Monday, January 29, 2007

"Whistlin' Dixie" - Part One

Responding to my "Manifest Destiny" post, a blogger friend noted that she felt the same kind of fascination with the South. No doubt her motivation is a product of some of the same factors that have defined my own interest in the West. (For a long time I felt the same about parts of rural England and Scotland, particularly the Yorkshire Dales and the Hebridean islands. Having now visited both and tempered my romantic visions with the cold shower of reality, I'm still smitten. Both are among the rare destinations for which the reality matches the glossy postcard ideal.)

But the South . . . where to begin? First, realize that there are multiple "Souths" defined by different histories, cultural influences, foods, weather, geography, etc. Sociologist John Shelton Reed - whose books inspired the name of this blog - made a career at UNC trying to identify the variables that define the South. What he found was fascinating. Surveying older southerners, Reed discovered that scions of the South identified some pretty obvious elements when trying to define their region: the Civil War, the experience of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, weather and geography, religious fervor, conservatism, speech. Yet he received very different answers from younger southerners who had been born and raised in the post-segregation era. These respondents, when trying to define "southerness," often cited food, NASCAR, regional accents, "wrestling" (think WWF), bass fishing, and humor (think Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy). Hmmmm, that's something of a shift.

With most of these answers I'm not surprised. The failure to link the Civil War to the region's identity is a bit surprising, however, even when one factors in U.S. students' increasing ignorance about matters historical and geographical. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, the Civil War was still a much-discussed topic. I had grandparents who remembered not-so-distant grandparents reminiscing about the experience. My paternal grandmother would laugh when talking about how she and her siblings had played with a trunk full of "worthless" Confederate money. There were numerous photos of relatives who had survived that period and its trials. Moreover, growing up in Virginia I was literally surrounded by battlefields. Our family vacations nearly always included stops at the far-flung encampments of the Confederate and Union armies: Vicksburg, Shiloh, Chattanooga. As if Manassass, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Petersburg, Cold Harbor, and Appomattox - all in Virginia - weren't enough for my parents and grandparents. My maternal grandfather in particular loved steering his '63 Ford Galaxy 500 from monument to monument, redoubt to redoubt.

For college, I succumbed to the siren-song of history (and the plain, unvarnished stupidity of a typical 18-year old ) and attended the Virginia Military Institute (sometimes referred to as "the West Point of the South") where Stonewall Jackson (a professor at VMI) and Robert E. Lee (buried next door at Washington and Lee University) were still very vivid personalities. For a school so grounded in the traditions of the "Old South," I'm still amazed over the number of non-southerners who flocked to VMI.

(An aside about my parents . . . Ed and Corenne in no way romanticized the Civil
War, nor did they ever regard it as the "Lost Cause." There are plenty of people in the South who still feel that way; read Tony Horwitz's brilliant Confederates in the Attic. Civil War battlefields, however, just happened to be the most convenient stops for parents who enjoyed history in general. Living only 45 minutes from Williamsburg, Jamestowne and Yorktowne, our Sunday drives and school field trips also included a healthy dose of Colonial and Revolutionary history. If we were traveling in other parts of the U.S., we invariably stopped at historical markers, Native American reservations, and the sites of myriad "firsts" in American history. Perhaps this early exposure to things historical explains my decision to be a history major in college? Nah.)

But back to the theme of Southern identity and the Civil War . . . for an older generation of southerners there's that great passage from Faulkner which explains something of the mythic quality of the Civil War:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

To be honest, I don't feel that way about the Civil War. Nevertheless, it's an integral element in defining the region. What other things "southern" do I think of when describing the region to northern friends? Here's a partial list, in no particular order, that represents just the tip of the iceberg.

1. Literature . . . There's definitely a genre of southern lit. with stellar examples: Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy. Those are just the most obvious examples. One could include countless other authors who use the region and its culture as a foundation for their stories.

2. Music . . . Where to begin? There's "southern rock," Dixieland, bluegrass, country, blues, gospel, Elvis (Are you a Presleyterian?), and often an amalgam of several of these genres to form new hybrids.

3. NASCAR . . . As much as I dislike this and miss the point of watching cars drive around a big oval, it is a southern staple that is becoming increasingly popular beyond the South.

4. Juke joints . . . You know those little rectangular concrete buildings that dot the southern landscape . . . with their Bud Lite neon and rows of pickups parked outside. They're the southern equivalent of the English pub. There's always a pool table, juke box, and a jar of pickled eggs on the bar. In some Deep South locations one can find juke joints that have windows on the side of the building from which African Americans, not welcome inside, can order food and beer. Often there's an adjacent picnic table.

5. Football . . . In some places it's the equivalent of a second religion. In Texas football is life.

6. Race . . . Even in the post-Civil Rights movement era race is still a potent issue. And one encounters the broad spectrum of race relations to its fullest in the South, from warm racial relations in communities once torn apart by the struggle over segregation . . . to communities in which racist rhetoric and Klan activity are either openly practiced or given a veneer of "respectability" under the banner of the local Republican party. Thankfully, words like "colored" - and worse - which I heard regularly as a child have largely disappeared from the southern lexicon.

7. Religion . . . From our seemingly ubiquitous TV preachers (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Baaker, and Jimmy Swaggert), Billy Graham, the Southern Baptist Church, to numerous Pentecostal, Revivalist, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, New Life, Born-Again, Bible-Believing congregations, the South is a peculiarly religion-obsessed region. This subject deserves an entirely separate blog entry.

8. Food. Don't get me started. It goes on and on and on. And food usually goes hand-in-hand with religion. Think covered-dish suppers, wedding receptions, and post-funeral dinners. So it's no surprise that a recent National Geographic map showed the South with the highest numbers for heart disease in the U.S. The South also has the "fattest" counties in the country.

9. Speech . . . People from other parts of the U.S. love to make fun of southern accents. And there are so many variations. My own is very subtle, retaining a bit of the Tidewater drawl. When I first moved to east Tennessee in 1988 I was stunned by the accent. I could barely understand some of the residents. I'll never forget a waitress asking me and my family, "What'll you'uns have today?" There's the Georgia drawl, the distinctive New Orleans speech, that Texas drawl which is immediately recognizable, and countless local variations. Some sociologists will note that more distinctive examples of the southern patois are disappearing thanks to the influence of television and the influx of non-southern residents. If it means losing the term "you'uns" I'm all for it!

10. Conservatism . . . How to explain this one . . . it's a complex force, wrapped up in religion, history, provincialism, economic hardship, agrarianism. Addressing this force in southern society is like opening a Pandora's Box. Let's just say that the region's conservatism is one of the reasons I would find it hard to live again in the South. Spending 10 years in East Tennessee, I encountered a level of conservatism that very nearly resembled a celebration of ignorance, and in its ugliest moments seemed reminiscent of thinly disguised fascism.

To be continued . . .

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Bless you, suh, but awn't you jus' the most a-commodatin' may-un? My little hawt jus' is a-thumpin' in mah chess, thinkin' how you jus' pou'd yahself inta this. I cain't tell you how muhch Ah a-preeciate yaw kineness and yaw verry imPressive knawlige of such an interestin' taw-pic. Ah thank you and Ah look so fawad to anotha' post from you. ;-)