Friday, August 17, 2012

Love Song for the South

I am not a Southerner by birth. In fact, I was an adult before I ever moved to the South for the first time. In view of those facts, my sudden and temporary exodus from the South should seem like a small affair, hardly worth mentioning (especially in this venue where I try to avoid autobiography as much as possible). Nevertheless, eight years living in the best and worst of Arkansas and Tennessee has thoroughly acculturated me.

I have been in the barren landscape of the American Southwest for only just over a week, and the culture shock, such as it is, has yet to wear off. I am not yet accustomed to the cool dry mornings and the hot dry afternoons. I still get confused momentarily at every sign where Spanish is the primary language, and English the translation. The Spanish Renaissance architecture, the dust storms, the cloudless skies, the brown landscape, the flat horizon. None of it even remotely recalls my adopted home in East Tennessee with the Smoky Mountains rising to greet me every morning.

The greatest difference is not, however, a matter of climate, scenery, or language. It is one of culture. The stereotype of the South moving at a slower pace, expressing herself in a more polite idiom, embracing notions of honor and classic
masculinity, of belles and beaus and agrarian simplicity are, James C. Cobb rightly notes in his history of southern identity, mythic constructions. Cobb does not, however, give quite enough attention to just how closely myth can conform itself to reality. The peculiar culture of the South, her sectional identity—nascent, perhaps, before the Civil War, but consciously constructed after that—can only be dismissed entirely by those academics (especially those educated Northern elites, curse us) who have only studied her but not lived in her.

There are numerous ways to attempt to quantify the cultural solidarity of the South against those who believe it is exaggerated or constructed out of misinformed nostalgia. The political solidarity is an obvious place to start, both as Democrats in the nineteenth century and beyond and then as Republicans in more recent history. Another obvious signifier is the historical predominance of democratic forms of religion in the South: the Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples. In either case, it would be simple to look at distinguishing political or religious features and reverse engineer from these telling facts about the South’s distinctive culture.

But southerners and sojourners alike do not experience those distinctive in this way. Instead, let me relay an anecdote or two that has been characteristic of my experience. After having lived in Arkansas for four years, I took a trip to the Midwest. While passing through Indiana, I stopped for a quick meal with a friend who lived nearby. The lunch was wonderful, but I couldn’t help but notice throughout how brusquely my friend addressed herself to the waitress. The waitress, in kind, seemed to respond to her just as abruptly. There was no overt hostility, but there were also a dearth of “please” and “thank you,” of smiles or friendly chatter. There certainly was nothing conversation about the tone. When lunch was over, I asked my friend if the waitress had done something to upset her, and she was confused. The waitress had been great as far as she was concerned. She left her a big tip. That was, in her Midwestern mind, a perfectly pleasant transaction. A similar lunch would probably have prompted distress for a southerner, as it did for me.

Some time later, after I had moved to Tennessee, I had occasion to attend a seminar in New York. I pride myself on my punctuality, and so I was surprised to find that when I arrived for the orientation precisely at seven o’clock when it was scheduled, I had already missed the first fifteen minutes and was left with nowhere to sit. Analogous seminars in Memphis invariable started fifteen minutes late. From New York, I took my wife into New England to visit my childhood home. We stopped at a snack shop along the way in the relatively early morning. We stood a way back from the menu, surveying it. There was no rush. The place was empty, and we had the whole day to explore the area. Nevertheless, we both got the distinct impression that we were being rushed.

There are countless positive antitheses to these as well. The police officer and the mechanic who replaced a torn belt on the side of the road in rural Arkansas asking nothing more in payment than a post card whenever we got where we were going. Walking into the barber after a bargain cutter performed a hack job on my hair and receiving the undivided care of the entire staff. Standing at the counter of a general store in North Carolina, holding up a line of tourists while I talked to the girl behind the counter about her morning sickness from her last pregnancy. Getting to know intimately the staff of a small town visitor center as we took hours to seek out the perfect place to eat. Sitting down with a stranger outside a store on main street and talking about nothing while our wives shopped.

On my last fateful trip out of the South, if you’ll pardon the melodrama, my wife and I stopped at a diner in Arkansas. A man in the parking lot noticed our Tennessee tags. He asked if the county on the license plate was near Sevier County. When we told him it was, he stopped and talked to us about his love of the Smokies, about his wife who had died some years ago, and about how he had scattered some of her ashes in the mountains. We offered our condolences. When I told him where I was moving, he offered me his condolences. Best wishes, God blesses, and good to me yous were all obligatorily exchanged, and my wife and I, delayed but not bothered, ate our breakfast.

That last incident sums up for me my brief but transformative experience in the South. Taken individually, my experiences elsewhere or my experiences in the South may be written off as so many unrelated incidents, not indicative of anything. Taken together, however, they manifest the character of a culture. Others from other parts of the nation will have had some or all of those experiences in their native regions, but I am convinced that they represent the soul of the South. Changed and changing, she nevertheless retains that distinctive pace, that polite, if only superficially so, idiom, that conservatism which is not limited to politics, that masculinity which is simple but virile, that femininity which is backward and self-contradictory but alluring, and that community where people are not strangers by default who become friends in time but friends automatically who may by circumstance be estranged.

There is, of course, a note of doxology in the above. It certainly isn’t my intention to place the South up as a paragon against which all other sectional American cultures are to be measured. Those peculiar features of southern culture have led to a number of the most shameful abuses in American history, though no more so than the ethos of the North. (Incidentally, as the historiography of the Northeast—which dominates the national conversation—continues to glory in the shame of race slavery in the South, it is curiously unconcerned with the analogous indignities which resulted from its competing system of wage slavery which, in some respects, continues even into the present.) Instead, I intend only to affirm the reality of those sectional differences and to express, on a personal level, my preference for the South, especially as I now find myself estranged from them.

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