Journalist, social commentator. A writer and an acerbic commentator on southern life, Cash was born in the mill village of Gaffney, South Carolina, on May 2, 1900. The oldest child of John William Cash, who managed the company store for a local cotton mill, and Nannie Lutitia Hamrick, he was named Joseph Wilbur Cash. Disliking his first name, Cash reversed the order and used the initial J. rather than Joseph. Cash graduated from Boiling Springs High School in North Carolina in 1917 and enlisted in the Students’ Army Training Corps—a home-front service during World War I. Following the end of his enlistment, Cash entered Wofford College. After one year at Wofford, Cash attended Valparaiso University in Indiana and then in 1920 enrolled at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. At Wake Forest he wrote for student publications and discovered the writings of H. L. Mencken.
After graduating in 1922, Cash attended law school for a year and then tried teaching—first at Georgetown College in Kentucky and later at Hendersonville School for Boys in North Carolina. Returning to writing, Cash had a brief stint with the Chicago Post before joining the Charlotte (N.C.) News in 1926. In 1928 ill health forced him to return to Boiling Springs. He edited the short-lived Cleveland (N.C.) Press and in 1929 wrote “Jehovah of the Tar Heels,” which appeared in Mencken’s American Mercury. “Jehovah of the Tar Heels” was an exposé of the anti-Catholicism of U.S. Senator Furnifold M. Simmons, an anti–Al Smith Democrat. Later that year his second article, “The Mind of the South,” caught the attention of the editors at Alfred A. Knopf. In March 1936 the publisher contracted with Cash to write a history of the South. Finding free-lancing difficult in the dark days of the Depression, Cash returned to the Charlotte News in 1935 and stayed there until 1940. While in Charlotte, he married Mary Northrop on Christmas Day 1940.
Cash’s masterpiece and only book, The Mind of the South, appeared in February 1941 to wide critical praise. An instant classic that has not been out of print since its initial publication, the work sought to dispel myths about the “Old South” by tracing the pervasive influence of racism on southern history and culture. Ante- bellum ideals remained dominant in the twentieth century South, despite the upheavals of the Civil War, Reconstruction, industrialization, urbanization, and Depression. Indeed, Cash’s compelling chronicle of the persistence of an Old South mentality, especially its emphasis on race, individualism, and agriculture, led the author to assert that much of southern history has been a march “from the present toward the past.” National publications hailed The Mind of the South, and even many southern reviewers found much to admire in Cash’s penetrating analysis of the region.
Awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, Cash traveled with his wife to Mexico, where he planned to write his first novel. In Mexico, Cash’s history of psychological instability, alcohol abuse, and ill health caught up with him. Ill with dysentery and in a state of paranoia and depression, Cash fled to another hotel. On July 1, 1941, searchers found him in the Hotel Reforma hanging by his own necktie. Cash’s body was cremated and his ashes buried in Sunset Cemetery, Shelby, North Carolina; he was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1995.
Clayton, Bruce. W. J. Cash: A Life. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
Morrison, Joseph L. W. J. Cash: Southern Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1967.