Starting in the 1970s, a group of Southern professors and writers began to challenge the long-standing view of Southern people and culture as being predominantly English in origin, what Governor George Wallace famously referred to as the ‘great Anglo-Saxon Southland.’ These professors began writing books and publishing articles which focused on the ‘Celtic’ aspects of the South, especially Appalachia and the Backcountry. This Celtic-centric view of the South coincided with the re-birth of the Southern nationalist movement, upon which it has had a strong influence. Dr Jimmy Cantrell, who specialises in Southern fiction, wrote about this Celtic-Southern thesis and used it as a lens through which to analyse Western films in an article on LRC back in 2001:
Perhaps the most controversial thesis in contemporary Southern historiography is the best way to understand the diversity in Southern culture, a diversity not restricted to simplistic black and white conflicts. Until the last decade, the cultural origins of the white South were accepted almost unquestioningly as exclusively English with borrowings from African-Americans. White Southerners were said to be Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Norman, and any aspects of their cultural ways that did not seem to fit with English patterns were attributed to African or Amer-Indian origin. This long unchallenged belief began to be disputed in the early 1980s by historians Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald, who developed the Celtic-Southern Thesis: that the majority white Southern culture, the one planted in the Piedmont and Appalachian foothills areas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and from there migrated west, is of Celtic origin (Irish, Scottish, and Welsh), not English. Implicit in the Celtic-Southern thesis is the Anglo-Norman cultural origin of the coastal white South from the Chesapeake to Charleston, and that the conflicts between these two principal white Southern cultural groups underlie all of Southern history and provide much of its tension.
Aware that Southern literature is essentially a folklore based story-telling, that the Faulkners, Gordons, Weltys, and Styrons are inspired by the tales of peoples and times past heard on porches and store and courtyard benches, that the best of Southern literature has been created “out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking” (Faulkner 303), I decided to read Southern novels to determine whether they supported the Celtic-Southern thesis. In short, they do. From the prolific antebellum writer William Gilmore Simms to the Southern Renaissance giants Ellen Glasgow and William Faulkner to the contemporary best-seller Pat Conroy, many Southern novelists, I have found, recognize the indispensable roles of Celtic immigrants and their descendants to the development, expansion, and perpetuation of Southern culture.
As I was concluding my study of Celtic heritage in Southern literature, I decided that the next step in my research must be American Western literature. Considering the myopic geographical tendencies in Southern studies, this may sound strange, but culture, as Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris note, is not bound by political lines drawn to facilitate government or defend imperialism. Culture is fluid, and Southern culture is found outside the geographic South in such areas as the “little Dixies” north of the Ohio River and in parts of southern California. I chose the American West because the original “wild west” had been the old Southwest, which is today’s Southeast: the trans-Appalachian South of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In a recent study of the literature of the Old Southwest, Ritchie Watson suggests that history and politics have combined to skew our view of the development of American Western culture so that we no longer recognize what antebellum Americans took for granted: that the American West and the trans-Appalachian South shared a “unified western consciousness. Even stranger to Americans living today would be the commonly accepted assumption that the roots of this new western culture were southern”.
Furthermore, McWhiney and McDonald have suggested obliquely that their Crackers, the majority white Southerners of Celtic ancestry, were a determining factor in the formation of an Old West culture. In “Celtic Origins of Southern Herding Practices,” they praise Terry Jordan’s Trails To Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching as “an excellent account of how open-range cattle raising moved steadily from its ‘hearth’ in the seventeenth-century Carolinas to the Texas of the 1870s” (165). Accepting Jordan’s contention that the livestock raising and herding practices of the Old West, which were integral to the development of a Western identity and remain central to its mythology, did not spring from Western soils without forerunners but were borrowings from the South, McWhiney and McDonald reveal that those animal husbandry folkways had been practiced in Celtic lands for centuries. Here, then, is an implied link from Celtic lands first to the colonial and antebellum South, and finally to the Old West of the post-War Between the States era. Just as Southern literature suggests that immigrants from Celtic lands and their descendants determined the folk culture of the majority white Southerners, American Western literature, if the corollary to the Celtic-Southern thesis proves true, will reveal the importance of Southerners, especially those of Celtic heritage, to the Old West.