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More Encaustics for Southerners

ISSUE:  Winter 1937

Judgment Days

For a long time I wondered at my indifference to Mrs. N——’s opinions on any book of mine. They stood there asserted and kind enough, but I could simply pass them by. She will not miss a book that promises her to be worthwhile, but weighs it carefully and if she approves is generous in her praise and may even send copies to her friends. You will find her too sitting at plays that might be called of interest, at music and at the exhibitions. She does not rest until her judgment of a work of art is clear to her and the extent seen to which she can convert it to her use, which is her own education and improvement.

To put it that way makes Mrs. N—— sound tiresome, as if she were one of the sort who go running after culture with a capital letter. It would not be fair to say so. It is fair to note the points at which she drops out; they are those points in art where the content leaps forward as it were, does not quite fit into any familiar type, is bold, or outrageous, or pregnant with who knows what new and dangerous forms and spontaneities ; and Mrs. N—— is shocked. If you would not always call it shocked, you may say rather that she asks to be excused. On any work of mine I will say, since we are talking the plain truth, I regard her solely as a register of what effect my book may have in the dear reader sense; otherwise her comment is of no concern to me.

I see now what it is about Mrs. N—— and the thousands of people like her. They are self-educating; they have resolved to improve themselves. Obviously what you do when you embark on improving yourself is to set up a standard. You must have in mind some sort of picture of what you will strive to become. This1 picture, like any picture of any kind, must take its character from its creator. These conscious improvers of themselves, then, are obliged to follow what is a culmination, or perfecting, of their own quality. If they lack talent, or imagination, or depth, the picture will be ordinary, or pedestrian, or shallow. And so in Mrs. N——’s case this ideal that she has resolved upon hinders the fruit of her experience with art. A model of her own creating has taken the place of the free and natural action of her whole being, something both within and beyond her will and consciousness.

This is all very different indeed from my little aunt. Her day is simple, outwardly at least, and more or less a routine. Morning and evening she says her prayers; at certain hours come the household duties; and in general, simple loves and habits find their natural place in the sun. When she reads it is to get joy out of literature. This does not mean she demands that books be silly or sunny or strictly optimistic; at either its simplest or its most complex, from the ballads to Shakespeare, literature is apt to deal with tragic things. It means that she goes to books from the same natural impulse that leads her to the rest of life. She asks the one thing of art that it can give, the remainder being only its material, to be found elsewhere as well. She asks the joy, the heightening, and is ready for its deep power. Her response, her judgment, and her fullness belong almost to her body itself, as if she best touched art with her hands. She may or may not read a book. When she does speak of mine I listen. “Now you can just consider that I represent the average person,” is the way she begins her comment.

Take the Case—

“It’s curious,” I say, “the varieties of setbacks that can happen to Southern literature, one way or another.” Cand H—— sit facing me here in the afternoon sunlight of my study, holding their cocktail glasses, talking of letters and the South. C—— is from Tennessee, H—— from Connecticut. “These past few years we could never complain about the sales for Southern writers, the vogues and prizes. As to clear and balanced estimates, criticism that gets anywhere and makes any useful sense, that’s another matter. I’ve just returned, by the way, to Parrington for a bit; ‘Main Currents in American Thought,’ really the second volume—he calls it ‘The Romantic Revolution in America.’”

H—— takes a small sandwich and swallows it, as if to say he is full of hope for the future.

“I like Parrington’s ideas,” he says, shifting his glass with a certain gawkiness that is very likable; it makes him like a little boy. He is by no means fat, but is what might be called cherubicly set up; strip him and hang him in the upper clouds of a Rubens’ Holy Family. His short hair is thick and curly, and ten years of New York have not got the outrageous apples out of his cheeks. Some sort of downiness on him makes you wonder if he ever shaves; and you are ready to accept the same softness in his reasonings. As a matter of fact you would be quite wrong. His mind, shown in his book reviews, is sharp, eager, and full of holes. There is, we may say, one kind of thinking that wants to get to the point of what is considered, another kind that wants to get what is considered into a point. This is H—— all over.

Reading things into books, reading books into these things, he pounds away and comes out as you might expect, one of our more advanced critics. A modern, freshly bold he is, and no mistake, with a following of people anxious to forget the culture they never really saw the point of, but greedy for marauding thoughts. Revolutionists shrewder than he but less advantageously placed in influence use him. His friends, like me, are devoted to him, partly because he will cheerfully eat and drink any-sized dinner you put out, partly because he is so independent, omnivorous, allusive, vague, and pure. I do not tell him so, but it was largely the prospect of H——’s visit that made me look again at Parrington, whom I have never read very much. I said to myself that if H—— swallowed him whole like that, there must be some pretty sketchy thinking—no harm in a look to see.

C—— is here in New York on a sabbatical leave of absence, doing a piece of research; the head of his department feels that he can scarcely be promoted unless he “produces,” and C—— is here “producing.” His treatise will be about

William Gilmore Simms; I have a notion that he takes Simms because so many research fields have been emptied, but that is not my affair. He has corrected so many freshman compositions that he does not much care any more what anybody says so long as the punctuation and spelling come out all right and nothing protrudes that is too strong for the trustees and alumni. A little more than dry, but plainly a gentleman.

“Not,” I go on, returning to Parrington, “that I feel entirely comfortable about that foreword to the second volume, where he states that he has been guided by the historical significance of the writings he discusses, with aesthetic judgments has not been greatly concerned, has not wished to evaluate reputations or literary merits, but rather to understand what our fathers thought and why they wrote as they did. And this, he says, will serve to explain the considerable number of pages devoted to Southern letters. Moreover, time is not always a just winnower of reputations, he says. And lost causes may shrink in importance in the memory of later generations.”

H—— interrupts. “Parrington’s swell!” he says.

“The great intent,” I say, “is handsome enough, but I suspect there’s something fishy about this combination of elements. That historical significance, no aesthetic judgments, no estimates of merits and reputations, but an understanding of what our fathers thought and why they wrote so, all that sounds wise and large, but if you look closely at it probably makes very little sense. At any rate”—this is for C”we may as well turn to your good man Simms.”

Parrington gives Simms a long chapter; I recall the pages very well, exactly the kind of stuff that would strike H—— .

The first paragraph tells of Simms’ lowly birth and irregular education. He was socially a nobody to whom the Le-gares, Hugers, and others were inclined to turn a cold shoulder. They regarded themselves as the custodians of Charleston culture, and saw literature as an art that could flourish only in polite circles.

Thus Charleston, so far as the argument goes, gets off to a bad start. Granting the statement of the case to be accurate, however, there is nothing to it so surprising after all. No society except a sloppy one without forms or traditions —if that can be called a society—is sitting about anxious to take anybody to its bosom merely because he does a bit of writing. If that were so, the society would be built on belles lettres. And historically it is nothing unusual for an epoch to regard literature as belonging to polite society. In certain New England places of Simms’ era literature was being regarded as belonging to local piety. There’s no difference except in the quality of the writers that in each case you make or break. But we can let that pass and read on.

“I’ll just point you out some places,” I say, meaning that we can stop in our reading as C—— does when a freshman comes to conference and the instructor solemnly points out errors and what not in a composition. “This is Parrington: ‘After all these years one may well cherish a grudge against the amiable little city for its shabby treatment of Gil-more Simms. The most richly endowed of any son she ever gave birth to, he was snubbed for years by the social oligarchy and suffered from the ostracism.’ “

The most richly endowed in a literary way, if you like; there are many ways of being endowed; and what’s more, many ways of using one’s endowment. ” ‘His extreme parochialism made him the more sensitive to the slight.’”

We should add, however, that Simms’ own sensitivity would of course qualify and determine the nature of his parochialism.

“ ‘An ardent Southerner, loyal to all the Carolinian totems and taboos—’ ” Totems and taboos is of course cheating the game—the same terms could be applied to the societies that exhibit Fielding, Racine, Congreve, Byron, and so on.

Parrington then goes on to tell us about Simms’ devotion to Charleston, his accepting its judgments in letters and politics, loving its soil, people, way of life, history and tradition. Simms accepted Charleston, we are told, very neatly at that, as the lover accepts the mole on his mistress’ cheek. The more Charleston snubbed him, the more admirable he professed to believe was an aristocracy that so jealously guarded its exclusiveness. His second marriage was to a planter’s daughter, and brought him closer to good society. He adopted its point of view, caste system, defense of slavery, even a certain hint of arrogance. Parrington remarks that “he could have escaped the subtle compulsions of the Southern system only by emptying his mind of his dearest prejudices, and this he had neither the will nor the wish to do. And so in spite of the fact that his every instinct was democratic; and every natural impulse generous and manly, he fought the battles of the peculiar institution as stoutly as if he had been born to his three hundred slaves; and he suffered in consequence the loss of pretty nearly everything, including his art.”

We are then told that while in taste and temperament Simms was a realist, his career took shape from a generation given to every romantic excess, so that his genius was always at cross purposes with the popular taste.. His realism turned to low-life adventure; his upper-class romance became stilted and posturing, and his love of action degenerated into swashbuckling. “If there had only been a little more of the intellectual in him, if he could have detached himself as an artist from the immediate and present, he might have risen superior to his unfortunate environment. But he was constitutionally incapable of aloofness, and hence incapable of criticism. To analyze, compare, and judge was impossible to so ardent a nature. He must be partisan to a people and a cause rather than to his art. . . . It is a pity that he constricted himself to the shell of an outworn order, instead of realizing that social orders and institutions are significant to the novelist only as he stands apart from them. . . . It was a major loss to American letters that he should not have striven to be an artist first, and a Southern romantic only at a later and more convenient season. If he had served his art more jealously, if he had learned from Poe to refuse the demands of inconsequential things, he would have viewed his beloved Charleston with keener eyes and portrayed it more adequately.

“But he would not serve his art alone. Unhappily he conceived that he owed an imperative duty to his native commonwealth, and in fulfillment of that duty he frittered away his enormous vitality in delivering patriotic orations and occasional addresses, serving in the Legislature, pottering over politics, lecturing upon literature, founding and editing magazines and essaying to bring culture to Charleston by fiery impetuosity of appeal.”

H—— looks all bristled up, as if he had been given a firecracker to chew on.

“Look, that’s good!” he says.

“Look, it’s mostly rot,” I say. “Snappy, facile, glib, sounds sharp and searching, but it won’t hold water. In the first place, it’s absurd to keep hammering on that business about Charleston’s not jumping at the chance to take Simms to its bosom. Partington himself says that Simms could not create the upper-class life, could not adequately express it. If, therefore, he was an artist who could not express their life, why should they on their part fall over themselves to run after him? There’s nothing new, is there, in a society’s asking an artist to express it? In fact, if you judge by what Parrington himself says their effect on Simms was, it would have been better if they had never noticed him at all, but left him in his own world, where his real talent lay. And if his every instinct was democratic, why was he so bent and determined he’d become an aristocrat?”

Sometimes I think what a terrible thing it is to be articulate, or at least to have a rush of words that seems to express your very mystery. Take Parrington’s sentences implying that if Simms had been more intellectual he would have gained detachment from the present and immediate, been capable of aloofness and hence capable of criticism—analyzing, comparing, and judging not being possible to a nature so ardent! How plausible it all sounds! But it is only half truths. If you want to say that if Simms had had more intellect, he might better have penetrated the principles, bases, and so forth of the society he believed in, that would make sense. As for the notion that ardor blocks analysis, comparison, and judgment, we could scarcely say that Simms was more ardent than Dante, for example, or St. Augustine.

And what nonsense that all is about being detached, serving your art alone, Poe and the demands of inconsequential things, the unhappy notion of duty to the commonwealth! Poe is a special case, a lone bird; but though thus different from them in his connections with public life, does not outrank Pindar or Simonides. As to standing apart, detached, what about Tolstoi and Dostoievsky? Who but a silly creature indeed would ever, when it comes to an artist’s final quality, pretend to determine just what in his case the balance is to be between passionate concern with affairs and artistic detachment? The prime freedom of the artist is to choose the material in terms of which he will create. As to the “art alone” and the service to the commonwealth, what of Milton, Rubens, Bach? As to bringing culture to Carolina, what do we mean by culture if we are to imply that Calhoun, Le-gare, Pinckney, or many another had none, not to speak of the social conception itself within which they lived? As to the little city that kept Simms from being what he seems never to have been, what of Jane Austen there in the provinces with the manuscript of “Pride and Prejudice” lying in her desk for twenty years; what of Leopardi in that small, racking life he led beneath his father’s roof in Recanati, one of the great poets of the modern world? Even the assumption that life necessarily finds its expression in literature is faulty. In the Greece, for example, of the great period, from the sixth to the fourth centuries B. C, there were two sharply contrasted systems of life. To the Ionian belong nearly all whom we know as classic authors; the Dorian is almost unrepresented in literature. You do not judge Carolina only by the literature that has come out of it.

It is high time we get another subject. But there’s one thing yet we can’t miss: the critic’s final point, something of a summary for poor Simms and the poor South. That a man of such native powers as Simms, we are told, should have taken seriously these ideas around him, felt what he did about these systems and politicians and Carolinians, that he should have aspired to be one of them—”these are sobering facts to remind us that the man of letters is likely to be a child outside his study walls.”

It should be obvious that some of the very matters, however unfortunate, that Simms erred in taking seriously were such as belong to the thinker’s study and indeed, with learning and labor, had been developed there, though not by such as Simms. Plainly it was a tosS—— up whether Partington himself should stay inside or get outside of his study walls. He must have tossed up. Between the two of them, Partington at the moment sounds more childish than Simms.

But H——’s eyes are shining. He has somehow the sense of liberal odors in the air. Not so with little C——.

“From what I gather,” he says drily, “we have been hearing about two Simmses. One either never lived in the South or else paid no attention to it, wrote nothing but his own frontier realism, drew his warmth and talents out of the air, had except for his faults all the qualities he would have had if he had never been near the South, and in fact never existed at all; he was the admirable one of the two Simmses. The other was a combination of this Simms and the South, a combination that turned out just such a Simms as you might expect, a failure, who would undoubtedly have been a greater artist if he had lived in Athens and been Euripides.”

“Still swallowing slavery?” I say. “And service to the state?”

C—— nods. “And so this passes among your New York critics for significant interpretation, does it?” “It’s stimulating.”

“And our Southern critics and scholars let it stand?”

“I suppose they like to be stimulated. And don’t want the recentest critics to go calling them romantic.”

“Romance?” C—— says. “And what does romance mean?”

“Mr. George Wyndham observed that a definition of romance would be easy if there were some general agreement as .to the meaning of the word.”

As for this kind of lively and aggressive patchwork of half-baked theories ever passing for thought, I can see right now from his face that H—— thinks C—— and me only prejudiced about Parrington. He will be saying as much pretty soon in print, where he has already said that between the two Souths that Southern writers present, he has decided that the real one is the South of what he calls the realists. The weight of the evidence is on their side. “I have a notion,” so his article went, “that there is not and never was that other South.”

This thought makes me burst out laughing—I shall have to explain what it is makes me laugh—but it is funny to think that there is not and never was this South that Parrington finds responsible for Simms’ failure. So that poor Simms was indeed pursuing a phantom!

And so all round we find that a South that never existed ruined a Simms that should have existed.

The worst of it is there seems to be something timeless about the whole subject.

The Life of Opinion

When S—— expresses an opinion he does it with a confidence that the man who first thought of it would never have felt. By the time S—— gets it the opinion, though not necessarily stale or threadbare, has been passed about and handled till it is as finite as an egg, or at least he takes it so. S—— is the author of a daily column of book reviewing in one of our metropolitan newspapers, and is commonly spoken of as an intellectual. His parents came from Russia and he has lived all his life in New York, in the midst of a family and friends whose work has never been among things but only in money. When the gestures of the Government two or three years ago drew the land to their attention as the ultimate source of the money they work in, their only reaction was to say that the Administration’s concern about agriculture was overdone.

The sort of living in which S—— grew up gave him, as you might easily imagine, a special opportunity to acquire opinions. Since he belonged to no tradition or place and depended on no society, he was free to pick opinions out of the air as they went sailing by. To the man who first arrives at a conviction it may be like turning up the land, sowing seed, watching the first growth, the ripening, the harvest; but S—— has none of this sense of birth, suspense, delicate strong life. Opinions to him are so much change on the table; it would never occur to him that one’s use of them could be thick-skinned or vulgar. His spirit is so vacant that the extremest opinion will not crowd it. No store there of his own truths will resent or challenge the major, final, all-exclusive front the opinion assumes. Consequently, the mind of S—— by now is more like a place where clubs and packets are than a room filled with furniture, dear possessions, associations, and memories that are his.

One of these opinions that S—— has expressed to me concerns the Fathers as it were, the founders of our country. Never having heard anything much about them when he was a child, sung them into games, taken their fables and images as playmates, and later on as heroes of a young manhood, he is free to see clearly that they were nothing but a lot of capitalists looking out for their own interests against the workers. He can quote you items on the writing of the Constitution that make you blush for your forefathers. And never having been out of New York, he knows what an economic urge it was that led the pioneers West, with covered wagons and all that, going thousands of miles, I gather, to escape the capitalism at home and increase the capitalism away from home. Your predatory Nordic remained true to type; even where the land had no people on it, he could get ready to wrong those who sooner or later would be coming along.

Since I myself grew up in the far-away rural South and have heard so many echoes of the early days, what people risked and bore, and how in the very ground dwells so much of their hope, instinctive reverence, their traditions and their dead, I doubtless resent this particular piece of certainty and exclusive fact on S——’s part. But I manage to decide on patient illumination.

“Now just for instance, S——,” I begin, “you will admit the nature of the abstract, that certain qualities emerge and are separable from an action or a thing, and that, no matter what, these qualities may conceivably be in themselves admirable. I mean to say a gangster, for instance, could show bravery.”

“It’s more like desperation,” he says.

“Well, all I am saying is this: suppose a man—old General Oglethorpe, for example, he took such a journey—went hundreds of miles into the forests to meet and conclude a peace with some Indian tribe or other. After all, there are such things as rivers and wild beasts, savages, cold; and it took courage, endurance, resolution. You can at least admire these, can you not, no matter how low the motive for the journey was? Something valuable in our humanity has been shown, hasn’t it, the possibility of certain traits guaranteed? You’ll admit that much?”

“My dear fellow,” he says, “you Southerners live on romantic nursery tales.”

You can see from that how the poor South comes off when S—— sets out to review a book about it. The kind of book that fares worst is not so much the sharecropper, lynching variety, but a novel that assumes a certain air of old custom, breeding, sentiment, or romance. He will turn on a book like that and lay it out, author and South together. I have sometimes wondered whether it is not that S—— feels instinctively that he could never be a part of the life the book portrays, and this unconsciously is what drives him wild. I am on the verge now, as I sit looking at him, of proving myself only the more backward. But I resolve not to go further into the matter, wondering at the same time how much of a disadvantage and how much an advantage this is to have your darkness and sins constantly laid on your section of the country rather than on yourself.

One thing I do have sense enough to see: it would be worse than useless to try and describe to S—— a kind of society that I grew up to admire, whether I ever saw any perfect expression of it or not. In such a society people value greatly only those opinions that they have put into action or are willing to pay for, sometimes even with their lives if it comes to that. A conviction is thus a sustained expression of some desire and custom of theirs. If you judged them harshly you might say that with them the passion, habit, or prejudice constitutes the opinion, instead of being ruled by it. This is not so, but even if it were, I should say that, if we must choose, it is better to have an opinion that is a passion than one you can take up or put down with equal ease. In this society men and women are not so much admired for what they think as for their possession the man of those qualities thought most admirable in a man and the woman for those most in a woman. Except for the few convictions that they sense as cardinal to the society they compose and possess, they are much more apt to mistrust what they think than what they are, their inheritance and their amour propre.

S—— would never understand this. That is why when he gets off one of his opinions he leans forward and watches your eyes, as if looking for what the image of him there will be.


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