What We Mean When We Talk About the South...
...as we wander through CrossRoads
by Jeanne McDonald
In the new edition of CrossRoads: A Southern Culture Annual 2006 (Mercer University Press), Robert McDonald begins his essay, "The Reality of William Christenberry's South," with a quote from southern scholar Jefferson Humphries: "The South, what we mean when we talk about the South, is not a geographical place and is only related to geographical place by pure arbitrary contingency. The South is instead nothing in the world but an idea in narrative form, a discourse or rhetoric of narrative tropes, a story made out of sub-stories, a lie, a fiction to which we have lent reality by believing it."
Humphries' theories echo the opinions of many northerners who not only ridicule the accents and vocabulary of the South, but question its very worth. Civil War historian Shelby Foote liked to tell a story about the time he worked for the Associated Press in New York in the '50s: "One night I had some fun with [some New Yorkers]." When one man asked what in the world people did in Mississippi, where Foote grew up, and how he could bear living in a place like that, Foote retorted, "Well, we've got certain things down there that amount to something... [W]ho do you think is the best writer in the United States?" When the New Yorker responded with "William Faulkner," Foote grinned. "Well, he's from Mississippi. And who," he continued, "do you think is the best woman writer in the United States?"
The answer was "Eudora Welty," who just happened to be another Mississippian, and when the northerner admitted that Tennessee Williams was the best playwright, Foote rested his case. "I guess we DO do a few things down there," he concluded.
Like most loyal southerners, William Christenberry refutes Humphries' assertion of the South as myth. He is an Alabama native who has spent forty years studying the southern condition and its materiality through photographs, paintings, sculptures and mixed-media assemblages. As a young man Christenberry discovered a reprint of James Agee and Walker Evans' classic book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , which illustrates through photographs and text the honorable but hardscrabble plight of Alabama tenant farmers and their families during the Great Depression. Years later, Christenberry had an opportunity to show some of his own photographs to Evans, who was thoroughly impressed. "Young man," he said, "there is something about how you use that little camera, it has become a perfect extension of your eye." The proof of Evans' evaluation is that Christenberry's photos and artwork are currently on exhibit at the Smithsonian's American Art Gallery. Another fascinating idea explored in this collection is Andrew J. Walters' article, "Rebels and Kin: Modern Nationalism in Scotland and the American South." Walters compares the national aspirations in Scotland and the South throughout history, citing "shared failure" and a "lost cause" mentality as viable connections to forge a similarity between the two cultures, beginning with Scotland's suppression by Great Britain and the South's defeat by the Union. In 1999, a Scottish Parliament voted to return to Scotland a substantial part of the power that the country had lost to England after the Treaty of Union, but Scotland still continues to suffer "black affronts" from the mother country. And despite the Confederate states' failure to win independence, they tenaciously held onto their culture, even when unfair economic trade sanctions were imposed upon them and Reconstruction significantly weakened their efforts to reestablish financial stability. "In each case," claims the author, "a romanticizing of history occurred in order to intensify nationalist feelings."
Although this collection leans more toward scholarly research, the southern culture is also reflected in short stories, poetry and memoirs. Knoxville poet Jesse Graves' piece, "The Sunken Mill," features a conversation between the poet and an old man who is still aggrieved over the flooding of farmland by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. Looking out over the lake that had once been a valley, the man points to a spot where a blind man once operated a gristmill. "I wouldn't trade all the power lights," he says, "and tools and machinery they ever was / for another night on a chestnut raft, / seining these channels for trout / and listening to the shoals / of the blind man's millwheel."
This aura of southernness we live in, and even if our stories are occasionally embellished, they are our stories, and we revel in them.
History is sometimes rich with exaggeration, it is good to examine our culture regularly to sort out the actual and the imagined, as Ted Olson, editor of CrossRoads , has done for three years now. Poet, author, and editor of numerous books about the South, Olson is also a musician and editor of the music section of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, 2006).