Skip to comments.What is the South?
Posted on 03/06/2005 6:59:01 PM PST by quidnunc
New Orleans "Whats the South like?" said the man in the white suit at the next table, mulling over the question. "Thats what they all ask. Well, that depends on which South you mean the antebellum mansion, the fly-specked roadhouse, or the latest of the New Souths, the Sunbelt. Or northern Mexico, aka Texas. Or one of the uncountable other Souths. Which image is the facade for which?"
The man in the white suit soon warmed to his inexhaustible subject: "One South fits into the next like one of those Russian dolls. Do not be quick to decide which is the real South. There is no such thing. Nor is it easy to see which culture is supplanting the other at any given time. The professional Southerner may turn out to be all leaf and no roots; the most Southern of us all may never think on what it means to be Southern."
Our new friend paused to sip at his mint julep. "Actually, I prefer Scotch. I drink these just to give the tourists something to talk about. The South, you see, is the complete preservation of tradition on selected occasions. The South is the Natchez Trace, that dream highway meandering through forests only as deep as the right-of-way, with faithful old retainers cannily posted at convenient distances to guide and refresh, and assure us that all is as it appears to be before they disappear to rearrange the scenery. The real South? The South is the most unreal part of this dream America, and therefore the most enduring."
The sun shone bright on the tables at the sidewalk cafe, and the man in the white suit paused to set his drink down ever so carefully before continuing. "The South," he said, "is a high road that rises up green and lush beyond every curve and over every rise. The South is also Highway 61 that runs right alongside the Trace, featuring misspelled signs and abandoned drive-in movie theaters. Its grass growing through the cracks of an abandoned parking lot. New dreams here fade before the old ones do. To be Southern is to want nothing more than to live by the side of the road and board up the windows to outsiders.
"The South is driving along a Mississippi back road in the dead heat of a hot Sunday afternoon listening to a black preacher on the radio praising the Lord in half song, half sermon as close as contemporary man may come to the original spirit of the Psalms. Logically, it would seem easier to say grace over oysters Rockefeller and trout meunière at Galatoires than over potlikker and biscuits with Hoover gravy, but of course its the other way round in the South, as it is everywhere. There never was a religion of thanksgiving that could match a single prayer uttered out of sheer desperation. And the South has more desperation than cotton and soybeans and rice put together; it grows like kudzu in the night.
"The South," the man in the white suit continued, his voice deepening preacher-like, "is no longer Christ-centered, if it ever was, but it is Christ-fixated; here even oh-so-rational agnostics seem to have a bitter edge of fervor to their denials of faith. Flannery OConnor told us that. It would take a Dostoyevsky to understand us; we sure cant, though we never cease confidently explaining ourselves to one another."
The man in the white suit paused for a sip and the hint of smile before continuing: "Perhaps Dostoyevsky would not know us at all; he is much too dark. But Potemkin, that rascal, would. He reminds me a lot of our own good old boys. The kind who are determined to save our priceless heritage but only if the price is right. The Southern ideal is the classical one of harmony, completeness, evenness. Our beau ideal is not the tortured and agonized existential hero, or the witty and ambitious leader at the top of the greasy pole, but the whole man. Our ideal is the man without a mark on him, the women in the portraits that grace the halls of antebellum mansions, which were the contemporary equivalent of Disneylands in their time and, strangely enough, remain so. Our hero is Robert E. Lee, never Abe Lincoln. Even if he was born in Kentucky. He is too complicated, too broken and put back together again. We have no use for your knights of the doleful countenance; our heroes must be wrinkle-free. The ideal Southerner must be all of a piece of alabaster. No wonder we break under the strain of living up to such impossible specifications. Lee never broke, he did not even rise and fall; he was simply, always, Lee. But he is the model, not the reality. The blueprint, not the ramshackle result .
"Our idea of the good has come to be the simple, the whole, so instinctively understandable as not to require explication, at least not in words. That would be to desecrate it, like cracking a piece of marble. The Southerner aims for a literal integrity. Perhaps that is why we keep producing the partial, the incomplete, the unnatural, and explicating them to death. As usual, Flannery OConnor explained it: Whenever Im asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man . She had it right. As usual.
"The key," said the man in the white suit, "is the past. You can change the name of Confederate Boulevard to something else, but it remains in the mind, like a gray ghost, like fallen leaves rustling against the tombstones in an old cemetery. Nothing is more real or renewable than the past. It is the only thing that lasts. Though it lingers longer in some places than others like here in New Orleans and in the nameless little cotton towns one passes through on the way to someplace else. But there is no escaping the Southern past even along the franchise rows, in the midst of the industrial parks, at the tractor pulls, even next to the air-conditioning vents.
"We are the only part of the country," the man in the white suit explained, "to have been defeated and occupied, and defeat lasts longer than victory and in some ways is sweeter. Whether we learned anything from defeat and occupation is problematic; we were not so much instructed as fascinated by the experience. Its effect has been not cautionary but romantic. The politicians we honor are not the most effective or successful, but the dreamiest. How else explain the pointless worship of Jefferson Davis?
"Most of all," the man in the white suit declared, after a moments reflection, "we hate the politician who can see a little further than most and commits the indiscretion of telling the rest of us about it. We cast him into obloquy as soon as he betrays any sign of prescience. The only reason we still honor John C. Calhoun, who may have been the most far-sighted of them all, is that we have confused that hard-bitten realist with a romantic dreamer. How Bobby Lee let himself get mixed up with all that nonsense will always be a mystery to some of us. But you cannot have his kind of greatness without his kind of naiveté."
The man in the white suit looked at the river shimmering in the distance, as if thinking of the whole South sending its watery tribute down the Mississippi to New Orleans and the Gulf.
"Southernism," he said, "is itself a curious, alien patriotism, the product of both America and of the separate nation we were for four long, arduous years, perhaps longer. We are still a different country in the important, informal ways that are the most enduring. The honorable Southerner, like General Lee or Admiral Semmes, is still on parole, sincerely wishing to live up to the terms of his pardon, but without violating some interior honor. That produces an interesting tension. The Southerner is tempted to make up for his slightly subversive past by bouts of star-spangled jingoism that are not very convincing, or lasting. He is bound and determined to be a good American, but something inside still rebels.
"Whats the South?" the man in the white suit repeated. "It is a reflection in a shattered mirror; the images no longer fit if they ever did. It is Blanche DuBois and General MacArthur, John Gould Fletcher and Andrew Jackson, Delta and hills, Ossie Davis and Ross Barnett, Uncle Remus and James Branch Cabell. It has no one, sure image. The best course is to depend on none of them, but to approach the subject without preconceived or received ideas, which, at least for a Southerner, is an impossibility. You have to be a transplant to see it clear, as in a telescope or under a microscope. But then it becomes some dead thing, which is not the South at all."
A streetcar over on St. Charles whirred and clanged by in the distance, and the haze of the day grew steamier. A tray of beignets and café au lait caught my attention and appetite. When I turned back, the man in the white suit was gone. Only his empty glass remained palpable, shimmering, waiting to be filled again and again. Like the South herself.
Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has been away. An earlier version of this column appeared in the Democrat-Gazette on July 24, 1992. E-mail him at: paul _ firstname.lastname@example.org.
I get tired of outsiders automatically assuming all the white southerners are dumb, redneck racists. I remember when Ray Lewis was charged with murder in Atlanta all I saw on the news were people "worried" that Ray wouldn't get a "fair" trial (even though the sheriff and DA are both black) since he was in the South. I don't know if he got a fair trial, but someone got away with murder.
Nice quidnunc, thanks from a Southerner.
Ya'll come back na, ya hear!
Another gem from Paul Greenberg. Nothing I could add would be worthy.
What is the South?
My Mothers home Cooking
My Wife's family deep in Kentucky
A Southern Belle Cousin who's half crazy !
I've lived in the South for 26 years and I couldn't begin to explain it to someone who has never been here.
Excellent...reminds me of Dr. Holditch, the professor I had for my Faulkner seminar...his grandfather had served with Faulkner's grandfather, I believe (and would have been truly jealous if he had known my family was related to Faulker, something I didn't know at the time!)
Some of the best, most erudite, or just plain good, or both together writing in this country is Southern...there is something about the water, the soil, the experience, or perhaps the heat, that brings forth people one after the other like Faulkner and Williams and O'Connor and all the rest. I personally think it's the blood red soil and the light that is brighter than anywhere else, and learning to live with human frailty and failure between the blue sky and the good earth, baked by the long hot summer of life...
I'm dropping the guy in the white suit and re-setting in into dramatic cadence just so I can read it every once in a while.
If you have to keep a lookout for fire ant hills, you know you are down South. If you are walking down the road and everybody stops to offer you a lift, you know you are down South. If everybody is sitting out on the porch with a pitcher of iced tea, you know you are down South. (And no matter how much you try up North, you just cannot make iced tea that tastes the same as down South.)
If the restaurant you are at offers grits as a menu option, you know you are down South. Ditto if biscuits and gravy are on the menu for breakfast.
If you see huge billboards on the highways advertising FIREWORKS FOR SALE, you know you are down South.
If NASCAR trumps major league baseball on the sports pages, you know you are reading a paper from down South.
Those are just a few trivial observations...I could go on for many more pages. BTW, I visit the South every year and like it down there much better than here up North, where the people are usually rude and obnoxious.
We set our tea out in the sun for about 8 hours to get that great taste. Sun tea cannot be beat.
Dixie Ping, Sir...;-)
Now about them dunking donuts...when I left, they were in New Orleans...and had been since I was a kid.
But you should see the Fireworks for Sale signs in Wyoming! I do believe it's a major industry, to sell tourists fireworks that are illegal to shoot in Wyoming, but legal to sell.
I do admit to enjoying having left the land of fire ants. I used to garden barefoot so that when I got a fireant bite, I could immediately flood my foot with the waterhose, cause it made the bite sting less. I still have a number of little circular scars on my feet from the ant bites.
I miss the taste of water in the air, the sweet voices from North Mississippi, that nasally sounds of east Texas, the almost Brooklynese of a proper New Orleans Yat...and Magnolia grandiflora...and crape myrtles...
Can take the Southerner out of the south, but probably never take the south out of the Southerner...
But my favorite place of all is northern Alabama in the Guntersville Lake area. Every summer, I visit there for at least a week. That is where my folks live and where I intend to retire myself someday. My father was born and raised on a farm down there but he relocated North for a job when I was born so I lost the opportunity to grow up there myself. Nevertheless, I have the South in my blood!
Whenever I drive down South and I see that first Waffle House off I-81 in Virginia, I know I have arrived!
The "South" is anything not north of Rhode Island!
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