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Even Yet the South

ISSUE:  Winter 1981

The American South
. Edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana. $22.50.

In the late 1960’s, after a decade of intense involvement with black and white children of the urban and rural South, I began the difficult personal task of saying goodbye, once and for all, to families my wife and I had come to know right well. We were headed for another “region,” the West, and there is so much time one has for those “follow-up” visits which had, actually, become in some instances a source of great pleasure as well as edification. Not content, however, with our own loss, I tried to foist upon the South and the rest of the country one of those clever cultural interpretations or prophecies—the gist of which amounted to the declaration, implied in a book’s title (Farewell to the South), that America was also losing contact with the kind of people I had known since the late 1950’s. I was wrong in the analysis I made, and I know no better proof of that mistaken direction of thought than this quite fine, rich, suggestive collection of essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., whose love for a particular region and advocacy of its special qualities have been tested by time and never been found wanting.

The Voice of America asked Mr. Rubin, in 1977, just after Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency, to assemble some Southern viewpoints—statements by the region’s novelists, poets, essayists, critics, and scholars about its present-day distinguishing characteristics, their connection to the past, and not least, their chance of survival in a nation whose technology (television, push-button telephones, jet travel) makes space and time less and less consequential. Even Jimmy Carter’s election victory prompted speculation that the South may, in fact, be losing its longstanding special qualities. Had not a South Georgia farmer presented himself to the nation as yet another American—his qualities as an engineer, a onetime career Navy officer, a businessman far more significant than any habits of thought or cultural preferences that may be his by virtue of where he happens to have lived? But Mr. Rubin has his eyes on something more than recent politics. He is at pains that one more discussion of the South’s regional nature by no means end up being an indulgent exercise in nostalgia, or a foolish evocation of fatuous or even perverse pieties (as sometimes has been the case), but rather a strong, convincing representation of a particular, very important aspect of our national scene.

The resources marshalled to the task of this “portrait” are awesome—the mere mention of them a statement, if not a proof of a sectional vitality. A discussion Mr. Rubin holds with Eudora Welty and Shelby Foote offers wonderful, informal, unpretentious conversation—a sense of how important place is to these gifted writers, as well as to their fellow Southerners. We are given instructive memories of school teachers—a recognition of the enduring influence they have exerted upon such pupils as these, and no doubt, upon so many other classroom children. We are allowed a downhome informality—intellectuals who demonstrate no need to become pompous, mannered, self-important. Another conversation Mr. Rubin holds, this time with Robert Penn Warren and William Styron, brings us closer to those novelists and provides a remark as important as any I’ve ever seen about the South’s special atmosphere—one that has asserted itself even under the gravest of circumstances. Here is Mr. Warren recalling moments from his first-rate journalistic work of the early 1960’s: “More than once I heard Negroes say, “There’s a personal relationship here, bad or good, which gives reality and holds some hope for the future. If a sheriff shoots you in Alabama, he probably knows your name. If a cop brains you in Detroit, he doesn’t know your name. That makes a big difference.” This was actually said to me by an Alabama black. “I see some hope in that,” he said. “He knows what he’s doing; he’s stuck with it.”” Both Warren and Styron go on to observe that the black man quoted might now be an Alabama sheriff. Those of us who live in old abolitionist towns or cities such as Concord or Boston, Massachusetts know how far along much of the North now has to go, if it is to hold up its head without shame when compared with the South.

My wife and I spend a good deal of time with so-called “rednecks”—poor and working class white people who have had their own rough times to face and have also known mischief and betrayal in good measure, no matter the color of their skin. We especially enjoyed, therefore, Sylvia Wilkinson’s essay on “the stock-car culture”; Katie Letcher Lyle’s thematic analysis of country music—its consolations and the discontents to which it gives expression; a brief but perceptive article by Thomas Daniel Young on Southern rural religion, black and white. It is all too easy for many of us, wherever we live, to dismiss one hard-pressed people—while bending over backwards to comprehend another in every way possible. It is also not uncommon for some of us to engage in our own ritualistic, idolatrous, even mean-spirited or barbaric customs, while denouncing in others a similar evidence of humanity. To be sure, stock car racing can strike an uninitiated observer, or one inclined to be disapproving, as a stupid or even brutish activity—maybe to be compared with Ivy League football or polo. Many intellectuals have no stomach for such crudities; they prefer to hang pictures of Freud, say, in their studies—and fight bitterly, arrogantly for possession of his (never to be thoroughly questioned) truths. If I may quote a Southerner myself, a white man we came to know in Atlanta—yes, the proverbial taxi driver: “I take a lot of fares every day. I haul a lot of people. These well-off folks, these professional people, they can talk mean, just like me! They can cut each other down to size. They can sound lost or just plain out of sorts, I know; I hear them.” The lyrics of country music speak to the universals of human experience—and as Flannery O’Connor knew so well (and reminded us so trenchantly and brilliantly) a few of us smug and narrow “higher types” might all too easily, if we would only know it, be shown up by a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, or a stock car racing, beefy “good old boy” from a town in Alabama, maybe, with one grocery store, which serves also as a post office, a gas station, a center of community life.

This is not only a book by whites about whites—all too commonly the case in some symposia of bygone years. Mary E. Mebane, a shrewd and tender black writer who knows the Carolinas so very well, gives us two character sketches— scenes of contemporary, Southern black life meant to remind us how much hope lives alongside how much sadness, if not terrible despair, in those many out-of-the-way black settlements which no “New South” has in any way yet touched. Her essay is also extremely helpful to those of us who, perhaps, these days, need a black writer to take issue with Richard Wright, not to mention any number of white ideologues, by reminding us what the Christian faith has meant to generations of black people—a means of making sense of the world, of finding ethical purpose, of transmitting all sorts of aspirations and convictions. The moral passion one finds in black religion—in Dr. King’s all too brief witness, and that of so many other Christians—is altogether astonishing, given the historical provocations, the numerous injustices endured, and warrants a more complex, many-sided response from the agnostic liberals who tend, otherwise, to be so solicitously comprehending of black life, warts and all.

J. Lee Greene, in a long, probing, elegantly written piece of literary criticism, furnishes another valuable addition to the black ledger, so to speak, of this volume. He is concerned with the various ways in which Southern life has been evoked through black fiction—and especially, of course, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, still a watermark in American 20th-century literary history. The South is the black man’s immediate native country. True, an increasing number of blacks have harkened culturally to Africa—but it is hard to leap over centuries into a past so covered with uncertainty, confusion, outright mystery. For Ellison and many other black writers, the South is the black man’s spiritual home, a place where a people came to terms with the land, with a special condition of life, with history itself. Out of that experience came a rich and complex cultural tradition: a way of speaking, a musical response of great subtlety and power, a style of dressing, a mode of cooking, and not least, a manner of praying—hours and hours of pouring out to God Almighty one’s pain and sorrow, one’s sense of outrage, one’s wish to be told sometime, someplace, somehow why. For years, in those Southern black churches, I have heard the cries, the shouts, the tears, the moaning; heard, too, the field songs, now addressed to God in His own House, so to speak, and the blues, and the testifying, oh, so much of it! Ellison saw in all that a people finding its way, obtaining its voice, learning survival—and then some: the dignity, the nuances, the complex texture of a particular culture.

Let ideologues talk of religion as “opium”—while they find their own kind, of course: psychology or an arrogant, self-serving “materialist” theory of history. The South’s black people have held on tightly to Jesus Christ, made Him, and his Old Testament prophetic predecessors, very much their own property—even as they have taken to heart the South, its land and water and weather, its splendid habits of talk, its interesting, compelling social ways (cursed, alas, for so long by race). For Ellison, for other black writers (I think of Alice Walker, unfortunately not a contributor to this volume), the South has been a constant companion for black people—no matter the distance they travel (literally, or socially and economically) in the course of their lives. J. Lee Greene’s essay, and indeed, this entire book, manage to make that point rather well—even as do recent demographic statistics, in their dry and “value-free” way: a net migration of blacks to the South year after year since the middle 1970’s, when segregation had at last been put to rout, once and for all, and when the North’s racism (hence, hypocrisy) had become unmistakably evident.

There are other nuggets of wisdom one wants to mention here—thoughtful essays from distinguished Southerners such as Lewis Simpson, George Core, Cleanth Brooks, Walter Sullivan, William Havard, George Tindall; these are deservedly well-known names, voices always prepared to speak cogently, instructively, and courteously to a nation all too caught up in various sorts of vulgarities or stupidities. My own dream or fantasy has, for a long time, been this: the best of Southern Populism and Agrarianism would mix with the Fugitive sensibility, and the result would prevail nationally. An absurd idea, I suppose—full of contradictions: a species of reformist politics at war with a certain kind of cultural conservatism. Still, the South can do that to those who love it—inspire an idiosyncratic and defiant vision, and thereby, maybe, protect one a bit from the inroads of American blandness.

Mr. Rubin, again our thanks to you for the persisting energy, the passion, you’ve given your native section; for the fine moments in this book, especially the pages that deal with Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman; for reminding us, once more, that tragedy and terrible injustice and war and the worst kind of inhumanity have become, please God, an historical prelude to a good deal of redemptive introspection, manifest in a book such as this, but also in the lives of the countless Southerners, over the generations—men and women who have been required to look carefully at themselves and others, thereby achieving for themselves, for all of us, a saving humor, a knowing humility.


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