Skip to main content

Class Southerner

ISSUE:  Spring 1989

On my first day at Princeton, in 1967, I met my first Southerner. I didn’t like him—monogrammed dress shirt, bright red golf slacks shouting for attention, and washing (with the assistance of a black janitor) his new white Pontiac LeMans. He might, for all I could see, be ultimate Kappa Alpha. “Samuel Francis Pickering,” he told me. His accent filled the air with molasses. I stirred it with a question. “Where are you from?” “Nashville,” he responded. When I reciprocated, “Fayetteville, Arkansas,” he volunteered a prediction: “You’re going to hate it here.”

I had never lived outside Arkansas, nor outside the 20th century. At Princeton, I entered by the university gates a Gothic world where fierce gray gargoyles scowled from atop the great stone heaps I now called home. The medieval world that was the campus would have stretched the conservative principles of the most old-fashioned of men. I dived straight into the gargoyle’s den, taking rooms at the Graduate College, a particularly imposing example of Gothic architecture, laid out in quads, with well-groomed grounds and benefiting spring and summer from the refining and aromatic influences of the adjacent English formal garden. Over the green-tiled roof of the college, defining the skyline, soared Cleveland Tower, alleged to be a larger but otherwise perfect replica of the main tower at Cambridge University. It was a fit symbol: we were in all ways possible an English outpost, a Cambridge on the western horizon where the mind was never quiet; the tongue and pen, never still.

Nor had I ever seen a prettier town. Princeton was a postcard village then, with its imitation-English main street and square, its residential acres of flowering trees and shrubs where one grand house after another competed tastefully for attention. I had never lived among people of such diverse colors, features, accents, faiths, and customs and was at first a tourist of population. The green town-and-campus swatch that was Princeton reposed in the lap of industrial New Jersey, and Garden State factories had drawn millions of Italian, Slavic, and other South and East European immigrants. The state, to this Southern Protestant, seemed the eastern front of Rome and the terminus of a third Diaspora. Ashkenazim and Sephardim—my mouth had never played with such syllables. Salvucci, Carlucci, and Tucci became familiar and easy, like Jones, and were twice as much fun to say—palpable and juicy as peaches to my tongue, with its fresh cunning.

Jews figured prominently in Princeton, and for the first time I lived among God’s chosen: I didn’t know anyone white could have such liquid eyes. The local Jewish community prospered, some active in Princeton businesses, law, or medicine. Others commuted daily to New York or Philadelphia, working hard at the trade of being highly successful, and, like their non-Jewish counterparts, living the good life according to John Cheever.

What Princeton lacked was the poor or anything that could properly be designated the working class, unless one cared to call several hundred Italian and black workers, clustered in a small and dwindling neighborhood near the hospital, by a name more loose-fitting than a patient’s gown. They were few, scattered in their working places, and permeated with the aspirations, styles, and manners of the encircling, prosperous community. While many of them managed to look as distinguished as the brokers and professors one met on the streets, some had experienced deprivation and no doubt knew it. But Princeton’s poor had endured nothing to equal the bare, unremitting poverty of East Arkansas tenant farmers, nor the hardscrabble trials of the Ozark mountain folk, whose memory trailed me to New Jersey.

Mostly, in this my new world (and never more than at the Graduate College) we observed the ancient forms of the English university. The housing manager was the porter, his office, the lodge; and I went that first day knocking at his gate (big brass knocker, heavy oak door) with almost superstitious awe. The head resident was the Master of the College (and a more charmingly crusty chap there never was); his apartment, the Master’s quarters. The campus police were proctors, and I am happy to say that I never saw the inside of their lodge and cannot name its name.

The dining hall was a cathedral dedicated to the appetite, appropriate to the scripture describing the body as the temple of God. Stained glass windows glowed in the gray stone walls which rose to a vaulted ceiling, 60 feet at its peak. We did not drift into dinner casually but awaited the appointed hour, when on the more formal occasions, the organ, with proper cadence and dignity, piped us in. We did not seat ourselves one-by-one but waited for the Master, or his appointed deputy, to offer thanks, usually in Latin, sometimes in Hebrew, occasionally in Greek—or else something exotic.

We could wear what we wanted. It did not matter: black academic gowns, required even for guests, would cover whatever the costume with which we had, during the day, profaned our persons. Be not deceived: the ceremony was genuinely religious. But it had nothing to do with God. It had everything to do with worship of the English university and its forms. Some of my new friends reveled in this worship and delighted in being acolytes. Others resented it. A few took it as a personal affront to which there could be no response—as though a taxi driver, cab empty, ignored their hail and passed immediately beyond the range of their curse or raspberry. I had not been raised high church, either in religion or personal manners, but I knew enough of ritual to understand its value. The ceremony had its points, especially the gown. It saved on laundry, and I came to appreciate it as a sort of fancy bib overalls.

The mysteries of ritual, I could penetrate. I had more trouble with the way people talked. Everyone sounded so smart—”bright” or “clever” being the words preferred at Princeton. Many had genius-level accents. And I heard, for the first time, the twang, like a loose guitar string, in my own voice. Everyone else heard it, too, and sometimes played back-up joker to my not so musical solos. My accent provoked good-natured amusement and considerable curiosity. Upon meeting me, a student in anthropology would ask, wonderingly, “What was it like, growing up in Arkansas?” I was, I realized, her very first Samoan.

During my first dinner in Proctor Hall I encountered, from a gentleman soon to receive his Ph. D. in classics, the standard works of a species of comedy that evidently owed its inspiration to Beverly Hillbillies outtakes:

Did I wear shoes to dinner?

Yes, and I wanted to thank him personally for the CARE package.

Did I grow up with indoor plumbing?

No, that’s why Princeton was such an education for me.

Did I bring my pet pig to graduate school?

No, I was certain I could meet one here.

Perhaps my questioner thought nothing of the exchange. Or perhaps he derived a moral: white Southerners, provided they’re not violent, are almost as good-natured as black people.

Northeastern graduate students often considered Princeton a Southern school located in a Southern town. This view astonished me and other Southerners at Princeton. “Somewhere in the greater Virginia area?” I asked a friend from New York City. “It’s about like an Eskimo thinking “Canada” and “sauna” are synonyms,” fumed Jim Tracey, a graduate of the University of Virginia. “Except maybe that makes the Eskimo think highly of Canada,” I responded.

Most of my fellows had never visited the South, knew few Southerners, and derived their perceptions of the region largely from newspapers, television, and movies. These sources, perhaps inevitably and regardless of their commitment to accuracy, passed over the typical, the humdrum routine and normal flow of Southern life and highlighted and dramatized the romantic, the singular, the controversial, and the sensational. They magnified an impression, found among and fostered by Southerners as well as Northerners, that the South in basic ideals, traditions, and attitudes stood apart from the rest of the country—almost a separate civilization. These sources in their extremest expressions conjured images which verged on the fantastic and grotesque: the South as quagmire, miasmic and haunted and (after one scraped away the thin veneer of would-be aristocrats) peopled by brutalized but brave and endlessly enduring blacks; bland-brained but treacherous blue-eyed beauties and fading belles; scripture-spewing, hollow-souled, life-hating hypocrites; tobacco-spitting, paunch-bellied, graft-bloated sheriffs; inbred, bullet-headed, psychopathic idiots—a moral landscape worthy of the palette of some latter day Hieronymus Bosch.

These images were not malicious fictions without foundation; they had basis in fact. Yet they were caricatures and increasingly dated as the South, for ill as well as good, had begun to merge in the common traffic of American life. Most of my colleagues did not subscribe fully to the stereotypes, but the images lingered and colored our relations. Perhaps a dozen acquaintances my first year in Princeton questioned whether Jews would be safe in Arkansas; whether the mere circumstance of a Northern accent or license plate would imperil life and limb. One colleague asked whether I had ever witnessed a lynching and had difficulty believing it when I said that there had never been a lynching in my hometown and that, so far as I knew, no one in my family had ever belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, or any other such organization. We didn’t even belong to the Lions Club.

Some of my fellow students assumed that I was racially prejudiced and on occasion counted on it. One day, as I walked across the campus with a New York associate, a black teenager flew toward us on his ten-speed. Nearer and nearer he hurtled, then swerved around us, so close it might have been an afterthought. “Damn niggers!” my colleague exploded.

It had scared me, too, and I had a gift for anger. But here it pulled two ways. I stiffened visibly, and he noticed. “Should have kept every one of you in the South,” he responded, trying to pass it off as a joke.

My colleagues were in most contexts swift to reprove stereotyping. Familiar with the tenets of cultural relativism, they might, with an airy wave of a platitude dismiss any itemizing of the failings of Gerónimo, Patrice Lamumba, or Eldridge Clevar, while issuing a blanket indictment of the white neighbors who had taught me baseball, long division, and manners. I did not identify with Dixie, had not in Fayetteville and did not in Princeton. But I from the beginning defended my home and its people. My colleagues did not mean to insult me: I was all right, I had escaped, I fancied culture and was one of them. And wasn’t I glad?

Captain Red Slacks fell in beside me a few days after our first encounter. His elegantly modulated voice poured out accent thickly, and I thought he was about to bow as he apologized for not “stopping round.” “Lamentably remiss” he’d been in “virtues” imbibed from earliest childhood. I must forgive his not extending hospitality to me a stranger in a strange land. (A place lacking what he no doubt deemed the cardinal amenities.) “But how was I finding it?” he asked.

It was New Jersey, and yet I stood in the awesome presence of the Lost Cause. “A Southern gentleman of the old school,” the Lost Causettes would have swiftly pronounced him. “HOW ARE YOU FINDING IT?,” he repeated. I’d done nothing to invite it, but he mocked me all the same. The syrup chafed: from deep inside me rose an Ozarker’s resentment of the aristocrat’s condescension. “By the moss,” I replied. “Grows thickest on the north side.”

“That it does, Captain.” He turned off at the bookstore and mounted the steps, singing a Roy Acuff classic:

Who did you say it was, brother?

Who was it fell by the way?

When whiskey and blood run together. . . .

“I didn’t hear nobody pray,” I finished for him. Maybe he’d intended to turn back. “If you’re not busy, I’ll stop in before dinner,” he said. “A touch of the native drink and a few of your records will mix nicely, I think.” I didn’t know I’d played my music loudly; hoped he’d bring the native drink, for I didn’t know what it was. He arrived early, sherry bottle in hand, and, after an exchange of civilities, asked if he might pick out a record. He passed over Mozart, B.B. King, and the Beatles. Then his face lit up. He’d found Hank Snow, troubadour of tragedy and sorrow.

Four sorrows later, the Nashville gentleman shook his head. Dipthongs cropped out of the rich accent, and, insinuatingly country, he said, “That boy can get sorry fast. And ache mighty bad.”

Is he taunting me, I wondered. “Like he has a twang pouch hid behind his palette,” I dipthonged back.

“Rawest, best nasals west of New Jersey,” agreed my guest. He glanced out of the window. The first berobed colleagues passed by on their way to high dinner. “It’s warm in here, don’t you think?”

“Barn hot,” I responded.

From his seat in the window, he cranked open the casement that faced directly on the courtyard and the imposing bronze figure of Andrew Fleming West, distinguished founder and first dean of the graduate college. “Turn up the record to turn down the pain,” my guest requested.

Hank Snow could speak as well as he sang, and, from time to time, he’d always talked a little in his saddest songs. He reached a talking part in “Shep,” a mournful number concerning a sorrowing master and his miserably ill, ever faithful best friend. There was nothing left for it, Hank told us. Had to shoot old Shep. All them good times, tough times, too. (Hank was getting to me like he always did, and the odd fellow opposite me seemed ready to cry.) Hank wouldn’t stop but made us see it: how Shep muzzled up to his master’s knee, soft brown eyes looked up like they were saying, “It’s all right, we’ll meet someday in heaven.”

“Gott im himmel!” exploded the dapper little Austrian physicist, face pressed against the window screen, eyes darting. “Care for some sherry, Herman?” asked my guest. “Or taking the air? The air, I see,” said my companion, as Herr Herman hustled on.

“He doesn’t care for the arts?” I speculated. “But it is time for supper.” We gowned and soon stood in line with the rest. The organ sounded magisterially. “Who did you say it was, brother?” sang Red Slacks and grinned. I still had questions, knew he was trouble, and knew Sam Pickering was one of my friends.

Despite the questions concerning Arkansas, birthplaces were not the first order of curiosity. “Where are you from?” whether asked of me or anyone else, meant where did you go to college. This seemed almost bizarre to me, and based on a false assumption; and I continued, even after I understood local usage, to answer, “Fayetteville.” No one was “from” a college. “From” was where you were born. “From” was where your people lived (or were buried), where you were taught whatever it was you could later reject; or accept, however redefining the terms, and live by when you went off to wherever it was that not everyone knew you, your people, and what you had probably been taught to think about strange people who asked odd questions without apology or even apparent recognition that they were behaving oddly: Princeton, in my case.

But it wasn’t odd, after all. Natives of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia didn’t have home towns. They might have neighborhoods or boroughs, often had ethnicity, sometimes a church or synagogue. But they did not have home towns, home people, or fellow citizens. They might, often did, have smugness, but not civic pride. The city had shaped each of them and deeply. But it had not (and could not have) assumed responsibility for nurturing, protecting, and enforcing standards—for good or ill—in the way a home town assumed responsibility for its young. That’s why they learned “street smarts” instead of manners.

Not all my new associates were from Philadelphia, New York or Boston; but between Brotherly Love and Beantown, everyone who wasn’t from the Big Three was a commuter or an industrial worker, a group of no interest to my questioners, except, occasionally, as an abstraction called “the working class” or “the oppressed.” For my Northeastern friends, college was their first home town.

I answered that I was from Fayetteville out of principle. I was stubborn and constitutionally inclined to tease anyone whose shirt appeared the least bit stuffed. I was also defensive. The alumni of Harvard, Yale, and Columbia considered “the University of Arkansas” a confession of academic illegitimacy, and they brandished their degrees as beauties flash teeth. Many had schooled their accents at Andover, Exeter, Choate—places familiar to me only through the stories of Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, and John Cheever. They were far more sophisticated intellectually than I. And looked it. By November I was one of two first-year history students who remained unable to punctuate Profundity with a puff of pipe smoke. The other was female.

They had graduated from The New Yorker and moved on to The New York Review of Books at a time when I still thought New Yorker was a kind of Chrysler, or possibly a competitor of The New York Daily News. Later I would, in response to a taunt concerning Southern finishing schools, suggest that The New Yorker was the city’s substitute for charm school: it taught would-be sophisticates their cultural table manners. My gibe stung no one because no one saw it as aimed at himself; all were the genuine rather than the ersatz article.

I had acquired information in college. They had acquired “concepts,” a familiarity with scholarly literature and trends, and an ability to dissect arguments—the tools of the trade upon which we were embarking. The scholarly trend at Princeton, although not all faculty subscribed, was toward the “new social history.” The department chairman and other leaders emphasized quantification, group biography (“prosopography,” they sometimes called it), and other methodologies at the “cutting edge” of the discipline. Not only the new social historians but others as well stressed the generation and elaboration of theories and models of historical change. While some faculty wrote admirably well, most would have dismissed as old-fashioned, romantic, and trivial a conception of history as narrative art. As serious scholars, their beau ideal was history as science.

My fellow students came to Princeton for specific professional reasons. They knew thoroughly and could place precisely in historiographical context the work of the faculty. They came to embrace the new methodologies, to study with Lawrence Stone, or, with different approaches in mind, Arno Mayer, Cyril Black, or some other ranking figure who would teach them what they already knew they needed to know. They stepped off the train at Princeton Junction requiring no directions to their rooms.

Had I known what they did, I wouldn’t have taken the train: I didn’t know the new social history from the same old dance. I knew that James McPherson and Martin Duberman had inside angles on the abolitionists, but the 19th century, except for Andrew Jackson and the Populists, didn’t interest me. I respected the scholarly achievement of Frank Craven and Arthur Link, who, as my Uncle Loyce would say, had “run their papers mighty high.” I liked Arthur Link for liking Woodrow Wilson and Frank Craven for writing the most gracious letter of any representative of the schools to which I applied. What intrigued me more than any other historical issue (if it was an historical issue) was Crevecoeur’s question, “What then is this American, this new man . . .?”

The question lay behind my interest in the Populists. Crevecoeur’s independent yeomen had become, by the late 19th century, the dispossessed—shunted aside by an industrializing nation. I hadn’t the right but took that personally. It was family feeling, a birthright once removed: Daddy grew up on a 40-acre hardscrabble Ozark farm his daddy homesteaded. Maybe I had a weakness for hard-fighting losers. Most Southerners do, I soon would read. “It was the Civil War and the whole Spanish moss-dripping cult of the Lost Cause and its heroes that did it,” I explained to Bob Curvin, a black classmate who was no less skeptical than I was. Populist orator Mary Ellen Lease had charged her farmer audiences, “Raise less corn and more hell!” At my best I shared her fury for economic justice and broadened democracy. I accepted, too uncritically I now believe, C. Vann Woodward’s argument that the Populists had tried to build a genuine alliance of poor whites and blacks.

Here at Princeton I encountered a picture that I didn’t recognize: the Populists as Negrophobes, nativists, and anti-Semites; vicious, simple-minded (paranoid, wrote a Pulitzer prize winner) folk who were possessed of a conspiracy theory of history; agrarian Luddites who struggled vainly to restore a mythic America of sturdily self-sufficient yeomen living in bucolic democratic harmony. My earlier view was naïve, but this was radically unfair. It made me mad, and I couldn’t let it pass. Mustering my self-control, I commented, “This scholarship dismisses the Populist program as based on irrationality, bigotry, and gross ignorance. It allows the farmers no reasonable choice but to abandon their farms for the cities.”

“That’s an interesting suggestion,” responded my teacher. “The more intelligent, forward-looking rural dwellers moved to the cities, leaving a less able, reactionary element behind.” It was the first time my teacher had complimented one of my ideas.

The atmosphere teemed with abstractions, “conceptual schemes,” theories. My colleagues could crunch through concepts like Fritos, swallow frameworks whole, order a theory for lunch, and rise to walk on air. Even Christ required the water. It made me uneasy. At supper one of my associates asked how I “conceptualized” a problem I’d finished explaining. Exasperated, I answered, “I don’t. It’s hard enough just to think.”

“But really,” he responded, as exasperated as I, “how do you conceptualize the matter?”

“I don’t conceptualize,” I repeated. “Know folks who’d break your jaw if you said it to their daughters.”

Pickering said I was uneasy because I was Southern, that Southerners instinctively rejected the abstract and the theoretical. States rights dogma had nearly done us in; and, let theory pound furiously at the door, we’d not open. The store was closed, now and forever. I didn’t buy it. I was uneasy because I was American. Theory seemed foreign, and not simply because it might challenge existing institutions and beliefs. It took too much education for the nation of Jackson, Lincoln, and Truman, who had done quite well without conceptual schemes, so I thought. Theory was an impurity in what I deemed to be the national spirit: practical and accommodating and capable of the give-and-take and compromise essential for a democratic system and heterogeneous population. Being Southern, if my friend were partly right, just made me more American. The trouble was also personal. I wasn’t good at conceptual schemes, had little practice or natural bent. The folds of the cerebrum were none so high as to allow Mind to mount and gaze to far off places; see not separate hills but a straight line running, and connecting the long range of the past.

Pickering said Northern intellectuals were analytical, Southern anecdotal. That I partly bought—had heard too many stories not to and here met people who had never told or listened and had little ear, however great their curiosity or appreciation. This was a key, I since have realized, to a fundamental difference in the way my classmates and I approached learning. They looked for conceptual frameworks, supporting evidence, inconsistencies in argument and paid little attention to any music in the author’s mind and words. I read for argument, also, but held to narrative as the spine and essence of the craft. I listened chiefly to the author’s voice, his sensibility and vision as revealed in the language that gave being to his thought. I was unpersuaded by any reasoning, however bright or erudite, that showed no humor or sense of beauty or tragedy; that conveyed no feeling for complexities of character and the tawny wash of attitudes, values, fears, and prejudices of time and place. Whatever the writer knew, he failed to understand. Nor could he evoke for his readers, nor would he be long read, even by those in his own profession. Readers wanted more than brilliance; they wanted the fleshed body of a living past.

My vision of history did not derive from school or college. I defined it late but absorbed it early. It grew largely from the experience of listening to my father and his brothers (and later, as they came into their art, my own brothers, too) as they “storied” for hours, reciting the sayings and doings of funny-turned or notorious characters, endlessly detailing one funny, sad, wild, or violent tale after another from their own, our relatives’, or friends’ or the community’s past:

There was that time, it was the wake of Red Tom Clark, said Uncle Loyce. Put a whiskey bottle in Red Tom’s hand, cigar in his mouth, someone lit it, now and then. Topped him off with his favorite hunting cap and propped him up at the front door, hand out, to greet his own mourners.

It was the final killing in the Sims-Macklin War, said Uncle Vic. Your Great Uncle Sol was there. He told me, your daddy, too. I remember it, like I was there—the sweat-stained hats, dark eyes deep-sunk like the Sure Pop Mine. Ain’t scairt, that one, said your Great Uncle Sol; Why not now, said Orton Jacks, eager, like he was drooling over pork loin, ready to carve. . . .

And so it would go until I, too, saw, like it was yesterday, the wake of Red Tom Clark. Saw, too, Fice Sims and Velt Macklin, the very stump the two of them stood by, their story shaping, transforming the day and making it more than the others, demanding a voice by which they and their day would never be lost. These and other stories like them were for me the first history and the root of my interest in history ever since.

All of our graduate classes were seminars with heavy reading loads and an emphasis on critical discussion of scholarly literature and class presentations—thrust and counter-thrust. My classmates had devastating self-confidence; I was not prepared for the fray. My undergraduate experience was with lecture courses. There, the lecturer might ask questions, and someone always responded, sometimes out of genuine interest or desire to impress the teacher, sometimes out of simple courtesy or because of the tension that developed when a question hung in the air, too long unanswered. But one did not respond at the expense of fellow students. To have done so would have been to forfeit membership in the tribe.

Here there was no tribe and certainly no one to race to the rescue of any fallen comrade. It was single sculls in open waters that boiled with sharks. Schools of pilot fish competed fiercely for any leftovers. I liked it, but not at first, and it was a long time before I loved it. Initially, I recoiled from what I perceived as academic carnivores, intellectual cannibals; seminars as bloody communions, discussions, in and out of class, as clacking moveable feasts, feasts of snakes. I had no choice. I had never seen exchange in which civility and personality were not more important than the substance of what was said. I had never seen impersonal relations. My first lesson was to cease to regard discussion as conversation.

The history department then required all entering students to take an introduction to social science theories and methods. The course brought together all first-year students in an experiment designed to encourage interdisciplinary approaches to scholarly issues. Four faculty regularly participated; a visiting, and most distinguished, French scholar frequently sat in; and professors from other departments and universities often served as speakers and discussion leaders. The class concentrated the mind as Samuel Johnson said only hanging could do.

One day the discussion turned to the American Civil War, and I could see that I knew more than the rest. The tide in the affairs of men had come: I summoned confidence, girded on armor, and, a proper Captain Carpenter, sallied forth to do argument. I sounded thoroughly professional, I thought, as I slashed through the wilderness, extended the line of reasoning, and prepared to close in: “The Yankees . . . .” You’d have thought I’d said something funny: the entire class collapsed. My poise, my advantage, and my argument came tumbling after. A week later, no one could have remembered my point. But my innocent, accident-of-a-phrase hung in the air like an unanswered question.

Not everyone thought it was innocent. I was the class Southerner and the only member of the class who did not from the beginning recognize me as such. My place was to supply special information and represent the Southern point of view. I wasn’t up to it. I had never taken a course in Southern history (nor literature nor politics), and, except for my childhood interest in the Civil War, I had done little informal reading in the field. Nor had I come to Princeton with any notion of specializing in the area. I would be well into my third term before I seriously considered the possibility, and then in large part because I had to declare a specialty. But my first weeks pushed me toward doing special homework. It was read up or seem ignorant, inarticulate, or embarrassed about what my colleagues expected to come naturally, easy as my accent, which, without a command of the cultural heritage from which it was presumed to come, would have appeared so much false advertising. Whom was I trying to fool? Who did I think I was, anyhow? I resolved to be prepared for any questions referred to the class Southerner.

I did have a potential rival but didn’t know it: he refused to enter the lists. “I say, old boy,” he wheezed one mizzling October morning when the skies looked up at Cleveland Tower. “I believe we grew up neighbors, at least in neighboring states.” The trench coat-heavy fog had got him, I thought. Or maybe he was mocking me: I’d said something affected or else had multiplied dipthongs astonishingly. But he stood too stolidly, a two-quart-man pleasant and expectant of the warmth due a fellow countryman abroad.

“I’m from Arkansas,” I stammered at last, unwilling to commit myself further. “Mississippi,” he responded as he extended his belle-smooth hand. You could have knocked me over with a fine-tooth comb, to quote the then carpetbag governor of the state of Arkansas. Neighbor Jones had summered at Cambridge University and, while there, had acquired Harris tweeds, an upper class accent, and a number of idioms without which no English gentleman will appear in public.

He was the first of a series of what I came to recognize as a type: the Southern exile, who—anxious to forget, embarrassed and eager to win acceptance, or afflicted with guilt and indignant over injustice—diligently distanced himself from the region of his birth. For some, the North and its ways were far enough but not for Jones and other spiritual expatriates. Expatriates were by no means rare or in danger of extinction and might be of either sex, with only minor differences to distinguish the two. The females were more likely than the males to pass over England to light on the continent, there to study French literature. They made, according to report, particularly thorny girl friends.

Expatriates were fundamentally, inescapably unhappy—as full of sorrow as Irish writers without ale and in the bosom of the enemy. But they had their ethnic, cultural cake and ate it, too. They purged themselves of being Southern without deserting to the enemy—the descendants of those who drove down Dixie, reviled her from generation to generation, and even now exercised (nose pointing like a finger) moral wardship over everything from Appomattox to Little Rock. Expatriates retained in revised form something of the South that they deemed worthy and superior: a sense of tradition, manners, an appreciation for what Richard Weaver called, “the unbought grace of life.” That retention was an anchor and, I now think, profoundly important. It allowed the expatriates to believe that they had not forsaken utterly the ways of the fathers, nor betrayed the people who had taught them whatever it was that they now—where no one knew them, their people, or what they had been taught—so assiduously cleansed from their accents and attitudes, even washing away the memory of what they once had been.

The exiles and I got along at a distance. I wanted company but was not about to cross the ocean to get it. I could tolerate their rejecting the South; I repudiated much myself. But I could not abide their manipulating the image, firmly established in correct Northern opinion, of Southern ignorance, bigotry, and violence in order to win sympathy and respect for their having risen from the native mire. Now, spotless as the North Pole, they testified to how far they had come, how many, beneath them farther than sin was below God, they had left behind.

We could speak familiarly of commonly familiar things. I sympathized. But I could not understand such failure of pride, nor the inability or refusal to hear and follow the blood within that would have carried them back to their original pulse. They were farther from me ultimately than the several sons and daughters of East European immigrants I met in class; farther from me and less easy to befriend than the international students whom I would later, at a Southern university, serve as foreign student adviser. The expatriates were from no place.

I had always thought it was easy to make friends. You spoke and took it from there. Here I met people who had over-learned an early lesson: don’t talk to strangers. Don’t even necessarily speak to people you know to be fellow graduate students, not even if you had class with them or sat at the same table in Proctor Hall the previous evening. Friendliness, civility—the theory seemed to be—were communicable diseases transmitted by opening one’s mouth to those whose IQ’s and “where froms” had not first been medically certified.

One evening I answered the knock at my door to discover a female graduate student, intense as a laser and twice as bright, and her boyfriend, a Minnesota Nordic, blonde as sunlight and fashionably casual from the soles of his earth shoes to the top of his turtleneck. I knew neither well, but we had a mutual friend. They had come, she said, because our friend had told her I had lots of blues albums. Would I play some? It was a week night, and I needed to work. But I had no choice; they had knocked, and a gentleman could only open. For the next two hours, I picked my way from cut to cut, while they said things off album covers and got cozy on comfort, funk, her eyes, my blues.

The next day I met him on the sidewalk and spoke cordially, only to have him walk by without a word. “The next time you see me,” I yelled as I spun him around, “you speak or start swinging.” The next time I saw him, I heard him first. “Hi, Bill, how are you doing?” boomed across 50 yards of campus. I was glad we had reached an understanding. We could fine tune the arrangements later.

Most graduate students chose their friends predominantly, in many cases almost exclusively, from the members of their own departments. University student center, Graduate College breakfast room, or Proctor Hall—it made little difference. The departments huddled, conceptualized, and, along with the salt and pepper, sugar and tea, passed the bibliography. This was partly shyness and inexperience, an inability to make conversation or have fun outside their disciplines; partly obsession, a tabling of the seminar before the graded time resumed. It was at bottom primitive tribalism, an instinctive ring dance and ancient wariness that kept the heads up, ranks closed, columns unbent.

One evening Sam Pickering and I arrived late to dinner and took the remaining seats at what turned out to be otherwise a mathematics and physics table. We introduced ourselves and departments and, with a little effort, were able to elicit the same information from all but the most reserved of the company. We said that it had been a beautiful day. Meteorology was not their field. Nor was current affairs, the movies, good books, or home towns. They responded only, and then without comment, to requests for salad, meat, bread, and whatever else was on the table.

They had a right not to know us. But we had a right to courtesy and the only chairs available. “Excuse me,” I requested, “but would you pass the flowers, please?” They reached Sam, who needed no cue. He took daisies. I picked marigolds, and with compliments to the gardener, we commenced.

No one laughed. No one smiled, looked surprised or sickened—ten faces, lost in mathematics, colleagues, salad bowls, or bread plates. We continued to the last sunflower but rejected the stems. They were, we explained, a little sour for the season.

I took my friends where I found them, be they school teachers, clerks, waiters, coaches, taxi drivers, a cop. Although raised staunchly Protestant, my social church here soon included Catholics, and a goodly number of them at that. We had a common vocabulary and shared fundamental categories of thought. The Papists, unlike the Northeastern Protestants I met, could speak without smirking of right and wrong as though the choice might, at least on occasion, be clear and certain, woven in a fabric of immutable truths. They did not doubt the reality of sin and, although they may have yielded as often as the rest, felt guilty, did not dismiss guilt as a sign of neurosis but regarded it as rational and healthy and pointing the way to reform and redemption, in this life, even if there were no other.

This outlook made sense. It lent coherence, meaning, and dignity to living. It imparted a cosmic sense of purpose and, in so doing, enlarged the dramatic possibilities of life and language. I accepted it in great part because of early training. But I also realized, as I began for the first time to study closely the history of the region, that the categories and vocabulary offered appropriate terms for understanding the Southern past.

I took to these Catholics, discovered, as Flannery O’Connor found in her evangelical Protestant neighbors, a deep spiritual kinship under the cloth. Robert Atwan, a free-lance writer and former altar boy, who grew up tough-minded in a New Jersey industrial town, became a particularly close friend. We shared a multitude of interests: baseball, history, writing, sin—even country music, and once, the divine afflatus descending, co-composed an unsettling lyric, “Are You Selling Your Soul to Satan?” more a confession, perhaps, than a question or accusation and, unfortunately, never to be number one on anyone’s chart.

My friend had theology and talent, both hard to find among academics. He also had a first-rate ear for cant, was at war with it, and could be ruthlessly clever in exposing pretension and shelling the vulnerable flanks of currently fashionable ideas. It did not always make him popular. It did make him fun. We planned, but other diversions prevented our writing, The Book of Wrong Attitudes, a frontal assault on contemporary cant, particularly the cult of self and mental hygiene, and targeting every pop psychology that arrayed itself in the field.

Half of the Southerners in graduate school were expatriates or closet Southerners, little fun and no use in a difficulty. The remainder drew together, as did the equally small groups of women, blacks, and foreign nationals.

We did not feel persecuted or excluded—victims of Jim Crow for white Southerners—and had no lack of non-Southern friends. Nor did we always or inevitably like one another, any more than we would have had we met on native grounds; and some could be offended by the assumption, occasionally manifested by one of our number, that all sons and daughters of Dixie were by birth and history destined to be friends. This seemed at best presumptuous, at times preposterous, and could easily mask an attempt to take advantage of any misguided sense of loyalty and obligation. A North Carolinian, with whom I had little in common, insisted on calling me “cousin,” although there was no blood tie nor, prior to Princeton, a single shared acquaintance. I did not challenge him. The alternative, Jim Tracey warned, might be, “Bubba.”

Being backward had its benefits. Classmates, expecting little, might be easily impressed. I once won praise simply by demonstrating a basic grasp of Social Darwinism. When I mentioned the little episode to Bob Curvin, he only grinned.

Even our friends viewed us, or so it sometimes seemed, as a sort of ethnic group, fun-loving and amusing, often interesting but provincial, not quite up to the mark. They looked at us and saw our region, viewed us not as individuals but as representatives of the land of cotton, old times there not forgotten. Upon our shoulders rested responsibility for the reputation of our families, communities, states, and region.

Playing the Southerner entertained our Northern friends, who incited us at times and might provide cues and props. Two Northeastern friends triumphed over fact and took me for a Southern aristocrat. From an area discount store they bought a Rhett Butler planter hat they insisted I wear to a Graduate College Christmas party. A black friend from Philadelphia liked the hat but not the way I wore it. The afternoon of the party, he set me straight—tilted the hat low over my brow and cocked it juantily to the side, then had me practice my walk until he pronounced it “street corner cool.” It worked. Everyone laughed—except one rugged fellow who approached, as stiff-legged as I was loose, and, chest out, shoulders back, demanded, “Take it off.” I laughed. He didn’t. “Take it off,” he repeated, this time showdown-inches from my face. “You gotta problem,” interposed Bob Curvin, Jim Tracey moving in beside him. “You do, and we’ll work it out.” He didn’t and withdrew politely. “Get your own fights,” I instructed my protectors and laughed. A planter hat given to me by Jewish friends, a walk taught to me by a black militant, and an Arkansas twang had almost brought me to blows with a Boer from South Africa.

Anthropologists and psychologists, as well as parents and moralists, tell us that games may be very serious matters, indeed. The game of Southerner was serious enough. We played with the idea of the South. We examined the manners, traditions, attitudes, and values of the people from whom we came and whose image we saw reflected in the expectations of our new neighbors. We explored what it meant to be a Southerner, what we wanted our region and ourselves to become. We sought the true, individual shape we could, with art and will and labor, release from the rough stone of the expectations of our neighbors, North and South, and in which we might otherwise remain permanently lodged and buried. We hunted ground on which to take a stand and assert our loyalty, however much we had changed and were changing, to the people and finest traditions of the place of our birth and childhood.

My parents were well-educated and had done their best to teach me manners. But neither their backgrounds nor their values were aristocratic. Gentility was for them a code of conduct, not a pedigree. Their manners did not stem from their sense of station, nor depend on their perception of the station of others. Rather they flowed from a democratic faith that everyone was entitled to courtesy and respect. Further, everyone was “as good as anyone else.”

My parents’ commitment to democratic ideals was especially strong, but the principles they instilled were deeply rooted in my family’s past, which was in turn rooted in the Southern past. My Great Uncle Troy, one of many school-teachers in the line, once told me. “Your people took democracy for granted, assumed it. As much a reflex as a principle.”

“Marion County, and likely the places before, didn’t give us any options,” said my Uncle Loyce.

“No wonder in the end so many took off for the cities,” I responded. My father laughed but didn’t let it drop, for I needed as usual to see the lesson pointed. “Mark Twain called it “Sir Walter Scott disease.” The South had quite a bout.”

“Still has it,” said Loyce.

“Comes back like morning sickness or malaria,” admitted my father. “Even so, the South is mostly democratic. And mostly has been. As much so as the rest of the country. In some ways, more.” I thought he meant its politics. But he meant its manners, and beyond that, the very personalities the South produced and, though he would not have said so, he and my uncles embodied.

When I stressed the strength of the South’s democratic traditions, I provoked hot disagreement. Nor was I effective in explaining my idea of democratic manners, even apart from my effort to place it in a Southern context. My friends for the most part agreed with Trollope that democracy undermined class and other distinctions upon which manners depended. An East European émigré and friend saw clearly, even though she had not heard my argument. She chuckled at a comment I made one evening: “How quintessentially American. My dear, you are the most American person I have ever met.” It was condescension I accepted as a compliment.

I liked it here—this emerald, tidy pocket of prosperity where merit mattered more than color, where intellect and culture were coin of the realm, where Brotherly Love and Bagdad were but 50 miles in opposite directions. Yet I missed what Sterne called “the small, sweet courtesies.” I could not get used to the brusque, insistent trample of daily life; the impersonality which turned clerks, waitresses, and janitors into functional units without biography or desire and having but a single cause: a menial task, a commercial exchange, the customer’s will.

I missed the poor and would tolerate slower “units.” I missed farmers, missed the sight of the world’s most perfectly designed garment, bib overalls. I missed people whose lives depended on the weather and its fluctuations. Here the weather affected nothing but moods and the speed of transportation.

I could not regard as a community a place without the poor, a place which did not and could not in any degree provide for its own feeding, and which had no understanding of the lives and work of those who did supply the table. Out for a walk one evening, I turned to an elegantly suited gentleman who waited with me for the light and invaded the solitude which Northeasterners sometimes wore like an additional layer of clothing: “Boy, my beans and tomatoes sure could use rain.” He stared at me as though I were from another planet, and, with the change of the light, bolted for the next galaxy.

The next galaxy didn’t interest me. Home did. Categories and ideas; my place and people; the sources of who and what I was (or wanted to become); what I valued in those who had formed me, made me ready, and sent me here to learn and be whatever I would without them—did not grow suddenly clear but at least became accessible, and capable of subtler definition and articulation. Home had tongue; and, although not always certain of its choices, point of view, and vocabulary, spoke to find a language of true expression. I owed this emerging sense of who and what I was and wanted to my Northern friends. Especially to their occasional self-righteousness: it made me define what I had to defend.

I tarried here in Princeton, would leave and come again to serve on the faculty. But I wanted to go home. And be at home—not on the terms posed by the George Wallaces, Ross Barnetts, and Billy Bob Bozarts; not slumbering in the arms of some daughter of the white camellia, nor drunk on Bourbon mixed with milk of magnolia. Such elements and images, for Southerners as well as Northerners, had for too long dominated the conception of the South. They had in my childhood worked powerfully on me. They were emblems of what my parents taught their sons not to be. The images had for me and others obscured more fundamental, worthier ideals: traditions of civility, neighborliness, and charity, a commitment to democratic principles so thoroughly embedded in regional manners that an honored native son would remain Plains “Jimmy,” President Jimmy though he was.

As a child, I had failed to recognize that the worthy ideals were no less characteristic of the South than the unworthy ones. That’s why it took 21 years and New Jersey to teach me what I should have known all along: I was a Southerner. It was time to return and take my stand.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading