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The Boll Weevil, the Iron Horse, and the End of the Line: Thoughts on the South

ISSUE:  Spring 1979
1.The Boll Weevil

On hot afternoons in the summertime—this was in the middle-to-late 1930’s—I sat in the bleachers at College Park in Charleston and when the baseball game was not too interesting I watched for the Boll Weevil at the Seaboard Air Line railway station. It was called the Boll Weevil because when the little gas-electric locomotive-coach was placed in service in the early 1920’s the black folk of the South Carolina sea-islands through which the little train passed fancied its resemblance to the bug which had moved northward and then eastward from Mexico to devastate the cotton crops.

The little Seaboard gas-electric coach, of course, devastated no cotton crops. As a railroad train the Boll Weevil wasn’t much. There were two of them in actuality, a north-bound and a southbound train, operating each day between Savannah, Georgia, and Hamlet, North Carolina, the latter being a railroad junction point a few miles beyond the border between the two Carolinas. The track they traversed was not the Seaboard’s main line, which was the New York-Florida route that crossed through South Carolina well to the interior. Rather the railroad’s Low-country branch constituted a large bow in the line, a 200-mile-long loop that dropped southward from the main line junction at Hamlet down toward the sea-coast, then southwestward to Charleston and to Savannah not quite a hundred miles farther, where it rejoined the main line. It served the truck-farming and—until the coming of the little black bug—the cotton industry along the coast, and transported passengers, mostly black, who wished to travel between the little way stations, towns, and flag-stops and Charleston or Savannah, the only two communities of any size along the route.

The northbound Boll Weevil came through Charleston from Savannah shortly before midday. Its southbound counterpart from Hamlet customarily arrived about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was the latter that I watched for. At some point during the weekend double-header Municipal League baseball games, it would make its appearance, clattering across Rutledge Avenue and rolling to a halt at the little stucco railroad station at Grove Street just beyond the left-field limits. No ceremony attended its advent. Perhaps there would be a taxicab or two, but usually only a railroad baggageman and a handful of outward-bound passengers were there to greet it.

The Boll Weevil’s route lay closer to the coast than the Coast Line’s. Until the 1900’s the only way to travel between Charleston and the numerous coastal islands had been by slow boat: shallow-draft launches with steam and later make-and-break gasoline engines had traversed the creeks, estuaries, bays, and rivers with passengers and cargoes from the islands, made their way to the city, and tied up at Adger’s Wharf. But now most of the sea-islands were linked to the mainland by bridges, and the remoteness of the Low-country, which had lasted from colonial times, was coming to an end.

The Boll Weevil, however unprepossessing in appearance, thus represented a phase in the process whereby the several centuries of comparative isolation that had characterized the life of the Carolina seacoast were giving way to the mobility of modern industrial America. No longer were goods dependent upon water transport, or else upon horse and mule drayage along rutted, sandy roads, to get into the hinterlands. And if there was no job for a black farmhand in the Low-country—no need, for example, to pick cotton any more, thanks to the little black bug from Mexico—the train was there to take him to the city.

So the sleepy little Boll Weevil gas-electric train that waited around for such an interminably long time at the stucco station up at College Park, just beyond left field, and which I would watch on summer afternoons during the 1930’s, was in its own way emblematic of something perhaps every bit as disruptive, as devastating, as the insect which had moved up from Mexico in the 1910’s to eradicate the cotton crop. What it represented and embodied was change.

Throughout the South there were many trains like the little Boll Weevil. In Eudora Welty’s beautiful novel Delta Wedding, a little train named the Yellow Dog—in actuality the Yazoo and Delta—brings cousin Laura McRaven from the city of Jackson to the cottonlands of the Mississippi Delta—a mixed train, “four cars, freight, white, colored, and caboose, its smoke like a poodle tail curled overhead. . . .” Into the flat plantation country of the Delta it transported travelers from Jackson and from the world beyond, and though it seemed so diminutive and harmless, with its friendly engineer Mr. Do-little, who occasionally halted the train en route so that the conductor could gather goldenrod, it was not harmless but instead powerful and inexorable, as Miss Welty suggested, and what it brought and signified was ultimately irresistible: time and change, the world outside the confines of the plantation.

Nowadays there is no more Yellow Dog, and no more Boll Weevil. Even when I sat in the bleachers at the baseball games in the 1930’s and watched the little train arrive at the Seaboard station, it was already outmoded, for the trains had been an earlier phase of the change. By the 1930’s automobiles, buses, and trucks were the principal means of conveyance between the city and the islands. The dirt roads were being widened and paved. There were highway bridges connecting most of the sea-islands with the mainland. Few places in the Low-country were really remote any more. All over the South this was taking place—had, indeed, already taken place by the middle 1930’s.

The old isolation was ended, and the towns and cities were expanding into the open countryside. When I had first begun attending the games at College Park, I had walked home through fields, leaving the built-up area along Grove Street to cut through a mile of open land, crossed a marsh creek over a little wooden bridge, then walked through a grove of trees to our house on a bluff overlooking the Ashley River. But by the late 1930’s the entire area was rapidly being built up, and where for 200 years there had been planted fields and marshland there were now frame houses and multiple-occupancy dwellings. For there was a growing need for new housing in Charleston, occasioned by the influx of new people into the city to work at the Navy Yard, the steel mill, and other industrial installations to the north of the city limits. True, those city limits were still where they had been located at the time of the Civil War, along Mount Pleasant Street, a block north of our house. But now there was a sprawling and largely unlovely industrial community stretching out for ten miles and more to the northward.

One day I was waiting for a bus—for the trolley cars were gone by then—at the corner of King and Wentworth Streets downtown. When it pulled up to the curb, there were already so many riders aboard that there was no room for anyone else. It was the going-home hour and another bus would be along shortly, I knew, so I prepared to wait. A woman who was standing near me was not willing to wait, however. She went up to the closed doors of the bus and began rapping upon the glass panels in a vain attempt to gain admittance. “I want in!” she called.”I want in!”

She could not be a native Charlestonian, I knew, because she would never have said it that way if she were. She would have called, “I want to come in!” or “I want to get in!” No doubt she and her family had come from Ohio or somewhere else in the Midwest to work at the Navy Yard. Many people were moving to Charleston, from the Upstate, the other Southern states, and the Midwest and North as well, for there were imminent signs of another war, and a tremendous defense industry was getting into high gear. There were many more buses in service, but also more waiting, because the area north of the city was becoming so thickly populated that the South Carolina Power Company simply could not purchase new buses rapidly enough to accommodate the demand.

Meanwhile, the Boll Weevil kept to its rounds. I would catch sight of it from time to time while riding downtown or coming home on the bus. Sometimes I wished I might go for a trip aboard the little train. I wanted to board it at the station on Grove street and make the journey with it up the coast and then inland, all the way to its northern terminus at Hamlet, North Carolina. I could then transfer to a mainline Seaboard train such as the streamliner, the Silver Meteor, and continue on to Richmond, where my aunts, uncles, and cousins lived. But of course that was not the way to travel from Charleston to Richmond. To go there one drove up to North Charleston and boarded one of the Atlantic Coast Line trains.

By then the Second World War had come. My family moved from Charleston to Richmond, where my mother had come from, and soon after that I was in the Army. I was stationed first in Alabama and then in Connecticut, and most of my fellow soldiers were from the North and Midwest. Some were quick to point out to me, when I attempted to describe what I so liked about life back home, that many of the more pleasant qualities of that life were possible because of the availability of a disadvantaged labor force to do the unpleasant work and thus permit the famous “Gracious Living” enjoyed by the white folks. But if that were true—and I began to see that in certain crucial respects it was all too true—I could not feel that it was a sufficient explanation for what I felt about life in my part of the country.

Later I was sent to Fort Benning, and for almost two years I lived near the city of Columbus, Georgia. Here was a community of less than 50,000 which almost overnight was the civilian adjunct of an army camp of 120,000 troops! Housing, transportation, business, entertainment, recreation facilities were inconceivably overcrowded and inadequate. From my occasional visits to Columbus I could understand why it was that when sometimes I encountered a fellow soldier who had been stationed at or near Charleston, his attitude toward my own home city as a place to visit was usually so very hostile. Of course, the city he had found so unpleasant and inhospitable was not the real Charleston, as I always hastened to explain, but a place that within a matter of several years had suddenly been forced to accommodate itself to the presence of three times its own population, ringed as it was with military installations. The chances were that on his visits to the city he had encountered very few actual Charlestonians; most of those storekeepers, taxi drivers, USO workers, shop girls, and other civilians he had met were recent arrivals.

I doubt that the question ever occurred to me whether, when the war was done, my native city could or would go back to being what it had been just a few years ago. Yet had it not been changing even when I was living there? “I want in!” the woman at the bus stop had declared in her Midwestern accent and idiom. Was the city I remembered, with the fishing boats and the White Stack tugboats tied up at Adger’s Wharf, the little train waiting at the station just past the ball park, the barber shop which like my father I always patronized (with its familiar clientele and its barbers who conducted themselves so professionally and yet so accommodatingly), Broad street with its lawyers, bankers, realtors, insurance men, the local “establishment” as it were, where my aunt was a secretary and where there were so many persons I knew and who knew me and my family—was this place, which I knew so well and liked so much, both for its virtues and its vices (and both were numerous), not the real, unchanging Charleston? And after the war was won would I not go back there to live, as I was sure I wanted to do?

Several times when I visited my relatives in Charleston during the war while on leave from Fort Benning, I had seen the little Boll Weevil in its familiar setting up by the station at College Park. But there was one occasion when I caught sight of the little train in a very different context. It was when I was on furlough to Richmond, where my parents were living. The train to Richmond, which I boarded at Atlanta, stopped at Hamlet, North Carolina, sometime after midnight to change crews and engines, and I made my way out of the crowded coach, which was filled with sleeping travelers, and stepped down onto the platform to look around. It was cold. The station was a large, old-fashioned wooden affair, with tracks on both sides. I walked back along the platform, past the station and toward the rear of the train, and gazed out into the winter night at the town’s main thoroughfare. Except for the lights in the lobby of a railroad hotel, all was dark. After a minute, I strolled back toward the station, and on the way I happened to glance down a section of track along a side street that crossed the main line, whereupon I spied a familiar silhouette. It was the Boll Weevil, waiting overnight for the next day’s run down to Charleston and through the Low-country to Savannah.

Unlit and unnoticed, on a siding, not far from a station which even though the hour was well past midnight was crowded with servicemen, civilians, railroad crewmen, porters, passengers on the main line passenger train from Atlanta paused there en route northward, the little Boll Weevil seemed out of place, far from its proper element. To come upon it here, waiting mutely and, as it seemed, forlornly on a side track, was a shock. It belonged to sunny summer afternoons and the stucco station at College Park.

I went on back to my coach, made my way to my seat, and waited for my journey to resume.

When the war was done and the troops came home, the South did not go back to being what it had been. Cities such as Charleston did not shrink back to prewar size; with only minor interruptions they proceeded to develop peacetime industries and enterprises to replace the war installations, and not only retained their prosperity and population but kept right on expanding in size and importance. The small cities of the South became large cities, the towns became smaller cities, the countryside, joined to the cities by networks of highways, lost what still remained of its remoteness and isolation. The traditional patterns of Southern agriculture were being diversified. Cotton was king no more. Sharecropping and tenant farming no longer characterized much of the land use arrangements. The rural population, in particular the blacks, moved to the cities as never before, and there was also a steady outmigration of blacks and whites to the big industrial cities of the North. The tractor, the mechanical cotton picker, the mechanized tobacco harvester displaced the mule and the field hand. There was money available in the South now. The postwar boom was on, but on a much more solid foundation than in the years just after the First World War.

As for myself, I did not go back to Charleston to live after all. There was no job for me there, for I was now a newspaperman and the Charleston newspapers had no place for me; nor, after I had left journalism for graduate study and teaching, was there a teaching position at home until long after I was at a stage in the profession that would make it impossible for me to go back. I realized a little later that even if I had been able to return home to live, the chances are that I should not have remained there for long. Charleston had changed in many ways, and my loyalty and attachment were really not so much to a place as to a time—to the years when I had been a child and an adolescent growing up in a small Southern city. And Charleston was not that any more: this was borne in on me whenever I went back to visit. The familiar, medium-sized Southern community that I had known was now only the center of a vast, sprawling metropolitan area of suburbs, sub-divisions, manufacturing plants, shopping centers. Once I went outside the downtown area I hardly knew my way around. What had been fields, woods, marshland, open country now were urban areas. Many of the people I knew best, in particular most of those with whom I had attended high school and college and in whose company I had passed most of my time, were gone; like myself, they had not come back home after the war.

As for the little Boll Weevil train, it had long since gone. I had found this out rather vividly in the early 1950’s. Returning to Charleston for a visit, I had decided that just for the fun of it I would not ride the Coast Line train but instead take the Seaboard down to Hamlet, spend the night in the railroad hotel near the station, and the next day get on board the Boll Weevil and ride down through the Low-country to Charleston. I checked the timetables; the little train was still listed as operating. So I rode down to Hamlet, stopped overnight in the railroad hotel, and the next morning went over to the passenger station to purchase my ticket. Instead of the familiar little gas-electric combine, I found a train made up of a diesel locomotive, a baggage car, and several air-conditioned coaches.

As the train rolled along down the single track line into South Carolina, the conductor told me that the Boll Weevils had been removed from service several months ago. Nor was he regretful of their passing; the gas-electric combination coaches had always given much trouble, he said, and were constantly breaking down and falling behind schedule, so that he and his fellow trainmen had been happy to see them go. So I rode from Hamlet to Charleston in an air-conditioned coach. When the train arrived at the stucco station at College Park, I got off and walked over to Rutledge Avenue to take the bus downtown. I told myself that even if the Boll Weevil was gone, at least I had finally made the trip.

It was none too soon, for within a few years all passenger service on the Hamlet-Charleston-Savannah branch was discontinued. And in the 1960’s when the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line railroads were merged, even freight traffic along the tracks that led by the ball park and over the trestle at the foot of Grove Street was ended. The old wooden bridge across the Ashley River was torn down. No longer would young Charlestonians lie in bed at night as I had once done and hear the night freight train from the south whistling far off in the darkness, and then gradually draw near the bridge, until as the wheels rolled onto the timbered structure the iron flanges set up a deep, singing reverberation on the rails which grew hoarser as the train crossed over the river and entered the city.

No, the train was gone for good, as indeed were steam locomotives, the Boll Weevil, Adger’s Wharf down on the waterfront with the shrimp boats and tugboats and little cargo launches with their make-and-break engines, and many another artifact of youth and young manhood. And each separate visit, over the years, seemed to broaden the loss. The barber shop down on King Street, where once there had been eight barbers, all of whom I knew by name and who knew me, was now down to one elderly man, tending shop by himself. The comfortable old Fort Sumter Hotel on the Battery was converted into condominium apartments. The hulk of the ferryboat Sappho, moored throughout my youth in the tidal flats just beyond Gadsden Street, had long since disappeared under a landfill. The old Southern Railway roundhouse on Columbus Street, where on Sunday mornings my father used to take us to see the trains, was gone, and a supermarket occupied its former place. East Bay Street, where the wholesale houses had been located in ante-bellum buildings, had lost its hegemony to more accessible places in the built-up northern area; there was little but empty store fronts and a few conversions into apartments. Missing in particular was a red wagon wheel which had always hung suspended from a bracket above the entrance to one hardware dealer. My father had installed it in 1913, when he had been a youth working there.

Gone, too, along with the places and the emblems were those Charlestonians of my father’s generation who had once lived among these things and made them substantial and significant. For almost all of those men and women, my elders, the adult citizens of the city when I was a child, and whose lives and positions and concerns and opinions had seemed so important and so formidable, were dead now, while the few who still survived and whom I sometimes encountered here and there were frail and old, human relics as it seemed, more like tourists such as myself than inhabitants, now that their onetime peers and companions, the social context in which they had fitted, was gone. They appeared oddly diminished and shrunken in stature, caricatures of their former selves. So that on each successive visit to what had once been my home, I found that what had constituted its substance and accidence both had dwindled. To the extent that the places, objects, people, and associations of my childhood—a Southern childhood, in and of a Southern city—had constituted whatever there was of reality and permanence to my younger experience, then that reality was becoming more and more a matter of absence, loss, and alienation.1 was, that is, steadily being dispossessed.

2. Bill Barren’s Iron Horse

The experience recounted thus far, however intensely felt by myself, is in no sense unique. It differs from similar experience for others only in the particular details in which it has been presented. Insofar as it is appropriate to most persons who, like myself, have grown away from a community that has been very much caught up in social transition and widespread change, it is valid for numerous modern Southerners. Moreover, though its meaning lies, I think, at the center of the Southern literary experience of our time, in the form that I have reported it so far it is inert, useless: merely a species of nostalgia. As presented, it presupposes a kind of absolute cultural, social, and historical order, designed and believed to exist permanently, and then interprets all subsequent changes within that order, all alteration in the complex substance of its embodiment, as a diminution of reality, an erosion of what should by rights have been immutable: in short, as disorder, loss, chaos.

But while such a way of viewing one’s experience is perhaps unavoidable as a starting-point, it is also partial, superficial, and really a distortion of reality rather than an evocation of it. And if that were all there were to the Southern literary imagination as it views the past, there would be little point in paying much heed to it. For the truth is that, as I have suggested earlier on, just as there was at no time an absolute, unchanging permanent form to the life of the Carolina Low-country, but instead at all times change and alteration, so my own memories of places, people, institutions, and artifacts of my own childhood and young manhood are composed not of fixity and diurnalness but of elements that were very much caught up in change, however they may have once seemed immutable to me.

I had thought of the little Boll Weevil train as fixed and determined in its arrivals and departures at the Seaboard station. But the railroad crew which operated it reported that it had constantly broken down and been behind schedule, while what it meant for the agricultural life of the Low-country had been mobility, change, the coming of the city to the sea islands and the movement of the black folk to the city. When during the war, I had caught sight of the Boll Weevil late one winter night in North Carolina, and had felt so powerfully that it belonged not there on the unfamiliar siding but to summer afternoons at the stucco station in Charleston, I had been facile. It was not the little train, but myself, who was in what seemed to be the wrong place and wrong season. And what made the present time and place seem unsatisfactory was that I was attributing a greater emotional importance, a more self-sufficient identity and a freedom from contingency, to the earlier experience. Whereas the truth was that only because of the later experience—because I saw the little train in Hamlet that night—was the earlier experience made to seem so important, so intense, to seem, in short, so very real.In actuality the authenticity of the experience, and its importance for me, lay neither in the isolated memory of the little train at College Park as such, which was an act of mere nostalgia, nor in my re-encounter with the train at Hamlet, which because of its seeming inappropriateness was so pathetic. Rather the authenticity and importance resided in the relation of the one to the other—in the profound vividness of the experience of time and change, a vividness which I myself, through my participation, was able to bring to it. And it has been just such vividness, but magnified and enriched many times through artistic genius, that has constituted the achievement of the best of the modern Southern writers.

There comes immediately to mind a scene from a brilliant novel by Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman, in which precisely this kind of perception is delineated, and which I now propose to discuss at some length. The novel, which like much of Percy’s fiction contains strong autobiographical elements, involves the Hegira of one Williston Bibb Barrett from Mississippi to New York City and then back southward and later westward in search of a way to unite action and conviction, and much of the motivation for Barrett’s journey is ascribable to the collapse and futility, as he sees it, of the old Southern stoic attitude of aristocratic fortitude he had been taught to believe in, a collapse exemplified by his own father’s suicide.

Like more than one young man in Southern literature, Bill Barrett has the expectation of a proper and assured role for himself, but cannot identify the possibility of any such role existing in his own changed circumstance, even while he remains unwilling and unable to accept the kind of moral and social wasteland in which no such assurance is available. Like the speaker in Allen Tate’s beautiful “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” he stands at the cemetery gate, as it were, and grieves at the inescapability of the fact that he cannot believe in the validity of the communal pieties, yet also cannot settle for an existence in which no such pieties are possible.”What shall we say who have knowledge / Carried to the heart?” Tate’s protagonist asks.”Shall we take the act / To the grave?” In Bill Barrett’s instance he manages to stop, en route westward, outside his old home in Mississippi one night and look on from the darkness of the oak trees while his aunts sit out on the porch in traditional Southern style—watching a give-away quiz show on television!

He remembers the night when his father, a lawyer (and much resembling Percy’s uncle, William Alexander Percy), had walked up and down the street beneath the oak trees as usual, awaiting the outcome of a public battle he had led against a lower-class faction that seems to resemble the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920’s. His son sat on the steps, tending the old-fashioned 78 rpm drop-record phonograph, on which a Brahms symphony was being played in the darkness. By and by the police come to tell the father that his fight has been won, the riffraff have broken up their meeting and left town. Instead of rejoicing in his victory, however, the father tells his son that its price has been the destruction of any pretence to superior moral and ethical standards on the part of his own class of onetime ladies and gentlemen. The illusion of aristocratic virtue and rectitude having been shattered, the father has only his private isolated sensibility to fall back upon.”In the last analysis, you are alone,” he tells his son, and walks off again.”Don’t leave,” his son begs. But the father goes into the house, climbs the stairs up to the attic, places the muzzle end of a shotgun against his breast, and pulls the triggers.

Now an older Bill Barrett stands among the oaks remembering the sound of the shot, and meanwhile hearing the television commercial that his aunts are watching. He reaches out in the darkness and his hand encounters an iron hitching post, moulded in the form of a horse’s head, about the base of which an oak tree has grown until now it entirely surrounds it. He touches the tree bark:

Wait While his fingers explored the juncture of iron and bark, his eyes narrowed as if he caught a glimmer of light on the cold iron skull.Wait.I think he was wrong and that he was looking in the wrong place. No, not he but the times. The times were wrong and one looked in the wrong place. It wasn’t even his fault because that was the way he was and the way the times were, and there was no other place a man could look. It was the worst of times, a time of fake beauty and fake victory. Wait He had missed it! It was not in the Brahms that one looked and not in solitariness and not in the old sad poetry but—he wrung out his ear—but here, under your nose, here in the very curiousness and drollness and extraness of the iron and the bark that—he shook his head— that—       (Signet Book ed., p.260).

This is a marvelous passage. What Bill Barrett wishes he could tell his dead father is that those public values and truths upon which his life and conduct had been predicated, and which had finally seemed to have so eroded that he had killed himself, were false, or at best only partial and ancillary.Wait,he keeps telling his father in his imaginary expostulation, in repetition of that traumatic moment in the past when he had vainly begged his father not to leave. The triumph over the riffraff, the great horn theme of Brahms, he insists, were false victory and false loveliness because the ideals they were being made to embody were illusory, a species of ideality removed from the world, as it were. His father had felt that his struggle with the rednecks (corresponding, one should note, to Walker Percy’s grandfather’s victory over the Klan in the 1920’s, as described by Will Percy in Lanterns On the Levee) was the assertion of absolute integrity in a graceless modern world. In being achieved it had revealed to his father his own isolation, since it had forced him to see that those who were on his side in the dispute, and who supposedly represented the lofty morality that he believed in, were in no way absolutely superior in ethics and morality to those they had defeated. He tells his son that the lower orders had once been “the fornicators and the bribers and the takers of bribes and we were not and that was why they hated us. Now we are like them” (p.258).

But what Bill Barrett knows, out of his own subsequent experience and observation, is that there never was any such generation of earlier heroes who were exempt from human stain and contingency, so that his father’s ideal of aristocratic virtue, however nobly motivated, was actually a romantic escape from the compromised actuality of human life in time. Such a view necessarily presupposed a former time in which men were better and wiser, more disinterested and virtuous than humans could ever be, as well as a society that had been more nearly free from all temptations to covetousness, avarice, lust, and cruelty than had ever existed on earth.

Thus any change in circumstance and conduct would have to constitute a falling away from perfection, and to the extent that the change continued in time, the arrival of crass days, a moral and social wasteland, the death of the gods. So his father’s belief that a mere political victory would reaffirm the antique virtues and insure their permanence was doomed to disappointment once his father realized that the golden age had not thereby been recreated. What his father had done was to attempt to insulate himself from time, change, and mortality by retreating into a private code of aristocratic virtue and honor, truth and beauty that gave him the illusion of human perfectibility; and when this was shattered by being tested in the actual world, there seemed nothing left for him but to be destroyed with it.

In the same way, the notion that the great horn theme of Brahms, to which the father had been listening on the night of his suicide, enunciated an ideal of absolute and timeless beauty was also ultimately self-contradictory. For as Bill Barrett sensed, “the mellowness of Brahms had gone overripe, the victorious serenity of the Great Horn Theme was false, oh fake fake” (p.259). Percy is alluding, I think, to a characteristic of Brahms’ symphonic music that I have also noticed. Brahms builds up to huge, slow-moving thematic statements that seem to assert a kind of hard-won triumph of spirit, and which in their massive harmonics pronounce an ultimate resolution superior to merely human difficulties and leaving no further occasion for striving or disruption. Thus when the last notes of the symphony die out, one has a sense not of triumph but of sadness; for since so supernal a resolution cannot be continued indefinitely but must come to an end, one feels, as it were, alone and abandoned to find for oneself in a jaded world. The quality that Bill Barrett identifies and deplores in Brahms seems to be a sort of victorious exhaustion, and elimination of all further possibility of growth or extension, that corresponds mightily to the fin de siecle romanticism of Swinburne, Dowson, the Rubaiyat, “ The City of Dreadful Night,” and, be it noted, of the poetry of William Alexander Percy himself. Thus, in having Bill Barrett declare that his father had looked for beauty in the wrong place, what Walker Percy means, I think, is that music that asserts as an ideal a quality of perfection that seems to rule out all further human involvement can only become hollow and intolerable.

The place to look for beauty and for truth, rather, is “here, right under your nose, here in the very curiousness and drollness and extraness of the iron and the bark. . . .” For the iron horse’s head of the hitching post, though ornamental, was cast for use by men, while the oak that has grown around it has drawn it into time and change rather than abstracted it from all future contingency, and in the union of the two is the miracle of growth and fusion, producing a quality of excess and uniqueness that goes beyond the merely usable or fortuitously natural, even while deriving its strength and beauty from time and change.

Such an achievement cannot ever involve a static perfection. The iron hitching post was given its form by men, to serve a purpose and yet to be ornamental as well, and though that purpose is outmoded, the very element that has out-moded it—change—has given it its marvelous new possibility: of being as one with the oak tree.

All this, it seems to me, is implicit in the that remarkable passage from The Last Gentleman. Wait! Bill Barrett begs his father.Don’t leave! For the boy needed his father, but the father’s way of seeing himself and his duty did not, finally, encompass any obligation to or need for a future so fallen from perfection as to seem meaningless. The father could not see that the presence of the boy there with him in the dark, tending the phonograph as he walked back and forth beneath the trees, was itself a refutation of his premise that “in the last analysis, you are alone” (italics mine)—for human virtue and meaning were not to be found solely within oneself, as measured against an autonomous, static ideal of timeless perfection, but instead were human qualities growing out of continuing existence in time, never perfect, never complete and self-sufficient in themselves, but always in vital relationship with ongoing experience.

The great horn theme seemed to separate itself from all regeneration, assert an ideal of pure, abstract beauty that mocked mere human striving. Similarly, the worship of the past as an age of superhuman heroes made the present into a time of certain decline and fall, and the future into something meaningless. Instead of the past being allowed to illuminate and strengthen the authenticity of the present, it is made to destroy it. For the presence of the boy there on the steps, overseeing the drop-record phonograph and watching his father, is what the past has created; and the boy’s need of his father—don’t leave!— validates the genuineness of the past, because it provides a means for the best qualities of that past to continue to exist in time. And it is that kind of continuity, and not the blind preservation of what has once been human existence in time as static, changeless ikon, untouched by the hurly-burly of continued experience, that keeps the past meaningful and makes its exemplars truly heroic. Otherwise that past, which Bill Barrett’s father saw as the sole repository of virtue, is rendered empty and abstract—as futile as the world-weary, life-denying “victory” of the great horn theme, a beauty so removed and isolated from human need and desire as to produce emptiness and despair.

Looking out from under the shadow of the oaks, Bill Barrett does not blame his father for having left him. On the contrary, he is filled with love and pity for his father, for he knows that his father, like himself, was caught in a situation not of his own making, and was unable to extricate himself from it. Indeed, it might even be said that it was because his father had taken his life, in despair over what he considered the impossibility of being able to stay with him, that he was now able to recognize the murderous falseness and inadequacy of the ideal of the solitary man. The sound of that shotgun blast in the night, the hopelessness that had caused his father to pull the triggers of the 12-gauge Greener, was what had sent him on his own search, which, however prolonged and agonizing, represented the only way that he might ever learn to break through the walls of solitude that might otherwise have imprisoned him as well.

What he learns, finally, is that solitary integrity is not enough for a man, that one cannot live merely in private measurement against a personal ideal. There can be no 7 without a Thou.The plea, “Wait, Don’t leave!” is the recognition of human need, and the heeding of the plea is the acknowledgement not only that one is needed by another, but that acceptance of another’s need is in itself an assertion of need.It is there, in ongoing involvement with what is outside of one’s own otherwise solitary self, that one’s identity in time can be affirmed: not through a strong-willed transcending of life but in and through life, immanently. The iron horse is encircled by the living cortex of the great oak, and the two elements become extraordinary in their marvelous need-in-separateness: unique and mysterious in their configuration, the handiwork of God.

The difference, as I see it, between my experience with the Boll Weevil and that given by Walker Percy to Williston Bibb Barrett in The Last Gentleman is that in effect the novel commences where I was willing to leave off. What I had done was to see the past—the little Seaboard gas-electric coach in its place at the station in Charleston—as something absolute and completely self-contained, in and of itself. And God said, Let there be Light, one might say; and He created the Boll Weevil. Because the train was there for me to see, it became part of my experience, and it belonged there at the ball park.

But since, being human, I existed in time, I grew away from the experience it symbolized, and because its vivid, emblematic quality was important to me, I could only interpret any change in my relationship to it, any distancing of its image in time, as a falling away from perfection. Each subsequent stage in my relationship to it—seeing it at night on the siding, far from its familiar context; finding the diesel locomotive in its place when I went to board it at Hamlet; and finally, seeing the tracks along which it ran and the trestle over which it crossed the river torn up and removed—constituted a diminution of its reality for me. For I had associated the little train, to repeat, with a time and place that had seemed very real and permanent to me. The memory of the train was nostalgic, in that it revived the memory of the time and place, as a kind of golden age before the Fall; but since it was no more than that, I had to confront the fact that it was gone forever, with nothing in my present experience seemingly able to replace it in its vividness and solidity.

In the same way, Bill Barrett’s father in The Last Gentleman, confronting the fact that the old times, the old standards of aristocratic probity, were gone, and that not even the temporary victory over the rabble could restore them, saw no further hope, no standard of moral conduct that could adequately replace what had been lost.

But not so his son, who out of his grief and loss at his father’s death is made to see the limitations of such a way of viewing oneself and one’s place in time in the inevitable hopelessness of his father’s plight. Through an act of the resolute will, his father had managed for a period of time to convince himself that the old times were not gone; but the evidence of his eyes and senses finally shattered the illusion. Bill Barrett will make no such attempt, because he cannot; his father’s suicide made it impossible for him to be satisfied with any repetition of his father’s way. What he comes to see, therefore, after a long and painful search, is that no man may impose his heart’s-desire view of reality upon the world without isolating himself from that world. Human reality in time, and his relationship to it, must be found in one’s continuing engagement with the world, an engagement that because it takes place in human time must accept and incorporate change as well as continuity. Acceptance of that relationship involves an acceptance of one’s need for what is outside one-self, and the obligation to seek to be oneself in that exterior world. A difficult task, truly, requiring as it does neither abject surrender nor prideful disdain, but ongoing engagement.

3. End of the Line

And what has that to do with the present and future South, whether Walker Percy’s or mine or anyone else’s? Simply (yet with what complication!) that we live in a region upon which history has enforced so pervasive a heritage of order and form and community, so powerful a set of loyalties and expectations, that we cannot sidestep the extraordinary strength of our identification with it. So decisive is that sense of identification, even today, that to an important degree it determines our personality. When I say, “I am a Southerner,” or “I am from Charleston,” I am, no matter how I may disguise it, uttering an expression of pride. It matters not that Walker Percy’s experience of the South and his role within it may be in certain respects very different from mine or someone else’s (his grandfather owned plantations in the Delta and served in the Senate of the United States, while mine owned a little grocery store down by the railroad tracks in Florence, South Carolina, and spoke in a German Jewish accent); the similarities are far more important than the differences, and that fact of itself might help to explain why the region could and still can exert so strong an influence upon its inhabitants and command so much of their loyalties. For genuine human communities, as contrasted with mere economic and social combinations, are hard to come by in this world, and that is what the South has been.

But the temptations and dangers involved in such an identification are perilous, too. It is too easy, and too tempting, to surrender one’s own individual personality to it, to construct an absolute moral and ethical entity out of a relationship which, because it is human and in time, cannot ever afford absolute certainty to one. That way lies idolatry. This is what Allen Tate meant when he wrote to his friend Donald Davidson in 1942 that “you have always seemed to me to hold to a kind of mystical secularism, which has made you impatient and angry at the lack of results. We live in a bad age in which we cannot give our best; but no age is good.” Donald Davidson, like Bill Barrett’s father, sought valiantly to fuse his own identity with the community he loved in its time and place, and when, as was inevitable, that community, being made up of humans, changed, he saw the change as a fall from perfection, and thus as a betrayal, and he spent his energies in a vain attempt to arrest the change and deny its manifestations. Increasingly the South that he loved became a heart’s-desire land which bore less and less relationship to the actual Tennessee community he lived in, until his life became almost totally a rear guard action against any accommodation with change, and in which each engagement was fought as if it were Armageddon, or perhaps Gettysburg. Entered into with the noblest of motives, waged with unremitting courage and high personal honor, Donald Davidson’s battle ultimately deprived him of all contact with the real world that poetry must inhabit if it is to take its images and meanings from life.

It is temptingly easy to forget what Stark Young warned his fellow Nashville Agrarians about when he declared in his contribution to the Agrarian Symposium I’ll Take My Stand that “we must remember that we are concerned first with a quality itself, not as our own but as found anywhere; and that we defend certain qualities not because they belong to the South, but because the South belongs to them.” But it is also rather too easy to pursue the opposite course: to give in utterly and uncritically to change, to attempt to abdicate any responsibility for determining one’s own moral and ethical relationship to it. One’s identity lies not in the change as such but in what is undergoing change, and though we cannot arrest change, neither can we yield ourselves over to it entirely and still hope to retain any worthwhile integrity or identity in time. We are, in human terms at least, the product of our past, and our task is always therefore to adapt what we are to the inevitability of change, so as to secure and strengthen what we are and can be: to seek to control and shape change so as to help it become part of us.In that transaction lies human identity in time, and it would be foolish indeed for us not to attempt to preserve such hard-won virtues and accomplishments as we possess. For we have no way of knowing that adequate and acceptable replacements will be available if we give them up uncritically in exchange for the unknown.

The South has been with us for some time now, and there seems to be little reason not to assume that it will continue to be the South for many years to come. It has changed a great deal—it is always changing, and in recent decades the change has been especially dramatic. But there is little conclusive evidence that it is changing into something that is less markedly Southern than in the past. After all, why should it? Does anyone, for example, seriously believe that the liberation of an entire segment of its population, its black folk, into full participation in the region’s political and economic life will make the region less distinctively Southern in its ways? Is not the reverse more likely? Does it seem plausible that, merely because they now live and work in towns and cities rather than in rural areas, the bulk of the Southern population, both white and black, will abruptly cease to hold and to share most of the values, attitudes, concerns, and opinions that have hitherto characterized their lives?

Is the South becoming the “non-South”? Does the Southern community cease to exist once it becomes urban and industrial? Not if we are to place any stock in what the sociological and political indices report, or what Walker Percy and the other novelists and poets tell us. To think of change simply as destruction of the South’s distinctiveness is misleading. Instead of concentrating our attention solely upon what industrialization, urbanization, racial integration, and so forth are going to do to the South, we might consider what so powerful and complex a community as our South is going to do to and with them. The South has long had a habit of incorporating seemingly disruptive change within itself, and continuing to be the South. The historian George Tindall wryly records the long chronology of supposed demises of the “Old South.” Each juncture in the region’s history—the Civil War, the end of slavery, Reconstruction, the New South movement of the 1880’s and 1890’s, the Populist revolt, the impact of the First World War, the boosterism and businesss expansion of the 1920’s, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the downfall of King Cotton and the rise of a more diversified agriculture, the break-up of the one-party system and the Solid South, Brown v. Board of Education and the end of legal segregation, the sweeping industrialization and urbanization of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the newfound prosperity of the so-called “Sun Belt,” the election of Jimmy Carter as President with strong backing from black Southerners—has been proclaimed as signalizing the end of the line, so far as the preservation of regional identity and distinctiveness are concerned. Yet an identifiable and visible South remains, and its inhabitants continue to face the same underlying human problems as before, however much the particular issues may change.

At the conclusion of The Last Gentleman, Bill Barrett, having lived in New York and journeyed to Santa Fe, will presumably go back to Birmingham, Alabama. He will not return to Things As They Were; but then, things are never as they once were. Those who proclaim Walker Percy’s fiction as existential, thereby symbolizing the passing of the South and the conclusion of the 20th-century Southern literary mode as such, miss the point, it seems to me. The details of the Southern heritage are deeply embodied in Percy’s imagination, and in taking on the continuing human problems of self-definition, belief, good and evil, man’s place in society from the perspective of a changed set of social and historical circumstances, Percy is doing what every major Southern author before him has done. For at no time was there ever a static, changeless society known as the South, inhabited by fully-realized, timeless human exemplars known as Southerners, for whom there was no problem of self-definition in changing times. The evidence of Southern literature, it seems to me, of which Percy is the latest practitioner, is that in every time and place men have faced the task of reconciling individual and private virtue with an inescapable need for fulfillment within a community of men and women, and there is always the requirement to redefine the ethical and moral assumptions of one’s rearing and one’s present social circumstance amid change. In The Last Gentleman Bill Barrett has no doubt, really, that he wants to live a “normal” life; his consuming problem is the discovery of a way whereby he can believe in the virtue and value of such a life, rather than merely viewing his role in it as a kind of game plan, a calculated, abstract exercise of the will in which he imposes a private meaning upon what is outside and around him entirely in terms of its usefulness for himself. What he realizes, finally, is his absolute need for what goes on and is involved in that life—for what is ultimately outside and unknown to him. Only with this acknowledgement of absolute dependence can he go back to his girl and his job and his life in Birmingham.

Now it seems to me that far from representing an end to the so-called “traditional” Southern literary mode, The Last Gentleman is a redefinition of it, one that is necessary if it is to continue to have any significance. It represents, on its author’s part, a reassessment of certain fundamental human truths, involving community, order, mutability, and belief, in a changed social circumstance. Without such a reassessment, whereby ethical and moral assumptions are translated into a usable idiom, the assumptions would soon become empty and meaningless. And as Bill Barrett well recognizes, any such redefinition can be only partial and inexact, for the human beings who hold to the assumptions and seek to act upon them are finite men and women.

Once more, and for the last time, the Boll Weevil: for its demise, the merger of the Seaboard and the Coast Line Rail-roads, the discontinuance of all railroading along the trackage that led by the baseball field in Charleston, the removal of the old wooden trestle across the Ashley River, were not after all the end of my imaginative involvement with the little gas-electric coach that plays so inordinately emblematic a role in my memory of the past. There was a summer day, only several years ago, when I was driving from Charleston back to my home in North Carolina. The route led through the town of Hamlet, and since it was getting on toward midday when I neared there, I decided that I would leave the marked route, drive over to where the railway passenger station had been located, have a look around, and then find a place to eat lunch.

It had been 25 years since the day I had ridden down from Richmond, spent the night at the railroad hotel, and then gone to board the Boll Weevil, only to find it replaced by a diesel locomotive and air-conditioned coaches. Now I found the station itself, looking much as it had in the past, except that save for one small area reserved for Amtrak passengers, it was all boarded up. I went over to look at the train announcement board. There were only two passenger trains a day each way listed upon it. Not only had the branch line service to Charleston been long since discontinued, along with other such branches, but with the takeover of all passenger service by Amtrak, the onetime Seaboard service to Atlanta and Birmingham had been eliminated. Now the only passenger trains were New York-to-Florida runs.

The station platform was empty. I remembered it as it had been during the war, when the station had been filled with travelers, the lunch room crowded, porters busy with baggage carts along the ramps, railroad workers checking the condition of the wheels and braking equipment on the strings of coaches, switch engines shunting coaches, Pullmans, baggage, and mail cars back and forth to make up consists for the northbound, southbound, westbound, and eastbound runs. The life of the town of Hamlet, I thought, had once centered upon the activities at this station. Now it was deserted, boarded up.

I found the place where one night during the war I had spied the little Boll Weevil waiting alone in the darkness, far away from where in my mind’s eye I felt it ought to be. Now there was only an empty stretch of siding next to an old brick warehouse, with the weeds grown high about the crossties and the rails rusty from long disuse.

I wondered whether the old wooden railroad hotel was still functioning. I walked a block southward. It was still there, and, surprisingly, still doing business. No doubt its clientele of trainmen still found it useful for overnight stays between freight runs.

The restaurant was open, so I went in and sat down at a booth to order lunch. The room was crowded, and as I waited for my meal to be served, I looked around at my fellow customers. To judge from their age and appearance, most were not railroad workers but employees in the stores and offices along the main street nearby. What caught my eye, however, were four young women installed in a booth diagonally across from where I sat, eating lunch together while several youths stood nearby bantering with them. Three of the girls were white. One was black.

Twenty-five years ago, if I had been here at lunchtime, such a sight would have been inconceivable. As they talked away, eating, chattering, making jokes, laughing, giggling, I thought of how much political rhetoric, how much scheming and planning and denouncing and defying and editorializing and drawing up legal briefs and passing laws and the like had been expended in my part of the country in the vain effort to prevent those four girls from eating lunch together in that restaurant. How many dire predictions of social catastrophe, how many lamentations over the imminent destruction of the Southern Way of Life, the violations of all that was sacred and noble, had come thundering forth on all sides!

Yet here they were now, eating lunch together, and here was this restaurant in a southeastern North Carolina town on a summer day, with the clientele laughing and talking and eating, and the waitresses serving up the hamburgers and salads and cokes and coffee and iced tea and pie, and the floor fans droning away, and except for the presence of the black girl there and several other black customers at other tables, whom I now saw, nothing seemed importantly different from what I might have seen there had I stopped in for lunch on that day when I had ridden the successor to the Boll Weevil down to Charleston, or for that matter, from what I would have seen if a decade before that I had been able to board the train at the station near the ball park as I had dreamed of doing, and made the trip all the way up to Hamlet.

How remarkable it was, to have been part of all that had happened since then! For indeed I had been part of it; nor was it yet concluded. Here was I, at the place where a third of a century earlier I had known that the train was bound for, and had wanted to go there with it. Only now there was no more train. Those same years which had contained the stress and struggle and strife that had ultimately made it possible for those four girls, three white and one black, to go out for lunch together after three centuries of law and tradition to the contrary, had also witnessed the decline and the demise of the little passenger train that I had once so admired and loved. Yet could I honestly say, if in effect the end of a place for the Boll Weevil in the scheme of things had been, symbolically, the price that had to be paid in order for me to see those four girls eating lunch together in this restaurant, that the cost had been too high?

So that I could not and must not think of the memory of the little train as something unique and unqualified, frozen in time and inviolate, and of which all subsequent encounters and experiences were a species of decline and fall. For both I and the train had been part of a complex fabric of social experience, having moral and ethical validity, whose form had been the shape of time. It had been real, it had existed, and for me the little train was process: identity in time, not outside it. Its diminution did not represent merely loss, but change, of which I was a part, and which, because it had happened to me in my time, was mine to cherish. And it was not ghostly and subjective, with no further existence except as I could remember it, but substantial and in the world, authentic because it was part of time and change, emblematic of my own involvement in that world, and proof that I had been and still was alive. It was in time that it was able to be what it was for me, in its contingency: droll in its extraordinary extraness: the oak tree growing around the iron horse’s head. And if I wanted to understand who I was, what my country was and why, it was there that I must learn to look.


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John B. Waring's picture
John B. Waring · 8 years ago

I remember the Old Seaboard Airline Railroad bridge well and when riding pass a Dairy Queen on St. Andrews Blvd in the late 50's I remember seing long frieght trains crossing the old wood tressel over the Ashley River Bridge. My father grew up on Bee Street a few miles from the tracks and I remembering him telling me about the lonesome whistle as describe in this wonderful historical Article. I remember many people who grew up in my dad's time telling me about old Charleston and the Boll Weevil. I used to day dream myself and still do about what it would been like to ride from Savannah to Charleston. Then from Charleston Hamlet. The line went through some of the most beautiful Country in the South.  In the 1967 I remember seeing the Draw Bridge opened and never to close again. I lived in Summerville, SC 20 mile North West of Charleston. My family and I would come to Charleston every Saturday. I remember the saddness that I felt seing  rail less ties signifying the end the of my dream of adventure to somehow hop a freight and travel this old line. Now I cross the the spot of the old crossing where bicycle path has been built over a section of the old Seaboard Airline. In my dreams I hear the old whistle and clacking of tracks and the ring of the signals that were once there.  This article hit close to home for I seen the changes some for good but many not. JBW



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