Skip to main content

That Southern Languor

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

More than philological interest attaches to the Southern use of the word ‘evening’ to denote all that part of the day which follows the noon hour. And by the same token the Southerner’s universal word for the noon meal, which, in spite of urbanization, still remains a strong and hearty ‘dinner!’, is more than a chance provincialism. Implications of the two expressions are deeply rooted in characteristic philosophy and social custom.

To this day, on those few anachronistic manorial estates which still reside in the light of other years along the loamy banks of the Mississippi’s last two hundred miles, the master of the plantation rides leisurely over a portion of his three thousand acres during the middle hours of the morning. At noon he returns to the ancestral mansion, discards his riding attire, enjoys a calm and restful bath, and presents himself at the family board for a long and heavy dinner. He will wish to lean back in his chair for conversations between courses. The repast may consume as much as two hours, not counting the coffee which may follow on the verandah. After such a dinner he is, from force of custom and physical necessity, through for the day. Consequently, the afternoon is really evening in effect. Now, if you will, compare the phonetic brevity and flatness of the word lunch,’ as it is employed by the Middle Western farmer as well as the urbanite of the East, with the sonorous euphony of ‘dinner,’ and you will have a symbol by which the imagination can lay hold upon the basic difference between the South and the rest of the United States.

Andre Siegfried, in that delightfully insulting book which he calls “America Comes of Age,” sets forth that the American people are chiefly distinguished for their unlimited energy; and in order to hold consistently, to this view he necessarily must label the Southern areas as backward. That he does with devastating irony. Count Keyserling, however, has an opposing attitude. In his most recent critique of the United States, he gives conspicuous emphasis to a chapter headed “The South: America’s Hope,” and it should be mentioned in the small whisper of a footnote that this title, together with the subsequent text, went through the presses and appeared in stark audacity on the pages of the Altantic Monthly. That the German should praise us for our belief that the unhurried enjoyment of life is a supreme value, while the Frenchman decries our slow and conservative ways, is only another one of those contradictions in racial attitudes which used to be so charmingly unexpected in the lectures and diagnoses of our foreign commentators. My purpose in citing these two instances is no deeper than an effort to demonstrate that the perspicacious observers of the United States have recorded their belief that Southern singularities go further than superficial elisions of r’s and the -ing.

Count Keyserling realizes that the Southerner does not work as hard as do his Northern and Middle Western contemporaries. He attributes a good deal of significance to that fact. And he is correct in doing so. Indeed, if one wished to differentiate broadly and yet succinctly between the South and the Middle West he could do no better than point out the contrasting attitudes toward work. In the Middle Western civilization, work has been apotheosized, while the South has repudiated it. Very, much hangs upon that distinction. To the Southerner the bee-like flurry of the Middle Westerner is oppressive and confusing; to the Middle Westerner the calm and easy-going ways of the South are interpreted as laziness, and such unpleasant topics as hookworm and malaria have come in for their share of the controversy. With the present influx of ideas and people into the South, an ingression which amounts to veritable repopulation in some of the sections, there is grave danger that the ethos of life may lose its luxurious and spacious serenity and begin to be filled with the whir of the machines and the buzz of the men who try to keep up with them. The concept of reflective serenity, or unhurried motion, is fundamental to both human dignity and human happiness. One of the most terrible chapters in the Lynds’ “Middletown” is entitled “Why Do They Work So Hard?”

With the coming of the industrial revolution, a certain amount of human enslavement is unavoidable in the South. We cannot side-step industrialization, not even in the dreams of the escapist; at the same time, the part of wisdom demands that the South exercise at this juncture its fundamental belief in the value of leisure. The South in truth is not succumbing to the machine; it is not in danger of falling prey to predatory invasions. The South needs the machine in the modern process of maintaining its essential philosophy. Not until Southern people accept an idolatrous attitude toward work will there be danger of their annihilation.

When I went North to attend a university, one of the deans said to me, “What seems to ho the aim of scholarship in the South—to sit on the front porch and drink lemonade?” I devoutly hope that I shall always be able to answer such questions in a slow and meaningful affirmative. Oniy by exercising a moderating effect upon that retrogressive attitude which deifies work can the South live up to the compliment of the philosopher who used the expression “America’s hope.” The proper desire of life is leisure and peace, and a certain amount of work is necessary toward those ends. But emphasized too much, work may become an inflexible habit and an ideal, which is fatal.

Work has been colored by religious mysticism. On the One hand there has been attached to work a blessedness, a comforting balm to humility. This view is useful for purposes of exploitation. “By their works, ye shall know them” has through the ages been permeated by a more or less purposeful industrial connotation. On the other hand there is the figure of the “lilies of the field,” which “Solomon in all his glory” did not approach. As to these views, one may take his choice, or rather have the choice given him by circumstances. Some one as diabolical as Thomas Paine, Voltaire, or Napoleon must have pointed out the practical uses of religious fervor in bending the masses to the wills of the few; but even so it is clear that many an extra ounce of human energy is to be directed into the coffers of those who duly impress upon their minions the religious duty, the sacrosanct character, of work. In Sunday School we used to sing:

Work, for the night is coming; Work in the shining sun; Work, for the night is coming, When man’s work is done.

What connection there was between divine worship and the furious expenditure of energy at the grocery store, I have not been able to determine; yet the idealization of labor is clear. If there had been in our community such enterprises as, for instance, shoe factories or furniture mills depending upon assiduous human activity of the employed, it is not difficult to understand how the deification of work would have accrued to the advantage of the proprietors. But we would sing those verses, playing lightly with the rhythmic swing of the melody, and then go home and lie gloriously in the sunshine of lazy October afternoons. I imagine a quib-bler might hold our sincerity open to question. The point, however, is that the idealization of work in our minds ran counter to other ideals which were more inherent and profound.

Not so, I fancy, with the boys and girls of the Middle West. With what high seriousness the doctrine of hard and steady industry must have penetrated the minds of the socially equalized population of the prairie lands of Iowa and Illinois. Each individual must have realized that any distinction which he might gain over his neighbors would result solely from additional increments of application to the task of physical labor. For there was in the pioneer days of the Middle West no important class of individuals who did not have to grasp the handles of the axe and the plow. The land was generally apportioned in homesteads or areas of equal extent. Managerial ability was not especially requisite in the early economy; unusual sweat of the brow and uncommonly, long hours were what put a man ahead of his fellows. There was at the start an equal chance for all. In other words—if I may use the expression without offense— there were no gentlemen, in the sense implying social and inherent superiority. And it must be remembered that the pioneer days were not so far off as to prevent their psychology from remaining dominant at the present time.

Since it was work that constituted the touchstone of distinction and success, work was naturally emphasized as an essential value of humankind. Consequently, the concept of work came to be admired and reverenced on a plane with religious idealizations. From the medieval idea of work as self-discipline through religious considerations, it was not a difficult step to continue the religious implications of work, not in terms of self-discipline and abnegation, but in terms of self-development and aggrandizement. This transfer the Middle Westerner achieved. It is pertinent to mention Andre* Siegfried again, in connection with his forthright declaration that aggressive religious motivations, so directed, might become the most powerful engine for factory production that the world has ever known.

If in New England and the Middle Atlantic states the view of work did not involve the fierce passion of a material religion, the idea of individual labor was at least strongly entrenched in the social code. Was it not Emerson himself who schooled us in the dignity of work? And was not the main social complaint against Rip Van Winkle his unwillingness to perform his chores in a creditable and worthy manner? But the early diversification of activities in New England, bringing as it did an immediate classification of members of the social group, served at once to establish criteria for position and success other than the amount of energy which various individuals directed toward the same kind of tasks. That is to say, skill and background in shipping, trading, or manufacturing might more than compensate for a much greater amount of energy expended upon tilling the rocky soil of Vermont or in combating the sea to catch codfish in Massachusetts Bay. Drudgery was not the most salient point of morality. There were other ways of maintaining one’s respectability; other methods by which one might rise to distinction in the community. At the same time, economic principles were beacon lights in the social and moral code. It was, for instance, a moral necessity to work dutifully, and to be thrifty. Or am I making a false connection, with Calvin Coolidge as interpreter?

When one rides today in an automobile over the unending paved roads of Indiana and Illinois, or through the eternal aisles of cornstalks in Iowa, he is aware of the verdant sheaves and stalks of the plants and of the final conquest of the land to man’s support and profit. Yet he is wearied and oppressed by the really horrible monotony of the scene. He moves for hour after hour without an iota’s change in the landscape; there can be no indications of his progress except the sign posts on the road. His imagination is distressed as he moves on and on. He wishes that he might travel faster and faster so as to reach the horizon line at once. Perhaps he is not moving at all, though the speedometer registers sixty, miles an hour. Even the odors are the same: fecund earth, succulent growths, fertilizer, and hay; one welcomes the breath from pig wallows, for they furnish at least a break in the monotony. The motorist feels that he might like to get out and walk, to stride over the limitless fields; to provide a change in method of movement to compensate for the unbreaking sameness of the view.

Having felt these sensations, I can understand the restless urge of the Middle Western pioneers: the pent-up nervousness of their bodies, their urge to push their acreages farther and farther toward the horizon, their relentless and almost pathological recourse to racking, burdensome toil. One can comprehend their lack of variety in objectives, their spiritual and social isolation from the refreshing influence of change. Their social characteristics were as level as the plains which they tilled; their aims were the same. These were to push farther and farther onto the prairie, to work harder and harder; for degrees in the expenditure of energy represented their only defense against the ever-present flatness of the plain. As the mariner on the sea has but one ultimate pattern, which he constantly repeats from voyage to voyage, that of working with all his strength to pass beyond the monotony of the waves, so the prairie dweller of the Middle West toiled single-mindedly at his plow. Work was his only recourse, his only means of accomplishment. It is not strange, therefore, that the doctrine of work should have with him become paramount; that material accomplishment, through work, should have formulated his outlook. The spiritual hope of every, Iowa farmer is to retire and move to Los Angeles. Arrived there, he must pluck the lawn or whittle a stick; he cannot keep his hands in repose.

In the light exhibited by Charles A. Beard and other authorities of the recent school, it would not be tactful to insist too strongly upon differences between the ethnic groups which settled the South and those which made their homes elsewhere on the American continent. That there were some sharp contrasts, however, is granted by even the most zealous clarifiers. The presence in the Colonial South of a certain number of Cavaliers and gentlemen adventurers, as well as English second sons, was marked enough to establish at least a tendency toward a characteristic social philosophy. That is to say, the Southern colonists seldom started out to conquer the wilderness in a free-for-all manner. And if it is controversial to urge that social lines be drawn between the Plymouth Rock settlers and the James-town colonists, one may carry his point beyond cavil by laying the subsequent divergencies to the natural effects of differing experiences on the American shores. Certainly it is true that the plantation system at once moulded the singular forms of social philosophy in the South.

The most obvious basis for determining a man’s position was the class to which he belonged. Class lines were widened and deepened with the presence of slavery. While the holdings of land, unlike those in the Middle West, were not necessarily, equal in extent, and while other possessions might be divergent in amount and value, there were distinctions of a non-material nature which lay wholly beyond the possibilities of personal aggrandizement. If one’s holdings were a hundred acres, he was a landed proprietor, a landlord, a plantation master, a gentleman; and he belonged to this group as definitely as his neighbor whose estate might extend over a thousand acres. The barriers had to be maintained as an initial premise to the system. It was not possible for a man to leap the barrier by the sweat of his brow. Consequently, work as such was not a social or economic virtue; rather the opposite was true. Work was not a sign of ambition or a promise of future welfare, except within the narrow limits of the realm to which one happened to belong; it was far from being a universal moral value. Leisure was the mark of superiority; toil, that of degradation. Nor was it likely that any amount of work would bring to one that kind of leisure which was socially desirable. The man, white or black, who labored in the field was far from being conscious of an almost religious fervor in his endeavor. The greater his manual persistence, the more he realized the bounds of his area. His individual efforts went toward the welfare of another. Since the South was aristocratic in its structure, it was the social scale that mattered. Economic, artistic, or intellectual criteria were decidedly secondary. These distinctions are at present generally beyond the comprehension of the Western mind.

The modesty of genius has always tended to attribute a glamour to hard labor. This has been especially true in America, where the traditional thematic note permeating tales of success has been a mixture of thrift and application. Such interpretations constitute another aspect of the popular levelling processes of the democratic theory. Many a schoolboy believes that the eminence of Benjamin Franklin sprang mainly from his ability to save pennies. Thomas A. Edison, attempting explanation of his electrical wizardry, elaborates the doctrine of unmitigated toil in the laboratory, and a similar hypothesis has been constructed by Andrew Carnegie. It is not a detraction from the genius, or good fortune, of these men when one infers that, in their essays into human interpretation, they naturally fall into a strongly determined American folk belief. Sings Edgar A. Guest:

There is no limit placed on fame; ‘Tis something every boy can claim. Hold fast! Work hard, be strong, be true— The future keeps a place for you! . . .

Again, Henry Ford, who more than any other man is the exaltation of the Middle Western mind, is firmly assured that work embodies mankind’s essential salvation. In his analysis of Ford, Gamaliel Bradford tersely says that “so far as he is interested in God at all, it is as a God of work.” And Mr. Ford himself is responsible for the following exhibitions of his character: “When all is said and done, the ability to work means more than anything else.”—”Work does more than get us our living; it gets us our life.”—”In my mind there is nothing so abhorrent as a life of ease.” And John Burroughs thus pictures the world*s richest man on a vacation: “Mr. Ford was so restless! that if he conid find nothing else to do he would clean out springs, or chop wood, or teach a young lad to run the car.”

The South is the only part of the United States that has not as yet accepted work as the summum bonum, Southern climate has something to do with the recalcitrance, but a fundamental and characteristic bent of mind is the factor of deciding importance. Vestigial remains of a society built upon social values are still the conditioning elements in the South. i

Popular philosophies and moral virtues spring from situations and circumstances which are often of transient vitality. The indefatigable work which felled the trees and planted the virgin soil in the pioneer days of America had its virtue and its time. But now in our era of comparatively advanced civilization we cannot always rely upon the philosophy, of the laborer and the pioneer. In the face of some apparently contrary evidence, the fundamental movement in the United States is away from utilitarianism, and not toward it. There is gradually rising a class whose philosophy is superior to that of the peon and the coolie. Gradually the American mind will emerge from its absorption with toil and material productivity. Work as such will no longer be glorified as basic in the moral structure, as an essential of respectability, as the corner-stone of success and happiness, or as the force which swings the gates of heaven. With the wilderness cleared at last and with the attainment of economic security, the American will soon begin to seek the quiet luxuries to which his labors have entitled him. Work is to be relegated to its true position— that of an unpleasant necessity which is to be avoided so far as possible. America is already casting about for a practical art of leisure. Through all the vicissitudes of its fortune, the South has successfully maintained its freedom from an all-consuming occupation with material industriousness. And its rich formula has been preserved for the coming day.

The stone which the builders rejected, The same is become the head of the corner?


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

Recommended Reading