWhiney. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988)
According to Grady McWhiney, the North and the South were destined to develop incompatible lifestyles because of each regions’ unique ethnic roots. Whereas the North came from the stock of industrious hard working Englishmen, the South spawned from the pastoral and primitive society of the British Isle’s Celtic people. Written in 1988, Cracker Culture presented the broadest attempt at surveying the common white man of the Old South since Frank Owsley’s Plain Folk of the Old South published almost forty years before.
The book examines the culinary, agricultural, herding, and entertainment activities of the Old South and compares them to McWhiney’s understanding of pre-capitalistic Celtic society. He continually asserts that these practices made Southern lifestyle incompatible with the more Anglo oriented activities of the North, and that the Civil War was almost preordained to happen because the societies must eventually come into “mortal combat” to solve their differences (269).
McWhiney formulaically arranges his book into comparisons between Northern and Southern lifestyles and then English and Celtic. The book does rely heavily on primary sources to further McWhiney’s thesis, but he fails to engage the numerous critics that arose to argue against him when he stated his “Celtic Thesis” in 1984 with the book Attack and Die. He also never expands his argument to examine other pre-capitalist agriculture societies to see if the activities of McWhiney’s “Celts” are actually unique to that ethnic groups at all, or rather a function of being a pre-capitalist society in general. The other major issue with the book that McWhiney fails to address by sticking so close to the primary sources is just how he is defining who a Celt is. Even by the time of American Revolution, significant integration had begun to occur between English and “Celts” in numbers that would have made a pure distinction possible. Ironically, McWhiney has as hard a time defining “Celts” in the Old World as much as some southern urban centers had defining “Blacks” in the Old South.
The book does contain a number of enlightening observations on the Old South though, despite its controversial thesis. One of the most important is the emphasis on cattle and swine herding. Previously, historians of open range ranching in the United States have written about that agricultural pursuit’s development in the Southwestern United States following the Mexican-American War and especially after the American Civil War. They argued that it was rural Anglo-American’s interactions with Mexican vaqueros that helped develop open range ranching in the United States, but McWhiney skillfully highlights that there was a longstanding tradition already in the South and that it was that tradition that moved out west with Southerners as they emigrated.
Cracker Culture’s thesis will invite argument and debate for years to come, but it does have some features that recommend it for use in the existing historiography. There are specific sections that historians of the Old South can use as a springboard for further investigation, and the overall narrative of the book would be useful for sparking heated intellectual debate at the graduate level. Unfortunately, the controversial nature of the book’s thesis would tend to detract from its use at the undergraduate level. The book is an important addition to the historiography of the Old South in a unique way.
Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. By Grady McWhiney. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Dr. McWhiney is a retired Texas Christian University History Professor who held the Lyndon Baines Johnson chair for several years. In his work, he puts forth the argument that the cultural lifestyle of antebellum southerners in the United States had a strong similarity to the cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and Wales regions of the British Empire. The author details these similarities in chapters noting settlement patterns, heritage, herding styles, tendency towards hospitality, pleasures, violence, morals, education progress and, worth.
In this work, Dr. McWhiney argues that the markedly distinctive characteristics of Southern culture is an extension of Celtic traits transplanted to the United States during the migration of that populace in the eighteenth century. McWhiney contends that while the South became the receptacle of the Celtic traditional society, the North became home to the more urbane, worldly, strict, White Anglo Saxon Protestant English who followed the Protestant work ethic.
This continuation of the habits morals and, values from the two disparate cultures allowed the propagation of certain conceived bias, prejudices and resentments to carry over into the newly settled lands. McWhiney states, “This Cultural conflict between English and Celt not only continued in British North America, it shaped the history of the United States” (p. 7). In this argument, he also states that the Celtic southerners openly despised hard work and felt that the more important aspects of life revolved around the leisurely pursuits of drinking, gambling, fighting, hunting and all types of sports. While in the North, more traits that are useful came to the front such as hard work, attention to detail, thriftiness, education, and civilized behavior to one another.
Most of the book details the similarities of the Celtic culture and the Southern populace by extensively using personal accounts of travelers from the North and foreign countries. The points that Dr. McWhiney makes about the Southern culture involve the issues of the laziness of Anglos, also known as Crackers. In his book, McWhiney states, “Nobody seems to have worked very hard in the Old South” (p. 47). This statement also pertained to slaves who, according to the author, also had a tendency towards idleness (p. 45-6). Would the slaves feel differently if they could state their own case on labor and work ethics?
There are some problems with the author’s work; the attempt to deny the importance of wealth and status among the southerners is laughable. The remarks of slaves also becoming lazy and insolent appear false; after all, slave owners would not have tolerated such insolence and after working in the cotton fields all day, would slaves feel the same way? Dr. McWhiney also leaves out the very important voice of the slaves in the Southern culture. He also states that the Native Indians were lazy, slothful and lacking in work ethic while not truly exploring or understanding the native culture that they come from.
While interesting to the average reader, the book has flaws tend to detract from the effort that Dr. McWhiney devoted to his book. His arguments on the surface are plausible and many readers will chuckle when specific examples are familiar to the reader; however the lack of a bibliographical section and the extensive use of long footnotes also detract from an otherwise interesting book.
Texas Christian University Thomas Walker
This book argues that a Celtic culture developed and existed in the antebellum south. Author, Gradey McWhiney, affirms that Celtic natives brought their culture to southern colonies in British North America, and that their decedents (Crackers) passed on ancestral ways and daily traditions that became rooted in the south. According to the author, this Celtic culture was anti English and developed into anti Yankee sentiment before and during the Civil War. His thesis explores and describes similarities between Celts and Crackers. By exploring the accounts of southern travelers, the author denotes their characterizations of these Celtic culture’s attitudes and he classifies them as Scottish, Irish, and Welsh culture characteristics. He will note how both Celts and Crackers held similarities in values of hospitality, education, wealth, and most importantly violence.
The author will claim that these southerners were lazy, idle, illiterate herders, who would rather fight, chew tobacco, hunt, play music, and loaf rather than toil in agricultural pursuits. The rural attitudes that developed in the south from these Crackers were not shared by their northern counterparts and McWhiney will claim that, “Celts and Southerners were simply too lazy, too unstable, too migratory, and too committed to sensual pleasures to be yeomen.” This thesis based solely on the accounts of traveling observers is a bold claim and its debate continues today.
McWhiney’s evidence is disputed in several ways, for example his claims that a people could not change after several migrations, technological advances, wars, and economic influences seems weak and unsubstantiated. It appears that the author is creating a romantic idea of southerners and their culture in the nineteenth century and does so without referring to the anthropological scholarship. However, by exploring the cultural heritage of southerners and their ancestors, he paints an interpretive snapshot of those middle class travelers in the antebellum south. It looks as if McWhiney defines this culture as completely unchanging and with it their ideals of daily life. The authors’ denial of the importance of wealth by these southern Crackers and Celts seems absurd. Surely many white males desired the dollar, even among the Cracker Culture. By surveying travelers’ accounts and perceptions of the southern people, one must question their accuracy and definitions of the accounts or expressions of the Cracker Culture. McWhiney interprets these travelers’ accounts well in order to support his thesis and it only demonstrates a biased view rather than a multifaceted historical account.
This book is very entertaining reading although the evidence seems weak at times. The author seems to dismiss those southern gentry who did not follow the Cracker or Celtic influences. While reading the book one is easily swayed that, all southerners who established themselves in the south were Celts or Crackers and such was not the case. It is a significant historical account of a unique culture because it tries to define a exclusive class of southern white men – the Cracker. The important debate of this cultures’ attitude on violence, slavery, religion, racism, paternalism, and daily cultural lifestyles that according to McWhiney, always resisted human and environmental influences is worthy of the historical exploration.
Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. By Grady McWhiney with Forrest McDonald. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988) Pp. 290.
In a very controversial but undeniably interesting book, Grady McWhiney takes a hand at explaining why the north and south differed so much before the Civil War. In short, he points to the settlement patterns of the Old South. Predominately, he claims, Celts from the fringes of Britain settled the southern colonies, while the more puritanical English settled the northern ones. Each side carried with it their culture, and the same oppositions that existed in the Old Country took root in the new. Historians should look to Celtic culture, rather than slavery or cotton, to explain what made the south southern.
The book is mainly a comparison between southern "cracker" culture and that of the Celts in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. McWhiney hold the two up side by side intending for his readers to be shocked by the similarities between them. He follows a single basic formula throughout the book, using a topical approach. He deals first with settlement patterns to prove that Celts did indeed make up a majority of southern settlers. He also employs surname analysis to this end. Next, he examines the Celtic culture as a whole to show exactly what sort of culture the settlers took with them. Here, he shows the Celts to be lazy, illiterate, warm-hearted drunken shepherds who loved poetry, song, fighting, hunting, gambling, etc.
Succeeding chapters take each area separately and make the thrilling discovery that southerners seemed to like all those things too. There was a basic underpinning that allowed southerners to live as they liked: the vast majority of them engaged in free range herding. This in itself might be one of the more controversial points of his book, as it denies the knee-jerk stereotype of the south and king cotton. Still, crackers put a premium on spare time for leisure, and herding allowed them just that. They simply turned their cows or hogs loose into common pasturage and picked them back up when they needed them.
As for hospitality, McWhiney argues that they certainly had more than their share of it, like the Celts themselves. Yet, it sometimes seemed less so to northerners, who often seemed less impressed with the spirit of the moment than they did repulsed by the fare that accompanied it. Like the Celts from whom they inherited their generosity, southern hospitality was more spontaneous than planned, and usually did not plan for guest ahead of time. Not surprisingly, McWhiney also argues that the southern population also inherited its love for certain pleasures, such as hunting.
His chapter on violence is of the most interesting. Visitors to the South often declared its inhabitant's love for violent play simply barbaric. To southerners, however, flirting with danger was an enthralling pastime. Also, like the Celts, would duel at the drop of a hat. Some managed to get particularly gruesome, and the law rarely intervened. In fact, in both areas, in order to be fully accepted as a man in society, a boy must prove himself in a fight with another. Yet, strangely, theft was not a real issue. This is partially explained by Celtic culture once again, as they considered thievery lower than low, while violence, committed honorably, just another fact of life. McWhiney finishes out his book with chapters comparing Southern and Celtic views on education, morals, progress, and various methods of judging value and worth.
Quite a few historians turned their guns to bear on this book after it appeared in 1988. Their criticisms are, in some part, deserved. The idea that the South's Celtic origins are the panacea to all that ails antebellum historians seems more than a bit simplistic, to say the least. McWhiney also needs to do more than simply point to a series of amazing similarities in order to prove his point. They could, after all, be mainly gigantic coincidences; surely Celts and Southerners are not the only people groups to act in the manner he describes.
Other attacks miss their mark by a country mile. In a review for the Journal of American History, Elliot J. Gorn of Miami University takes issue with the idea that a culture can remain static enough to have the kinds of effects that McWhiney wants to ascribe to it. This may be true to a certain point, cultures do indeed change, but it is not at all evident that McWhiney literally intends to argue that Celtic culture remained unaltered for over the centuries. Rather, he alleges the Southerners inherited their cultural forms from their ancestors, proving it by showing their similarities to their forefathers. Another odd assault comes from Michael P. Johnson of the University of California, Irvine. Here, he complains that McWhiney fails to focus sufficiently on women and blacks. Though he might have spent more time on women, he does make clear that they tended to fall into line with the men, liking the same things and looking at them in largely the same way. As to the latter half of his objection, from the very beginning it is abundantly clear that this is a book on cracker culture. McWhiney simply stayed on topic by focusing mainly on whites. Though he may criticize the book as "malarkey", Johnson seems to be spinning a few half-baked yarns of his own if he actually means to suggest that significant numbers of blacks should be grouped as crackers, and therefore included (1).
Though the ultimate utility of the book may be open to question, it
is still an interesting and informative read. The similarities between
the two cultures seem to be too strong to simply dismiss off hand, but
whether McWhiney's conclusions are fully correct remains to be seen.
|Texas Christian University||
Brian C. Melton