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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Something That Won't Let Go

Is there a South anymore?--Willie Morris
This morning I stumbled upon something I read many years ago but had forgotten:  an essay by the late, great Willie Morris, first published in 1986.  (I was a charter subscriber to Southern Magazine - not to be confused with Southern Living - which, alas, folded after only a few issues due to a massive cancellation of subscribers:  they had dared to publish an article discussing how the gays were gentrifying an old neighborhood in Birmingham.  With pictures, even.  Which of course was completely unacceptable for a family magazine down here, even in the Eighties.)

A quarter-century later, I think it is safe to say that yes, despite the advent of home computers, the Internet, cell phones, iPods, Supercenters, and Starbucks, there is still a South, still a Southern identity, both vulgarized and modernized beyond what our grandparents would have believed possible - changed but unchanging, attenuated but still palpable and vital in the music and manners, speech and thought, of the great arc of piney woods and verdant fields that extends from Virginia to Texas, this green and pleasant land.  Something different, something apart from the rest of the country that still lingers for good or ill in the rhythms of mind and memory.

I used to be proud, fiercely proud of my Southern identity:  a form of patriotism.  You Yankee boys don't know anything about that, this middle allegiance between the loyalty you feel to your family and the love you feel for the United States.  Southerners of the old school - down till my generation, anyway; I don't know about the young people today - felt just as passionately a third loyalty that fell somewhere between the other two, and partook of both, but was distinct, a pride and an identity all its own.  George Wallace in a speech one time referred to Southerners as "the greatest people on the face of the earth."  Which of course was an unremarkable phrase down here:  anyone who heard it would have thought the Governor was merely stating the obvious.  Yes, it was that kind of pride:  unreflecting and immovable, determined to take a stand, to live and die in Dixie.  My country, right or wrong.

It took a long time for the full consciousness of all that was wrong, deeply and tragically wrong, to dawn on me.  I was long past grown before I could understand why some writers and artists, like Willie, seemed to turn their backs on the South, moved away, distanced themselves from all the goodness and glory of being Southern.  Now, of course, the scales have long since fallen from my eyes.  Now, of course, I am not deceived, I see clearly what lies in the dark shadows of our moonlight-and-magnolias landscape:  the ignorance, intolerance, and cruel, overweening pride.  The self-perpetuating lies beneath our lilting tongue that every closed society is prey to.  I understand now why Willie and others left - why they had to leave. 

Though of course in a very real sense, you never can leave:  the South, after all, is not so much a place as a state of mind. 

An excerpt from Willie's essay:
DOES THE SOUTH exist any longer? One has to seek the answer on one's own terms, of course, but to do that, I suggest, one should spurn the boardrooms and the country clubs and the countless college seminars on the subject and spend a little time at the ball games and the funerals and the bus stations and the courthouses and the bargain-rate beauty parlors and the little churches and the roadhouses and the joints near the closing hour.

I did not judge the South remotely dead in a roadhouse near Vicksburg on a recent Saturday of the full moon. The parking lot was filled with pick-up trucks. That afternoon, only a mile beyond the hill, they had put 20,000 miniature American flags on the Union dead in the battlefield for Memorial Day, and the bar talk was vivid on this and other things. Dozens of couples in all modes of dress gyrated on the dance floor to Willie Nelson tunes, and the unprepossessing interior echoed with wild greetings and indigenous hosannas. There was a pride in this place that I knew in my ancestral soul, a pride not to be unduly tampered with, and if you had had the mettle to ask one of those people if the South still existed on that night, he would have stared you up and down and replied: "Who you, boy?"

I know a black South African student whom the Soviets courted at the University of Moscow before he decided to take a fellowship here. I enjoy watching the South through his eyes. "When I first came, I was afraid I'd made a big mistake," he says. "But the South grows on you. It seems so removed, but it's vividly real. I'll miss it when I go home. I don't understand why your national media wants a uniform U.S.A."

Nor, for that matter, do I. But I can testify to the hostility and ambivalence toward the South that still exists in many areas of the nation. Is it the lingering fear of differentness? I testify also to my own self-ironies, for when I dwelled in the North I felt more Southern than I ever had before; back home again to stay, I feel more American.

Perhaps in the end it is the old, inherent, devil-may-care instinct of the South that remains in the most abundance and will sustain the South in its uncertain future. The reckless gambler's instinct that fought and lost that war. Snake Stabler calling a bootleg play on fourth down, a Texas wildcatter putting his stakes on the one big strike, a black mother working 16 hours a day to educate her children, a genteel matron borrowing from the banker to send her daughter to a university sorority so she can marry well. It is gambling with the heart, it is a glass menagerie, it is something that won't let go.

Photo: The Ruins of Windsor by Eudora Welty, 1935.


Stan said...

I think I understand. I lived in Atlanta GA for about 10 years and can tell you it's different down South. I loved it there and can say the people are more friendly and for the most part would give you the shirts off their backs to help you out.
The only thing I don't get or like is the right wing conservative politics and religous fever down there.

dave said...

Very heartfelt and enlightening. Thank, Russ.

Russ Manley said...

Stan - yes, it's different down here, and that's not all bad, as you know.

Dave - glad you liked.

FDeF said...

I think the sense of solidarity you describe among Southerners is palatable. I think any "outsider" can feel it. From an outsider's (and the choice of word is telling) point of view it can feels like all the friendliness is conditional.

I can appreciate the charm, history and culture of the South but I must tell you that in our travels we've also approached with caution (fear). Leon jokes that he's always more comfortable when we're traveling in our Ford F250 Pickup than when we had my Mazda Protege. Some of Leon's family moved there from Pennsylvania and have assimilated. While visiting one time, we went out for a loaf of bread in rural SC (don't even think of asking for Rye, Italian or Whole Wheat) and the looks we got in the little general store made us think "Deliverance".

The South is not completely homogeneous, it seems. I find Savannah gentile compared to many other places; San Antonio seems closeted next to New Orleans and Florida is something else altogether. That's why we like to travel.

Jeepguy said...

(My 3rd attempt at posting this, due to my computer acting up)

Nice post, Russ. I don't always know how to feel about the South. Like Stan says, I dislike the "conservative values" and religious nonsense. On the other hand, I know that not all Southerners are like that. I have heard people from the South complain about being stereotyped, based solely on how they talk, and I'm sure that's true in some cases.

I guess for me the best thing to do is to keep reminding myself to treat people as individuals, rather than lumping them into some arbitrary group.

Thanks for posting this thought-provoking article.

Russ Manley said...

Yes, I'm glad you recognize that there is variety in the South; something that is routinely obscured by the stereotypes you see in movies and TV shows, which paint us all as some kind of Kentucky hillbillies. And except for Designing Women, they never, ever get the accents - there are many - right; or the fact that "y'all" is invariably a plural pronoun in the mouth of a native Southerner, never singular.

And yes, despite the widespread - though not total - ignorance and prejudice, there is a lot of charm and beauty too. I'm glad you boys enjoy visiting with us. Just stay in the truck and try not to talk, and you'll be fine. Grin.

Russ Manley said...

That last post was a response to Frank's; Gary, you were commenting at the same time I was so I didn't see your comments till just now.

Yes, it is irritating to be lumped all together in a stereotype, whether as Southerners or as gays or whatever, ya known? We all need to be kind and treat people as individuals instead, true. But we're used to it down here.

Besides, you should hear how we talk about you folks from the frozen Nawth. Grin.

raulito said...

Not only do I understand but something similar was experienced by me during my adolescent years in California.
I was not a part of either culture: the Latino nor the Anglo but I could sense the deep rooted resentments and discrimination.
great post

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