By Willie Morris
[Editor's Note: Some of the economic figures in this article may not be completely accurate, since it was written in 1986 and first published in the premiere issue of Southern Magazine, October 1986].NOT TOO LONG ago I got a letter from a friend, a fellow of early middle age from the Deep South who had dwelled in the North for many years and had recently returned to live in a big overgrown city of Dixie. Since I had also left and returned, my friend posed a few questions to me that had obviously been bothering him, as if he had made the wrong decision about his own repatriation or, worse, had responded to his spiritual reckoning without regard, as the lawyers say, to the true facts of things.
"I wonder if the South as we once knew it still exists if there is a South anymore," he said. "This is a question I've been getting from friends of mine. I think that's new. I don't know what the reason is maybe those media creations called Sunbelt and the New South but I sense that people here are feeling more a part of the wider world than ever before. They profess to feel less a part of that old concept you and I know as 'The South.' "
I could not deny his observations. Once the albatross of race, in its more suffocating aspects, was removed, Southerners became free as never before to feel part of the broader civilization, and that is good. The American South, after all, is merely one region among many on the Lord's Earth as it swirls out at the edge of the universe, sharing immutably in the fears and terrors that haunt the human race. But that change is hard for some of us to appreciate.
"I, too, have been asking myself questions," my friend continued. "Is the idea of 'The South' felt by anyone besides writers and other people who spend too much time thinking about themselves? Is it nothing more than personal nostalgia codified? Are Virginians and Mississippians connected by anything other than the fact that their ancestors lost a war together? What is innately Southern anymore?"
And his concluding observation, which caused me at least one long and sleepless night: "Do you wish you could escape it again?"
There is much of the South, I unhesitatingly confess to him, that I wish I could escape forever. I wish I could escape the smoldering malevolence behind a coed's prolonged racial tirade among students at my house one recent evening. Escape the tenacious righteousness of the "seg academies." Escape the images of the catastrophic destruction, physical and communal, of places like my beloved Austin in Texas. Escape every manifestation of institutionalized, right-wing, fundamentalist religion, richer and more pervasive than it ever was. Escape the ennui of the morgue-like Sundays. Escape the fruitless spleen and irrelevant innuendo of the intellectual discourse.
To escape the South, however all of what it was and is I would have to escape from myself.
ONE OF THE central themes in our history as Americans, reflected in our most enduring literature, has been the conflict between country and city, the dichotomy between village and metropolis, with all that that embraces. With the homogeneity engendered by the great television culture, and the growing power of the mighty urban nexus, that gulf remains a profound one.
Nowhere is this more emphatic than in the contemporary South, in which raw old towns have become cities in less than our lifetime, and the countryside and the villages are portrayed as languishing near death. Modern forces seem to have conspired against the small-town South of our memory, just as they have nowadays against the rural Midwest.
There is a price to be paid for that, and it may be entirely more than was bargained for. Big cities are big cities anywhere, and it is the large burgeoning cities of the South that becloud the more pristine consideration of roots, remembrance, and belonging. Does the South any longer exist? I have heard the plaintive cry time without number from the denizens of such cities as Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, and Houston, but I think not once in more than five years have I heard it from anyone living in Southern towns, or in their encompassing countryside.
Ironically, the horrendous exodus of Southerners of both races to the cities of the North has been reversed at a time when the rural South is in its bleakest stagnation so much so that an artist of my acquaintance is doing paintings of dying Mississippi villages so future generations will know how they looked. Jobs are increasing twice as fast in the urban areas of the South as in small towns. In Georgia, three-fourths of all new employment since 1980 has been in the Atlanta region alone. The same is true in Arkansas, where, in the midst of rural depression, Little Rock's per capita income is above the national average and unemployment is below it. But in the rural South, joblessness is now 37 percent above the American norm.
The decline in the economy is especially difficult, things always are, on the blacks. Those places in the South experiencing the most rapid growth are those whose workers are the best educated. The rural South has always been the least educated region in America. Illiteracy remains common, and only one-fourth of the population 25 or older has high school diplomas. Yet in Mississippi, for example, after sharp decreases in the state budget under a governor who adamantly opposes tax increases of any kind, the eight state universities are eliminating doctoral programs and ordering layoffs as well as reductions and freezes in salaries. Alcorn State University, a black institution, has suffered a 28 percent decrease in its budget. "Hope is not all we need," Faulkner wrote. "It's all we got." I daresay no other region in the United States can still say that with impunity.
I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with an acquaintance of mine, a native of the Midwest, who runs the Atlanta bureau of one of the nation's largest newspapers. He had been doing a story out in the Mississippi Delta, where time has stood still, and he had been touched by the patina of this old, inward South. The Delta had bewildered and intrigued him, for it has always frightened and titillated the outsider.
"It's the other extreme from Atlanta," he said. "Southerners hate to be strangers to each other. That's why Atlanta is so traumatic for Southerners to visit. Southerners like to see you and say, 'Hi, how are you?' And the Yankees in Atlanta just don't respond to that. As for native Atlantans, there's a city they remember that no longer really exists. But they still see it as if it were there the gracious cotillions, the old Rich's department store, the old Peachtree Street, the Buckhead Boys." He remembered what one old Atlantan had said to him: "Maybe my city is only the way I remember it in my mind."
Yet is it not similarly true that the great Southern cities of the 1980s are like the artistic effect called pentimento? To quote Lillian Hellman, who wrote a wonderful book by that name, "Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see original lines: A tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea." So beneath the palpable new "sophistication" of these contemporary Southern cities, can one not find the Conroes, Lake Villages, Belzonis, Mebanes, Humboldts, Valdostas, Eufalas, Guthries, Bastrops, and Farmvilles? Nostalgia is not what it used to be, it has been remarked, yet nostalgia is mere saccharin to the Southerner's power of memory for memory is everything.
WALKER PERCY ONCE wrote that at a certain point in his life a man draws strength from living in some authentic relationship with the principal events of his past. I have often pondered what it was that brought me back to stay. I am forever drawn to the textures, the echoes, the way things look and feel, the bittersweet tug of certain phrases: "We crossed the river at Natchez." The South is a blend of the relentless and the abiding for me, and an accumulation of ironies so acute and impenetrable that my vagabond heart palpitates to make sense of them.
There is indisputably something in the shared topography. But to find it, one must get off the Interstate at every chance, as I always do, and as I did on the early day of homecoming into the Delta. It was a bitterly cold forenoon of January, so cold that huge shards of ice were in the rivers and creeks, and under the somber skies in the seared fields the vacated tenant shacks were ghostly and bereft. There was a black funeral in the graveyard near the road. Amid the homemade tombstones with misspelled inscriptions, the pallbearers were struggling to carry the cheap pine coffin up an incline, and three little children stood crying under a water oak.
Farther on, in a sudden wintry wind, was the little all-black village of Falcon with its brand new water tower, black kids with socks on their hands shooting baskets, and lean-to vistas.
Then the main street of Alligator with its boarded-up storefronts had everyone migrated to Greenville or Indianola? Out from town the cotton stubble was gray and frozen, and I knew with the springtime these fields would be worked by the enormous new tractors with air conditioners and stereos in their cabins. I made a side tour to Drew to visit a friend, but she had been out in the swamps most of the night killing bullfrogs with a .22 pistol for a frog-fry and had remained at her girlfriend's house in the country. Now past the big white houses surrounded by pecans and magnolias with croquet lawns, tennis courts, swimming pools, and a couple of Mercedes and pick-up trucks under the porticoes. South out of the Delta to Raymond, my familial village, founded by my people, suffused with evanescent rustlings for me the crumbling cemetary, the railroad bridge on which my grandfather proposed to my grandmother in 1897, my great-grandparents' house, which ran red with blood when my great-grandmother nursed the wounded of both sides and took down a letter from a dying Illinois boy to his mother and saw that it got through the lines. Then back into America again on Interstate 20 West. At twilight in the bar overlooking the river in Vicksburg a man from Iowa asked me, "Say, wasn't there some kind of battle here?"
I am afraid that I can answer my original correspondent only elliptically, if indeed at all. At the risk of all generalizations of the spirit, and of incurring the displeasure of some among my fellow Americans, indulge me in this brief catalog a few of the qualities that, in my own, most personal view, still make the South different, or at the least are more characteristic of the South than of other regions. I have been looking around these past years, have kept an eye cocked for the abiding nuance, and if I am wrong, I am not too wrong.
DOES THE SOUTH exist any longer? One has to seek the answer on one's own terms, of course, but to do that, I suggest, one should spurn the boardrooms and the country clubs and the countless college seminars on the subject and spend a little time at the ball games and the funerals and the bus stations and the courthouses and the bargain-rate beauty parlors and the little churches and the roadhouses and the joints near the closing hour.
I did not judge the South remotely dead in a roadhouse near Vicksburg on a recent Saturday of the full moon. The parking lot was filled with pick-up trucks. That afternoon, only a mile beyond the hill, they had put 20,000 miniature American flags on the Union dead in the battlefield for Memorial Day, and the bar talk was vivid on this and other things. Dozens of couples in all modes of dress gyrated on the dance floor to Willie Nelson tunes, and the unprepossessing interior echoed with wild greetings and indigenous hosannas. There was a pride in this place that I knew in my ancestral soul, a pride not to be unduly tampered with, and if you had had the mettle to ask one of those people if the South still existed on that night, he would have stared you up and down and replied: "Who you, boy?"
I know a black South African student whom the Soviets courted at the University of Moscow before he decided to take a fellowship here. I enjoy watching the South through his eyes. "When I first came, I was afraid I'd made a big mistake," he says. "But the South grows on you. It seems so removed, but it's vividly real. I'll miss it when I go home. I don't understand why your national media wants a uniform U.S.A."
Nor, for that matter, do I. But I can testify to the hostility and ambivalence toward the South that still exists in many areas of the nation. Is it the lingering fear of differentness? I testify also to my own self-ironies, for when I dwelled in the North I felt more Southern than I ever had before; back home again to stay, I feel more American.
Perhaps in the end it is the old, inherent, devil-may-care instinct of the South that remains in the most abundance and will sustain the South in its uncertain future. The reckless gambler's instinct that fought and lost that war. Snake Stabler calling a bootleg play on fourth down, a Texas wildcatter putting his stakes on the one big strike, a black mother working 16 hours a day to educate her children, a genteel matron borrowing from the banker to send her daughter to a university sorority so she can marry well. It is gambling with the heart, it is a glass menagerie, it is something that won't let go.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999. Reprinted here by permission of JoAnne Prichard Morris.