What’s a Southern Sensibility Today?
But you know, the South remains its own place, with its own distinctive take on the Human Comedy, and on the various human tragedies as well, and I hope it will continue to punch above its weight, literarily speaking. I think is this is going to happen the Grit Lit thing will need to be overcome, or at least to become just one of the punches it might throw at any given time. The ordinary middle-class Southern existence hasn’t had a true recording angel since Walker Percy; I’d sure like to see another one. (Garden and Gun is fine as far as it goes, but Southerners have more, and more varied, stories to tell.)
I’d love to see the new Oxford American stretch the intellectual boundaries of Southern culture, and push into new territories of writing. I wish Roger Hodge well as the magazine’s new editor.
I’ve never subscribed to TOA, though I might do it to see what Roger Hodge does with the magazine. TOA has always been a magazine I’ve admired, but rarely read, and I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I’ve always felt out of step with its portrait of the South, and Southernness. It’s been so long since I’ve seen an issue that I’ve forgotten why, to be honest. I seem to recall that there was something too self-consciously Southern about it, in an English-major way. Anyway, I’ll reacquaint myself with it under the new editorial leadership, and hope for the best.
We subscribe to Garden & Gun, which I like, but I’m not really the right demographic for that magazine either. But I got to thinking in the middle of an e-mail exchange with Alan yesterday: What kind of magazine of the South would hit my personal sweet spot?
I suppose it would be part TOA, part G&G, but also feature serious writing about ideas in contemporary Southern life. I got to thinking further about this, and wondering what, exactly, defines the South today? What is a Southern sensibility? Twenty-five years ago, the late Walker Percy had this exchange with an interviewer:
INTERVIEWER: Can we discuss the “Los Angelized” and re-Christianized New South? Is there anything new in the way the South is developing in the 1980s or in the way you read the South or your own relation to it?
PERCY: The odd thing I’ve noticed is that while of course the South is more and more indistinguishable from the rest of the country (Atlanta, for example, which has become one of the three or four megalopolises of the U.S., is in fact, I’m told by blacks, their favorite American city), the fact is that as Faulkner said fifty years ago, as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon line, you still know it. This, after fifty years of listening to the same radio and watching millions of hours of Barnaby Jones. I don’t know whether it’s the heat or a certain lingering civility but people will slow down on interstates to let you get in traffic. Strangers speak in post offices, hold doors for each other without being thought queer or running a con game or making a sexual advance. I could have killed the last cab driver I had in New York. Ask Eudora Welty, she was in the same cab.
I think that’s still true — that there is something distinct about the South, even today. But what? You still know it when you’re here and not there, but why?
I don’t think it makes much sense to say that there is a single Southern sensibility, but rather Southern sensibilities. Florence King famously distinguished between the South of horses, tobacco, and Episcopalians, and the South of mules, cotton, and Baptists. Black Southerners, obviously, have a different view on things than white Southerners, and there are class and regional variations among those groups. The race issue is still very real, though it’s significantly different than it was in the 1960s. Even here in my town, there are people whose experience of the South are rather distinct. For example, the hunting club South is not the same thing as the golf course South, though some men may partake of both. Northerners tend to have this idea that Southerners grow up knowing all about the Civil War. I live a stone’s throw away from my town’s Confederate soldier monument, but I don’t know much about the Civil War, and I’m pretty sure most people of my generation don’t either. For better and for worse, television and mass culture washed away a lot of our particularity.
And yet, things are different here. I’ve said in this space before that one thing I noticed when I left the South at age 25 and moved to Washington, DC, is how my Southern friends and I would get together at bars or parties and start telling stories about back home, and our pals from the West, Midwest, and Northeast would listen in astonishment, assuming that we must be making it all up. But we weren’t, or if any of us were, the stories were entirely plausible. We had all seen it before.
I’ve taken pleasure in every place I’ve lived in the US, but the older I grew, the more I found myself feeling like a displaced person. I never imagined that I would move back to the South, but I thought about the South a lot. I loved it sometimes and I hated it other times, but I couldn’t get it out of my system. Here’s the thing: I could list the things that I missed about the South, but what I really missed about the South was not the sum total of that list. But what was it?
I think I finally figured it out today, when thinking about why, even though I’ve lived in many good non-Southern places, none of them really felt like home. I never quite got used to the literal nature of the people among whom I’ve lived in other parts of the country. Don’t misread me: that’s not a criticism, but it is a distinction I’ve observed. The Southern mind is so much more poetical. Southerners don’t expect 2 + 2 + 4 to add up to 8, at least not all the time. And that’s okay. It’s a violent region, and a region of great poverty. But it’s also a region of intense humanity and powerful grace. Life here seems so vivid, like something you’d read about in a story. With Midwesterners, what you see is what you get. Not with us. The mystery and dream logic of life here appeals to me, though I wonder if I would love it so if I hadn’t been raised with it. Anyway, I fit in that world, and in that worldview, in a way I didn’t quite fit anywhere else.
We had a lovely thread here a while back in which New Englanders talked about the things they loved about their region. Though I’ve never lived in New England, and scarcely even visited it, it was a pleasure for me to read people who have writing about their passion for the place. If Southerners want to do that here, that’s fine by me. But what I’d really like to know is what Southerners today think defines the sensibility of our region. Is there some unifying thread tying together the various sensibilities? I know this is a difficult question; there are distinct differences between the people from northern Louisiana and the people from southern Louisiana, and they don’t all have to do with the Catholic vs. Protestant thing. Still, nobody would mistake any of us for Minnesotans. What do you non-Southerners notice about the Southern people you know and spend time around? I’m not talking about politics (so please don’t!), but more general aspects of their character and way of thinking and moving through the world. Help me figure out what makes Southerners in 2012 distinct from other Americans.
To repeat: I’m not interested in reading people’s complaining, but rather in thoughtful critical analysis. If you just want to take cheap potshots at the South or Southerners, don’t bother.