Walker Percy, Writers, & The Advantages Of Place
From an interview with Walker Percy:
You don’t consider yourself a Southern writer, then?
I’m not sure that I do. If I were in Colorado or New York, I would be writing something different.
I think what we’re stuck with in the South, and what’s of value, are two things: one is religion and the other is the Negro. And Flannery O’Connor says there’s no way you can be raised in the South without being affected by the very strong fundamentalist Christianity, usually in rebellion against it, but certainly you bear some kind of relationship to it. Compare yourself or myself with someone growing up in Shaker Heights in Cleveland. The subject never even arises. You and I have seen Jesus Saves signs. We were brought up seeing Jesus Saves and Garrett Snuff signs. And then there is the black thing. Of course this is a hideously complicated business, very ambivalent, a very rich source for relationships because no matter what you say, or how bad the South is, there’s still a long history of viable relationships here, a long history of people getting along with each other.
For one reason or another.
Yes, and a certain civility still exists here. And so you find yourself attacking the South and at the same time falling back on ways of communication that still exist. I can’t help but think it’s an advantage.
This is excerpted from a 1985 collection of interviews, titled Conversations With Walker Percy. I’m not sure when this particular interview occurred, because the book collects interviews ranging over 25 years or so. Certainly Percy’s observations here are rather dated. Fundamentalist Christianity has greatly waned, though its presence is still felt. I see many more signs of it driving through parts of the South far from the coastal South, where I live. And of course “the black thing” is not what it was in Percy’s day, though I deeply get his point about how now matter how bad the South is on race, there is a tight and tangled kinship between Southern blacks and Southern whites that is impossible either to adequately explain or to extricate oneself from if one was of a mind to. My point here is that even though the characteristically Southern experiences of race and religion are not nearly as intense as they were when Percy was formed and practiced as a writer, they remain palpable.
It’s an interesting exercise to think about what, from a writer’s perspective, keeps the South still such a distinctive region, and so fertile for the writer’s imagination. The Southern Gothic thing is so tiresome, but it comes from somewhere. I think it emerges from the shock modern Americans have at confronting things that are bizarre and even horrifying, but that exist right here, right now. In my experiences outside the South, I find that when Southerners tell stories about what happened back home, or is happening, non-Southerners can’t quite believe it. We tell these stories usually because they’re funny, but also because, well, they’re true, but beyond that, they reveal something about the human condition that just seems more vivid down here, somehow.
Last week, we had a short visit from some old family friends who live in a farming village in the upper Midwest. They’ve been coming to visit us for decades. One of them said to me that when the Paula Deen controversy came up, she struggled to explain to her friends that the South is a lot more complicated than they think, that she has been there, that she knows Southerners, and it’s impossible to reduce the experience of race, culture, and Southern history to an easy-to-understand formula. I got the impression that this anguished her, because she grasped from her experiences in the South that life is more paradoxical and mysterious here, and that people think and behave in ways that don’t make sense to plainspoken, straightforward Northern folks. Morally, this may be problematic, but for a writer, it’s very, very rich.
Remember that thing I mentioned in this space about the one-legged stripper who works in the roadside Highway 61 titty bar just north of the Mississippi state line? That’s true. It’s really interesting to think about what life is like for a woman with one leg, who works as a stripper in an all-nude club frequented by deer hunters. I find myself thinking about her from time to time, actually, wondering what her story is, and what life is like for her. She knows some things about life, I bet. When I first heard the story, and saw a photo of her working the pole, I thought it was amusing, in a Flannery O’Connor sort of way. But then her story started working on my imagination, and I started wondering how you got to that point in life, and how you deal with your handicap working in that setting, and … well, if you keep thinking like this, you find yourself not wanting to judge such a person, but rather to understand them. I’ll probably never meet this woman, but I think about her sympathetically, and wonder what her story is.
You can see where I’m going with this. If you read The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, you’ll remember the story of my childhood friend James, who preached at his mother’s funeral. James grew up hard down here. His folks, Salty and Clophine, were good country people. At some point after I left town at 15, James got saved, and became a weekend preacher. He married an African-American woman he met in church, and now James, who is half-Cajun, preaches in little country black churches in south Louisiana on the weekends. I saw him and his cousin the other night at the LSU Tigers game. It always makes me happy to see James, who would do anything for you. James has seen and lived more intensely than most people in this country today, and has earned a lot of wisdom. You’ll remember the sermon James preached in Little Way, from which I quoted extensively. James has never been to any kind of formal training beyond high school, but he delivered a sermon that was, no kidding, probably the purest distillation of the Gospel that I’ve ever heard in any pulpit in the world. Right here. That country preacher. What a privilege it is to know him, not only as a friend, but as a writer. You know? I don’t know that we would know each other if we hadn’t grown up in the small-town South.
Look, people are people. I get that. Still, things just seem … riper here, among people, and that makes it fertile ground for writers. Even though the South today is a lot less distinct and particular as it once was, it is still, to a degree I’ve never seen anywhere in America, Christ-haunted, and haunted by the remnants of its history and its honor code. Reading The Iliad with my son these days, I find myself strangely identifying with so much in the narrative — specifically, with the Greeks and the Trojans raging and being pulled apart by the demands of the gods and of their code of shame and honor. We Southerners, I think, get that more intuitively than other Americans do, because we still think in terms of shame and honor and the acts of divinity. At Tiger Stadium the other night, just before kickoff, I saw eight members of the LSU team, black men and white men, take a knee on the sidelines, hold hands, and pray together, in a huddle. I thought: only in the South. Only in this blessed, haunted place, where people are more inclined to experience life not as a problem to be solved, but as a mystery to be lived.
I try to think about the South without sentimentalizing it, or demonizing it, but attempting to see it straight on, without illusion. It’s hard to do. Even today, though, as homogenized as the South has become, there is still a world of difference between growing up in St. Francisville and growing up in Shaker Heights, and I think that difference benefits the Southern writer. I could be wrong.
I imagine that I have far more readers of books than writers of them in this blogs readership. I’d like to know what you think the advantage a writer has to the development of his or her imagination and sensibility from growing up and living in your city, state, or region. Writers come from everywhere. What advantage does a writer who grew up in rural New England have over others? What about a writer who grew up in suburban Las Vegas? Downtown Minneapolis? What do writers from these areas see about the world that eludes the rest of us, and that gives them a particular viewpoint from which to interpret the world in fiction or nonfiction?