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AUGUST 11, 2009 11:16PM

The South and its Discontents

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There's been an argument raging about the South.  Liberals, we're told,  shouldn't demonize or condescend to Southerners.  The South they imagine, the South of lynchings, Jim Crow, "separate but equal" and the KKK, isn't the South of today. And besides, even the South of yesterday wasn't all bad. It was, after all, the home of America's greatest literary tradition, of Faulkner, Hurston, O'Connor, McCullers, Williams, Percy, Styron....

In fact, the South of Faulkner and the South of slavery are one and the same, and William Styron is unimaginable without Jim Crow.

Great literary traditions  don't always arise out of exemplary societies.  Indeed, the opposite is more nearly the rule. Great literary traditions arise out of unsettled, painful, insecure societies. Look at the god-awful history of Ireland, arguably the greatest literary nation, pound for pound, on the planet. More to the point, look at Russia.

Late tsarist Russia, the Russia of  Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, was  something of a historical coelacanth, a living fossil of a country, an agrarian, feudal society living alongside democratic and industrialized neighbors. Where the serfs had been legally emancipated for years, but  life was still ruled by class and caste division. An inherently neurotic place where xenophobia and ferocious nationalism uneasily coexisted  with a shameful but pervasive sense of inferiority. A country where the French-speaking upper classes endlessly romanticized the simple piety of the Russian peasant. (Which also brings to mind the English-speaking nouveau riche of contemporary China, but that's another topic.)

 Does any of this sound familiar, Alabamans?

While we're on the subject of inferiority and insecurity, let's talk about shame. Shame is rooted in the fear of being found out, of being exposed as less than what one likes to think one is. Of losing reputation, face, status. It has particular power in cultures-- the American South, modern China, the Arab world-- with a history of defeat and humiliation at the hands of stronger, more economically advanced  rivals.

Growing up in the South, I heard many times, from many adults, justifications of racism and segregation that began the same way: "When people want to live together in a society...." The upshot being that social rules are more or less arbitrary and indefensible. And incidentally implying that prohibitions against, say,  farting in public, incest, selling hammers on Sunday, and racial mixing all have about the same level of moral authority. But moral authority was never the issue. It's really all about shame. "What would the neighbors say?" "If your grandfather were alive to see this...." And a sense of shame, instilled early and reinforced often, is devilishly hard to break free of.

Back to books. Look at the power of shame, of social insecurity, of fear of unworthiness  in the work of Southern writers. Look at the class-striving-and-shame in Faulkner and Williams, at O'Connor's characters'  reverence for "good country people" and loathing of "white trash."

This is what non-Southerners need to understand.  Southerners so vehemently hate condescension because they secretly fear that it's justified. In their heart of hearts, they see themselves as weak, incapable, bullied. At the same time, they revel in macho fantasies and manufactured memories of a heroic heritage. To condescend to, or even in many cases, to criticize Southerners is to pry off the lid of a box of loathing-- of self and other-- so long-fermented and putrid that it smothers reason and discourse, and takes the shape of violence and vengeance. (The U.S.  owes its  high murder rate mostly to the South.)

The Southern states  are the Harris-and-Klebolds of the Union.


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Absolutely and brilliantly said.
Perfectly written. This was absolutely brilliant. Thank you.
"a historical coelacanth"... just one of many high points in a grandly mounted piece. There is more apt thought on the South as culture here than in ten other official meditations I've read...Societies never change, they just pave over.
"...the Harris-and-Klebolds of the Union"
I wonder whether that (fear of condescension) explains Rita Mae Brown. She's one of my favorite authors but sometimes, it seems, she "doth protest too much."
Thanks to all who read & appreciated. I was expecting hate mail! (There's still time for that, I guess.)
No hate mail here. Eye opening and an absolute direct hit. You get to the heart of the matter with a surgeon's precision. I have learned. THe Harris-Klebold line was chilling. Excellent writing. (Many thanks for visiting my recent post.)
I much like your literary analysis but I honestly dislike others who use stereotypes such as southern white trash to disparage all southerners because sneering at an underclass by the upperclass is to use a southern term "tacky."

Being tacky is impolite and requires very little intellectual investment in one's observations.
Wow, you and I must have grown up in “different” South’s. The south I grew up in was full of history, both good and bad, proud men and women who worked hard for what they had, loved their family and neighborhoods, whether they were black or white. I am so tired of people putting down the south. I would like to see any part of this country (or world) that does not have their own bad history, racist or nutcases. It is also just ignorant to think of a whole group of people as some thugs that murder their classmate in a northern state. By the way, this is not a hate mail post, just my thoughts. Take care...
p.s. read this post. Hey, Y'all! Welcome To The South
Dorinda & D-dog-- Obviously, there are all kinds of people in Alabama (for example, Kevin Lee!), just as in New Hampshire--or in Iran, or China. Here, I'm trying to elucidate broad patterns I've observed in history, literature, and my own experience.

Dorinda-- I also dislike the "white trash" label; it's used by many, though, and O'Connor was being true to life when she put it in the mouths of her characters.
My feelings of the South have been formed over 50 years of time spent there on and off.

I immediately feel the vibe, no matter the form of transportation, on entering the US South. (I've flown, drove, hitch-hiked, biked and gone by sea) It is not a good vibe for me.

Too much of the population is "weak"- prefering simple religious explanations, and, obviously, the hard work of others. Too many are " incapable"- point to any of modern life's advances/top universities: which from the South? Always ranked at the bottom of education statistics. And, they have proven easily "bullied" into wars of deceit by Generals of old and recent Vice-Presidents.

I too feel shame for what went on, and continues an ugly death, in the South.
Southerners so vehemently hate condescension because they secretly fear that it's justified


If you haven't read it, W. J. Cash's, "The Mind of the South" is still as relevant today as when he wrote it over 60 years ago...somethings just do not change.
Oahusurfer-- Thanks for reading & commenting.

lalucas-- I've heard of that book, but never read it. I'll have to check it out.