Coming of age in the turbulent South of the early twentieth century, Clarence Cason (1896-1935) saw firsthand many of the ills of his home state and region—widespread poverty, disease, illiteracy, violence, racial prejudice, and political corruption. Increasingly concerned about the plight of the people of the region, he joined a chorus of literary voices that sought to describe, explain, and for some, reform the South. Cason’s early local editorials and later essays written for national magazines foreshadowed the insightful literary achievement that would be his collection of essays entitled 90° in the Shade, published in 1935. Cason is most passionate on the subject of race relations, but he generally limits his musings to reminiscences rather than prescriptions for change.
Clarence Cason Born in Ragland, St. Clair County, on December 20, 1896, to physician Eugene P. Cason and Sarah Cessina Coleman, Cason spent most of his early life in Talladega, Talladega County, where he graduated from public high school. From 1913 to 1917, he attended the University of Alabama and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. With America’s entry into World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was shipped to France with the 37th Provisional Ordnance Company. Discharged in February 1919, he worked briefly for the Birmingham News before embarking on a three-year odyssey of personal discovery around the United States. To support himself, he worked for various newspapers, including the Journal of Commerce in New York and the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Paducah Times in Kentucky, and taught drama in a high school.
In 1922, Cason entered the University of Wisconsin and earned a master’s degree in journalism. After that, he served as an instructor in English at the University of Wisconsin and then as a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, where he published A Composite Style Book for Journalists. In 1927, he married Louise Elliott Rickeman of Galena, Illinois, with whom he had one daughter. In 1928, he returned to Tuscaloosa to head the Department of Journalism at the University of Alabama and teach in its journalism program. He also worked as a part-time editorial writer for the Birmingham News and the Birmingham Age-Herald and in 1933 served as Washington correspondent for the New York Times. During these years, he also began publishing essays in such periodicals as The Nation, The Yale Review, The Baltimore Evening Sun, and the New York Times Magazine. One essay also appeared in the collection Culture in the South (1934). In early May 1935, just before the publication of 90° in the Shade, Cason took his own life with an automatic pistol in his campus office at Tuscaloosa.
Cason’s book stands out among works of the time for its controversial call for the full inclusion of African Americans, together with less privileged whites, into the mainstream of southern economic and political life. He criticized the aristocratic “moonlight and magnolias” myth of the Old South and the popular stereotypes of poor whites and degraded blacks as false and detrimental. The majority of the region’s inhabitants, the great mass of working and middle-class people, were in his opinion honest and hardworking people who together had pioneered a way of life in a hostile environment and who could and would adapt to new conditions under industrialism.
The unusual title of his book references the harsh conditions of life in the South. The oppressively hot weather, which reached 90 degrees even in the shade, created the distinctive southern cultural characteristics of cuisine, home construction, and out-of-doors lifestyle. And he offered the view that the famed slow pace of southern life was not always a result of laziness or disease, as popularized by the region’s critics, but rather a strategy aimed at surviving the challenges presented by the region’s climate.
Beidler, Phillip. “Yankee Interloper and Native Son: Carl Carmer and Clarence Cason, Unlikely Twins of Alabama Exposé.” Southern Cultures 9 (March 2003): 18-35
Mathews, John M. “Clarence Cason Among the Southern Liberals.” Alabama Review 38 (January 1985): 3-18.
Thomson, H. Bailey. “Clarence Cason: Journalist in Academe.” Alabama Review 53 (July 2000): 177-98.
———. “Clarence Cason’s Shade: A Look at Alabama Then and Now.” Alabama Heritage 60 (Spring 2001): 20-27.