A review of Charles Reagan Wilson’s “Flashes of a Southern Spirit” by James Welborn III

Flashes of a Southern Spirit:
Meanings of the Spirit in the U. S. South

By Charles Reagan Wilson
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011
$59.95 [Cloth] $24.95 [Paper]

James “Trae” Welborn III (M.A., Clemson) is a core contributor to Bowtied and Fried.

Flashing a breadth of knowledge attained only through extended historical study, Charles Reagan Wilson brings together twelve of his own essays in this collection that mines the multiple meanings of spirit in the U.S. South.  Each essay expands upon some aspect of Wilson’s previous works on civil religion and faith in the South, pushing the cultural perspectives of “southern studies” even further in the process.  The result is a varied account of southern spirituality, which according to Wilson, encompasses the region’s patriotic spirit, prophetic nature, and religious ecstasy. (ix)  Beyond a theological or “church” history of southern spiritualism, Wilson’s essay collection illustrates how religious faith and regional identity have combined to produce a distinct and ever-evolving southern regional culture since the late 19th Century.

The twelve essays are divided into three parts, labeled “Traditions,” “Creativity,” and “Spirituality.”  The first part chronicles the creation of southern “tradition,” embodied for Wilson in the postbellum myth of the “Lost Cause” and its “civil religion.”  Wilson then takes this traditional myth to task through an analysis of various segments of southern society who failed to fit within its constructs or identify fully with its proscriptions—namely poor whites, white liberals, and black southerners—over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In the second part, Wilson exhibits how these conflicting regional identities jockeyed with and within the dominant “tradition” to spawn a distinctive southern creativity that manifested itself most expressively in the region’s art, literature, and music.  The final part examines the specific influence of southern religion on southern artistic expression, detailing in turn the lives of McKendree Long, Elvis Presley, and Richard Wright.

Throughout these essays, Protestant Evangelicalism pervades as the dominant chord in the southern religious ensemble.  Each essay addresses some aspect of how this particular mode of religious belief and its peculiarly southern expressions affected broader evolutions in regional identity and culture.  The performative nature of southern identity and the adaptability of southern religious and cultural forms to meet its ever-changing demands also figure predominately throughout.

In addition to expanding upon themes addressed in his own previous work, Wilson also engages the burgeoning field of southern identity studies, represented in the work of James C. Cobb (Redefining Southern Culture, 1999 and Away Down South, 2008), Tara McPherson (Reconstructing Dixie, 2003), and editors Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn (Look Away!, 2004).  Wilson’s study places religion and spirituality at the forefront of southern cultural identity in ways that draw upon and branch out from these related identity studies, bringing an added dimension to an already provocative field.  The result is less a flash than a beacon for future scholars of southern identity to follow, and establishes an understanding of the southern spirit as essential to the comprehension of the southern past.

– JHW

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