The North's Second Big Win

Remembering the days when Southerners hated cars

You do it, too. You overhear people talking, and you listen in. You can't help it. Listen long enough and you'll be able to predict what comes next; most conversations run in predictable patterns. The other day on the bus, I heard a couple of young graduate-student types, talking about life in Knoxville. One was from Chicago, the other from New York. One had lived here for a few years, the other for a few months.

The worst thing about the South, they agreed, was that it was very difficult to get by without a car. These people practically live in their cars, they said. Both were looking forward to leaving the car-crazy South.

It's something I've heard many times before. It's what Northerners tend to say about the South when they get together.

Some Southerners go even further with that idea; I've heard it claimed that there's motor oil in Southern blood. What's the South without pickups and NASCAR, after all? I've also heard people declare, with anthropological certainty, that Southerners will never be happy riding buses or any other form of mass transportation.

But I suspect it's not necessarily a DNA issue. There was a time, of course, when Knoxvillians and many other Southerners used public transportation daily, like for the 56 years that we had an efficient and very popular streetcar system. There's been a lot of press recently about the new bicycle commuting trend, but a century and more ago, practical bicycling was much more popular in Knoxville than it is today.

It's all pretty ironic; the South once resisted automobiles. Some Southerners condemned the automobile as "the Yankee machine," and for years, Mr. Ford, the Yankee's Yankee, had a hard time selling his products down here. Several years after the introduction of the Model T, Southerners were buying them at a fraction of the rate Northerners were.

Country Southerners had horses; city Southerners had streetcars. Some photographs of downtown Knoxville a century ago, just random scenes on Gay Street, show people in bonnets or derbies using multiple forms of transportation: a streetcar passes a couple of bicycles and a horse-drawn wagon, as more pedestrians are striding down the sidewalk in a city where you could walk anywhere. Maybe in the background, a passenger train was bound for St. Louis or Baltimore or Raleigh. Alternative transportation wasn't just some trend cooked up by latte-drinking liberals. We were more familiar with alternative transportation a century ago than we are today. It wasn't even alternative. It was mainstream.

And most seemed happy with it. In 1908, the summer that Ford introduced the T, there just wasn't that much demand for still another form of transportation. That was part of our cool reception to it. Southerners had other ways of getting there.

But there was also active resistance to the automobile, as an intrusive evil—and not all of it was just reactionary neo-Ludditism. Some of it, based in surprising logic, reflected a genuine cultural and economic struggle.

We rarely think of political conservatives as harboring the potential for a vigorous literary movement, but the Vanderbilt-based group of poets and novelists known as the Agrarians—or the Fugitives—were that. They included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren. One of their leaders, maybe their fiercest member, was Tennessean Andrew Lytle, editor, novelist, biographer of his hero Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Lytle was an anti-tax, anti-government-intrusion Southerner who, to read his essay, "The Hind Tit," published in 1930 in the classic manifesto-like collection I'll Take My Stand, also opposed the automobile.

Lytle and some other Southern thinkers regarded the automobile as the biggest part of a Northern plot to enslave the South to Yankee interests. Lytle opposed using government money to build roads, the new fashion-oriented materialism driven by automobile advertisements, and the routine despotism of the long-term installment loan, a new concept to many Southerners before the introduction of the automobile.

He wasn't just a crabby old reactionary. He was 28 years old when he wrote that essay, a Vanderbilt grad who'd also studied at Oxford University and Yale. But Lytle was hardcore, something of a radical on the idea of Southern identity and the necessity of resisting the automobile and the other trappings—or, more specifically, traps—of the modernizing world. Perhaps you could fault him for not being realistic. It's unlikely the pure self-sufficient agrarian society that he grew up with and touted as an ideal could thrive alongside a modern industrial nation. Lytle's ideal South could, by now, look something like Mexico.

But he had a point. "Good roads brought the motorcar and made of every individual an engineer or conductor, requiring a constant, and in some cases daily, need for cash," he wrote. The Southerner had once been proud of his independence. The automobile, and other petroleum-fueled engines, made the Southerner dependent as a baby. Worse, he was dependent on the North: Northern automobile manufacturers, Northern banking interests, Northern oil companies, Northern insurance companies. The automobile would play the main role in rendering the South the permanent runt of the American litter, suckling on the nation's hind tit: hence the catchy title.

Lytle said a Southern farmer gullible to Northern influences was likely to find himself with several "vehicles which must be fed from the oil companies, several notes to the bank bearing interest, and payments, as regular as clock strokes, to be made on the car. He finds his payment for gasoline, motor oil, and power for his tractor is tremendously higher than the few cents coal oil used to cost him. Formerly he bought it by the lampfull; now he buys it by the barrelfull."

Well, he was right about that. Today, Southerners, who once resisted the automobile almost as fiercely as we once resisted the Republican Party, now own more cars, per capita, than any other sort of American. Go figure. Maybe, in the last 75 years, the North showed us the new way to be Southern. And made a lot of money doing it.