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The Uncultured South

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

Has the South been buffaloing America for half a century into thinking it was a second Athens wrecked by a Northern barbarian democracy, when actually the second Athens drank mint juleps, ate batter-bread, and thought up moral defenses for the institution that made life comfortable? Is the culture of the Old South a myth?

Or was the Pennsylvanian right who said: “Why do I live in Virginia? Because Virginia once had a civilization. It hasn’t one any longer, of course. But it did have one once. And Pennsylvania never had a civilization.” Apparently, even Pennsylvanians have admitted the Old Southern culture.

There is no use asking the South. The South has been on the defensive for so many decades that it has lost the art of self-examination. And since the World War, the South has been sold on progress, with the result that under the guidance of its Young Men’s Business Clubs it has deserted its glorious bloody past for a rosy and profitable future. Its traditions are turning into points of interest. It is capitalizing the Lost Cause.

And yet, one would like to know who is right about this business of an Old Southern culture. What does intelligent America, outside the South, think? In pondering the matter, I am inclined to believe that the American attitude towards the Old South has passed through three distinct phases: the third phase, the batter-bread expos is a thing of recent years. The three phases are worth comparing.

Before 1860 the Southern planters were the greedy plutocracy of slaveholders in a day when all other civilized countries had abolished slavery, grabbing for new territories into which they might extend their “peculiar institution,” thus holding their balance of power in a “free” republic. To that republic they were by their very nature a menace, just as the republic was a menace to conservative Europe. “Not by, aggression,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, “but by the naked fact of existence we are an eternal danger and an unsleeping threat to every government that founds itself on anything but the will of the governed.” Similarly in a land that promised the destruction of all privilege, the Southern slaveholder was a mockery to hopeful utopists and a pledge of possible reaction. Before the Civil War, therefore, the North dreaded and vilified the Southern system.

After the Civil War the North offered cordiality in exchange for penitence. It even offered a queer kind of sentimentalized love. Now that the North had “licked” the South, it could afford to love it. Lo the poor planter, having been broken at Appomattox, had much to be said for his way of life. The South has been widely accused of slobbering about its destroyed system but actually the South has been more slobbered over than slobbering. I have never met a profounder or marshier sentimentality than the applause of certain Northern crowds when the band played “Dixie.” All of which has been psychologically very bad for the South. She was undoubtedly sick, but an overdose of sympathy never helped sickness yet.

Lee and Jackson were traitors while McClellan’s act was on. But with Appomattox a dim memory, Lee’s stock went up in the North and the North bought in by the block. They ended up by feeling a sort of pride in a national pageant that had a happy ending.

For example: in a London theater I sat watching Drink-water’s “Robert E. Lee.” Between acts I listened to the audience struggling with teacups and chocolates and fought to keep from crying. The lady next me was from Indiana but took me for an emotional Britisher.

“I don’t suppose,” she began informatively, “you know much about this. We study it in School. It’s History, for us. My grandfather fought in this war—of course on the winning side.” Of course. My contention is that as the winning side the North took a generous interest in the South and that, provided the South accepted the Northern social economy, the North luxuriated in approval for the fallen tyrants whose spacious lives they almost envied.

Moreover the strings were there. The South was expected to be glad the right side won. Only last October, at Fredericksburg, Virginia, President Coolidge, in his campaign speech over the Confederate dead, congratulated the South on getting beaten and on being glad they were beaten. Assuming they really were glad, he praised Lee. I used to experiment by declaring to Northerners that I regretted the South had failed to win her independence. My remark always dried the springs of sympathy in a hurry: in short, my. experiment succeeded.

However, after the war fewer and fewer Southerners made this experiment, and the North was free to indulge a safe sympathy. The North even took to romancing about it, as industrial England romanced about feudalism. For a thousand reasons the feudal barons of Norman England and the cotton barons of the British Empire could never have tolerated each other in the flesh. But in the grave the feudal barons shed a safe and glamorous luster. Hence romanticism.

Similarly the slave system did not seem wholly bad in retrospect. Freed by Emancipation from the nightmare of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the North took note of the Southern mammy, the pickaninnies, the leisurely life of the plantation, and wove a sweet dream about it. The plantation owner became in this dream a kindly, cultivated master, dividing his time between his acres, his library, and good conversation. Material for his portrait was drawn from three sources: the necessity to flatter, by a law of psychological compensation, what one had been compelled by morality to destroy; the inherited respect for upper-class privilege that a century’s war on privilege had not obliterated; and a vivid imagination, which read into the planter of the Old South those qualities the raw democracy was most ashamed of lacking and most wanted to acquire. The result was a very romantic portrait indeed.

But now came the realistic analysts, known in the New Age of Reason as the “de-bunkers.” They pounced on that faded splendor of honeysuckle and magnolia and they announced, and are announcing in a palpitation of discovery, that the honeysuckle and magnolia were there but the books were not, nor were the Shakespeares and Raphaels and Mozarts. And, of course, magnolias are not culture. Just because the Old South was tragic in its ruin, there is no use romancing about it. There is more culture, more creative art, in New York today, and indeed in living Southern novelists, than the Old South ever dreamed of.

Why have these analysts only just appeared, and is there anything in what they say? There is rather obviously, in the New York sense. New York is measuring culture by creative art and comically but inevitably enough by the amount of creative art. New York wants better novelists but it also wants more of them. New York studies art output, and with growing pride. The publishers, critics, and art dealers are particularly impressed, and they cue the public. America hopes for an imminent Renaissance.

An imminent Renaissance would have mystified the planters. In the first place theirs remained a distinctly colonial culture long after the American Revolution. They were in many respects an English squirarchy more inconveniently distant from the London Season than squires in Yorkshire or Devon. But they sat down to tables of Santo Domingo mahogany turned in London, before English plate, to drink the same wines Englishmen were drinking. They frequently sent their sons to English universities. They were economically, and to a far greater extent socially, colonials.

For that reason their libraries were often astonishingly complete but ran to classics, not novelties. Anybody who has ever seen the ghost of one of those plantations knows that, living there, one would want Dryden and Pope, Fielding and the learned Doctor Samuel. And every time one of those libraries goes under the hammer I am struck afresh by the solidity of the planter’s literary digestion. They read what their class in England read.

Their portraits are frequently from European hands. I imagine this struck them as natural. Europe was in every respect a more suitable environment for an artist than young America. And I do not believe the planter’s patriotic heart ached because there was so little home talent. The cultivated class of Southern planters were part of the same cultural complex as Europe, and their geographical position and isolated manner of living condemned them to be consumers rather than producers. Most cultivated persons at any time in any place are consumers; or ought to be. It is a fairly recent thing to have everybody about to write a novel. And the line between self-expression and exhibitionism wobbles only too readily.

Culturally indeed the planters were in one line producers. They were rulers by instinct and training, and artists in war and politics. A glance at the roll call of planter statesmen from Jefferson on, and of the men who led the South’s last army, suffices to illustrate this. The South maintained what is so conspicuously absent from America today, a ruling class, bred for the purpose.

Like every genuine ruling class the planters held to a code of manners. And manners can be a very definite art. To live gracefully, harmoniously, and freely may be as creative as Russian ballet and more truly creative than a book about one’s not always interesting friends, written in a seldom interesting manner.

Or take hospitality. There has been a vast amount of twaddle talked about Southern hospitality. The fact remains that, where still practiced, it is an art as complex and as easily recognized as the weaving of real Persian rugs. By people, of course, who know good rugs. Twelve years ago a traveller told me Southern hospitality was a myth. He had visited every big town in the South and they were the most intolerably inhospitable places he knew. No theaters, no amusements, and a courtesy that nevertheless forbade intimacy. This confusion of hotelling and hospitality tells the whole story. My friend would fare better in the New South, where the Chambers of Commerce would care for him. They would make him pay for it, but he would expect that. His only trouble was wanting to buy what was not for sale. And if I had explained that he had no letters of introduction he would have snorted at Southern snobbery.

Probably the planter’s least American trait was his exquisite sense of leisure. He enjoyed life enormously and his zest was not based on externals, on money, on success. He worked to make life possible but he never made a god of occupation. And this leisure permitted him to flower as a human personality. Since flowering is the last thing a democracy will ever understand, America asks the planter if his leisure was fruitful. That depends on what we consider fruit. Shall one measure life by output or beauty? Which would an artist do?

His leisure brought the planter one of his most successful minor arts and one he most delighted in—good conversation. For in his virtues and in his vices alike he was a social animal. The best Southern conversation, even what is left of it today, has led me to believe that it may be the most delightful oral literature now alive in any civilized or semi-civilized country. And when the Southerner told a perfect anecdote and told it as perfectly as that anecdote could be told, he did not call for the printer and start figuring royalties. He told another. The truth is, an original mind that is not haunted by the awful fear of being uninformed, that is illumined by a playful humor not based on vaudeville wise-cracks or jaded slang, is as rare in America as a knowledge of good wines. Hence our very general and panicky boredom; hence the fact that we so often bore others. I am not fool enough to suppose that this good conversation and this quiet leisure would pass as cultural currency in the America that came of age. At best, they would have the value of Confederate money: they are antiques. They can be collected, but they are not the basis of America’s economy or of her culture. There is no Federal Reserve behind either one. And it is, of course, pure romanticism to think that leisure can stand up against Rusiness, or Confederate notes against greenbacks: this sort of competition is settled by “economic necessity,” which commonly plays havoc with culture. We Americans admit that leisure is good; we even subsidize research workers to study how to use it; but we will not let it interfere with Life. To the planter, leisure did not have to be studied: it was itself the basis of a life worth living.

I have been guilty here of writing what many know as well as I, and of venturing many unproved generalizations, as indeed one must if one compares two social orders at all, in an effort to see whether a case could not be made out for an Old Southern culture, whether the planter’s way of life did not imply a culture even in the absence of a stream of printed matter, canvases, and sonatas. I can both cut short and clarify my discussion by stating that the essence of the Old South was a spirit of aristocracy.

Aristocracy exists only where there is faith in the worth-whileness of some intangible values. And only where there is that faith can life have a more significant form than the form achieved in a pigsty. The Old Southerner believed in a whole list of musty-sounding intangibles that curl the lip of the democracy: courage in men, chastity in women, hatred of lying, scorn of greed, loyalty to one’s superiors, fidelity to one’s retainers, reticence in intimacy, grace in all things. He could not prove they were worthwhile; nor can the democracy prove they are not. But that is how he felt about life—which is the Law for aristocracy.

To the average American today the Southern planter is as weirdly comic as Don Quixote. But nothing whatever is proved by that except that he is growing very rare. Sometimes he is laughed at. Mostly he is just overlooked. But now and then when democracy does see him or hears one of his funny abstract words again, it challenges his claim to culture. Well, he took his another wav. He took a frank pleasure in the good things of life, including a number of world literatures. But he could never have grasped the bourgeois-proletarian concept of self-improvement. The fact of aristocracy was to him one of the most obvious facts of life. Some of his land was better than the rest and therefore better for certain crops. He had draught horses for hauling, and thoroughbreds to race. He believed his negroes were better fitted to work than to rule. Some white men were “better bred” than others and therefore better fitted to lead and direct. These were facts. Land could of course be improved; so could horses; so could people, over stretches of time. Sometimes lower breeds threw out an extraordinary individual, but mostly breeds ran true to form—a fortunate fact for a planter. The American credo that holds college courses as universally desirable and looks to correspondence schools as a means of converting ill-bred people into the other sort would have struck him as a lamentable farce. A percheron need never be ridiculous except on the track.

It is this profound cleavage between the democratic and the aristocratic sets of values that is responsible for the three successive attitudes America has adopted toward the “South.” Before the Civil War the Southern oligarchy with all the strength of axiomatic tradition behind it threatened to wreck the American experiment. Appomattox broke that oligarchy on the wheel. It did not mean that never again should the South be powerful, but it did mean that its power must never take aristocratic form. America, at least the Eastern states, no longer afraid, wove romances around a social system still dormant in its own blood. But during the last decade the American democracy, bourgeois-proletarian in spirit, has so completely obliterated every other social form that the Old South is losing even its romance. Half amazed and half relieved, America realizes that she does not really want the things the Old South wanted, except power, which she has in increasing abundance. America wants to read more books, see more things, build more houses, acquire more culture. And the South never tried to acquire it. America doesn’t believe the South ever had a culture.

The other day as I was leaving Woolworth’s in a small Southern town, an old gentleman of the planter breed, more than a generation my senior, started to enter. Unfortunately at that very moment a number of flappers started out. The old man stood back, holding the door open. I counted over twenty people, men and women, who rushed past him without a word. I shall always treasure the memory of his smile. The pigs were in the parlor, and he had the courage to smile! It would be more worthwhile for us Americans, Northerners and Southerners, to study that smile than to read the riddle of the Sphinx. Regardless of culture.


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