Books, Thoughts

Thoughts on the South

Driving home I see those flooded fields
How can people not know what beauty this is?
I’ve taken it for granted my whole life
Since the day I was born

–Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”

I’ve talked before about how much my collection of books means to me.  They are a measure of time & curiosity, they gauge the different influences in my life, & most of all, when I need them, they can be guides & talismans.

When Kurt & I went on our trip to Memphis recently, I took two specific books with me.  The first was Faulkner’s The Reivers, which was the last book I studied in Professor Stewart’s Faulkner seminar.  The story is primarily about, among other things, a boy’s first trip to Memphis in a stolen car.  (We were planning on seeing Oxford as well on the trip.)  The second book was Thomas Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock.  I brought this book along mainly because I knew it would keep me busy for a good long while.  I can’t imagine anyone finishes 640 pages in a week, unless their vacation is really really boring.

While we drove & drove & drove across three states, I ended up thinking a lot about the South, how different places yield different experience.  Yet all of us, as Southerners, are united under this ponderous & specific label.  I thought back to the two questions another teacher had asked me (& the other students) to consider at the beginning of a Southern Lit class.  Why does the South have it’s own literature?  What distinguishes different parts of the South?

I reflected on this second question as we drove down I-81 through parts of Virginia I hadn’t seen.  It came up again in the different restaurants we ate in, where okra became more prevalent the further west & south we went & the term “meat & three” became more common on the menus.  I think it was no small coincidence that, one night in Knoxville, I read the following passage from The Web and the Rock.  (Disclaimer: it is long & wordy, so, patience.)

Old Catawba is much better than South Carolina.  It is more North, and “North” is a much more wonderful word than “South,” as anyone with any ear for words will know.  The reason why “South” seems such a wonderful word is because we had the word “North” to begin with: if there had been no “North,” than the word “South” and all of its connotations would not seem so wonderful.  Old Catawba is distinguished by its “Northness” and South Carolina by its “Southness.”  And the “Northness” of Old Catawba is better than the “Southness” of South Carolina.  Old Catawba has the slants of evening and the mountain cool.  You feel lonely in Old Catawba, but it is not the loneliness of South Carolina.  In Old Catawba, the hill boy helps his father building fences and hears a soft Spring howling in the wind, and sees the wind snake through the bending waves of the coarse grasses of the mountain pastures.  And far away he hears the whistle’s cry wailed back, far-flung and faint along some mountain valley, as a great train rushes towards the cities of the East.  And the heart of the hill boy will know joy because he knows, all world-remote, lonely as he is, that some day he will meet the world and know those cities too.

But in South Carolina the loneliness is not like this.  They do not have the mountain cool.  They have dusty, sand-clay roads, great mournful cotton fields, with pine wood borders and the nigger shacks, and something haunting, soft and lonely in the air.  These people are really lost.  They cannot get away from South Carolina, and if they get away they are no good.  They drawl beautifully.  There is the most wonderful warmth, affection, heartiness in their approach and greeting, but the people are afraid.  Their eyes are desperately afraid, filled with a kind of tortured and envenomed terror of the old, stricken, wounded “Southness” of cruelty and lust. . .

(Wolfe then goes on to say that this decadent “Southness” is what causes lynchings & other cruelties, that the entirety of South Carolinian society is to blame since they are inherently twisted.  But Old Catawba, so not like that.  There’s racial tension, sure, but such spectacle does not “belong to the temper and the character of the people there.”)

Something clicked in my brain.  Here was something of a realization of the divisions within the borders of the South, even if I didn’t agree with some of the ideas Wolfe was putting forth.  The idea that the South & its heat somehow contributing to its decadence felt familiar to me, but I struggled to put my finger on exact examples from other texts.  (Still researching actually.  I think not all authors are as explicit as Wolfe.)

But what interested me the most about the passage was this idea of the “Northness” of a Southern state being preferable, more progressive.  As if Wolfe is attempting to displace guilt as a white Southerner onto something or somewhere else.  (Later in the book, Wolfe becomes amazingly vitriolic when talking about poor whites living in town.  Apparently the dreaming “hill boy” must come from a specific type of upbringing; his dreams are not for everybody.)  I found this explanation remarkably similar to something my own mother once said to me about our family.  She was telling me about some genealogy work she had done & she said, “I know we had ancestors who fought in the Civil War, but at least they didn’t own slaves!”  I still puzzle over this statement.  Who’s to say they were poor & wished they were well off enough to own slaves?  Or if they were well-off, who’s to say they weren’t eager to free them?  Without real record, how do you know?

Anyway, to get back on track, as Kurt & I traveled through Tennessee & Mississippi, the Wolfe passage echoed in all the comparisons I made to my home state.  In every billboard for a Bible college (followed quickly by signs for adult bookstores), in every person’s thicker accent, in the layout of town squares in each town.  I thought, What is Virginia losing that these other states seem to have?

Here’s a story that might hold the key.  On one of our last nights in Mississippi, we ate at Taylor Grocery.  I told Kurt that under no circumstances were we leaving until we had red beans & rice.  We ordered a small bowl, which the waitress brought out quickly.  It looked more like a sort of thick soup with sausage, beans, rice & stewed tomatoes.  The first few bites were indescribably amazing; the small bowl would have been meal enough.

Kurt, as usual, had to ask what was in it, so the waitress sent the owner over to tell him.  As he started listing the ingredients, he said “crab boil.”  Kurt stopped him saying “Wait, what is crab boil?”  The owner stopped, stared for a second & said, “Y’know.  Crab boil.”  “Crab oil?”  “No, crab boil,” the owner stops again, suspicious.  “Where are y’all from anyway?”  “We’re from Virginia.”  “Well, they boil crabs in Virginia, don’t they?”

I think about Smith Island & how the watermen are slowly disappearing.  How the island is kept alive by boatloads of tourists & the famous cakes that the women of the island bake.  I think of Occoquan, of the fisherman-themed restaurants, the pricey townhomes for relocating Northern Virginians & the power plant that are the only real industry on the water.  I wonder, do we boil crabs in Virginia?

We told this story to our friend Colin yesterday, along with the end where the owner ends up writing us out the recipe, which makes 3 gallons, on a huge piece of legal paper.  He laughed & said, “Oh God, do I miss the South.”  I pounced, asking him if he considered Virginia part of the South.  He thought for a moment & said, no, at least it didn’t seem that way to him food-wise.  “I mean, you don’t even have a ‘meat and three’ up here,” he lamented.  While we hung out over the next few hours, the three of us occasionally offered reasons why we thought Virginia was so different.  I tried to compare it to Maryland’s lost status as a Southern state as well.

I don’t think that there is one complete answer, so I will try not to end this blog post that way.  I think part of the reason is the “Northness” of Virginia, that it has lead to the development that we see today.  We have become one of those desirable parts of the East, a place where things are happening, where people wish to end up.  But, something has been lost in that transition & I worry how I’ve contributed to that.  By taking for granted that my pokey little town would always be boring, that somewhere far away would always be better than here.  That someone would always be around to remember the tedious detailed history of the county or that the endless fields on Rt. 17 would never be built on.  Because, c’mon, who would want to build a Wal-Mart in the middle of nowhere?  “Nowhere” becomes another memory fast when everyone is determined to move, no matter what the destination.

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