A joke going around down here asks why Southern women don’t like group sex. The answer: too many thank-you notes. You know of course that I wouldn’t besmirch the pages of a family magazine with such smut if it didn’t speak directly to this month’s topic. (No, not group sex. This isn’t the Penthouse Forum, for crying out loud.) I want to talk about regional differences in manners: in particular, I want to look at the market value of Southern gentility, and say a few words about how criticism is understood in the South and elsewhere.
Southern expatriates have always traded on the region’s stereotypically courtly style, but the exchange value of that currency probably peaked during the Gilded Age. So I conclude at least from William Stadiem’s recently remaindered book, A Class By Themselves. That one of Stadiem’s earlier books was Marilyn Monroe Confidential may suggest that he’s not really the man to write the Southern Our Crowd that his subject calls for, but nevertheless I’m in his debt for introducing me to a fascinating little creep named Ward McAllister, the self-styled “Autocrat of Drawing Rooms.” McAllister, from Savannah, became the social arbiter of post-Civil War New York despite—in fact, partly because of—remaining conspicuously a Southern gentleman.
McAllister didn’t disguise his Southern origins; rather, he played them for all they were worth. In this, he was an early example of the sort of Southern expatriate for whom the advantages of being Southern outweigh the disadvantages.
McAllister’s affection for his native region didn’t extend to fighting for it. He prudently sat out the Civil War in Newport and Delmonico’s, and his memoir, Society as I Have Found It, barely mentions the war. (Readers of the copy in my university’s library have graced his lengthy account of a wartime costume party with rude comments in the margins.) But Stadiem says McAllister really did like the South—indeed, that he was “enraptured” by it—and suggests that this was because “McAllister was inordinately fond of himself and all that he represented.”
Be that as it may, McAllister worked hard to establish a Southern presence in New York high society. He enjoyed the patronage of Mrs. Astor, whom he called his “Mystic Rose,” and his famous list was “The 400” because that was the size of her ballroom. Southerners were on that list in good numbers, and New Yorkers’ stereotypes helped put some of them there. A presumption of gentility attached itself—still does—to presentable Southerners, overcoming in some cases backgrounds that wouldn’t have withstood close scrutiny. As observers from William Faulkner to Billy Carter have remarked, Yankees can be surprisingly gullible where Southerners are concerned.
Consider, for example, McAllister’s friend Richard T. Wilson. A former traveling salesman from Loudon, Tennessee, Wilson made a shady wartime fortune selling purloined Confederate supplies in Europe. But he was a tall, handsome man with elegant manners, and McAllister presented him to New York society with such success that his daughters married a Goelet millionaire, a Vanderbilt, and “Mungo” Herbert, brother of the Earl of Pembroke, while his son married Carrie Astor, daughter of the Mystic Rose herself.
The “marrying Wilsons” are an extreme case, but the point is that some Southerners have done well by acting the way Northerners expect Southern gentry to act. Ordinary Southern manners have made many middle-class Southern girls and boys into putative ladies and gentlemen once they’ve left the South.
Sometimes Southern gentry are allowed to be impolite, too; a certain hauteur is almost expected. Another story, this one about the English branch of the Astors: Lady Astor (the former Nancy Langhorne of Charlottesville) disapproved of the fast set around King Edward VII. It’s said she once declined to play cards with him, saying she couldn’t tell the difference between a king and a knave. Her friend A.L. Rowse explains that since she began her life as a Virginia belle she never felt inferior to anybody. Certainly Nancy Astor was proud of her origins. Rowse writes that she was “an unreconstructed Southerner, a Virginian first and last.” When she entertained Virginia soldiers at Cliveden during World War II, she always told them, “When you get drunk and disorderly, tell people that you are from New York.” She died at age 85, in 1964, and was buried with a Confederate flag in her hands.
Like Richard Wilson, Nancy Astor got away with a lot, in part because she was a Southerner and acted the way people expect Southerners to act. If you’re not Lady Astor or one of The 400, though, acting out somebody else’s idea of what Southerners are all about can be a risky business. You risk your dignity and self-respect, in the first place; there can be an element of Samboism in all this. In the second place, you risk becoming something of a house Southerner, subject to dismissal when folks don’t find the act amusing anymore.
Ward McAllister found that out the hard way. His memoir, published in 1890, turned out to be his undoing. His chronicle of dinners, cotillions, and fancy-dress balls was seen in some quarters as a betrayal, a portrait of rich Yankees as insecure tradesmen in need of Southern (specifically, McAllister’s) guidance. Mrs. Astor abandoned him, and Stuyvesant Fish announced that “McAllister is a discharged servant. That is all.”
The Astors and Fishes were wrong about McAllister. He was a silly, vain, self-absorbed little man—sort of a Truman Capote, a proto-Capote, without the talent. But his book wasn’t malicious: he wasn’t smart enough for that. He didn’t mean to offend his rich and powerful friends; he just miscalculated. Capote may have done the same with Answered Prayers.
It’s hard to say, though. Some Southern expatriates—and Capote may have been one—have quite consciously set out to trash the Northern society they saw around them. It is usually pretty tiresome, to be sure, when Southerners go on about how awful the North is. The impulse has produced some fine country music. though, and when someone with real gifts of observation and expression succumbs to it, the results can be wonderfully pungent social criticism. And a surprisingly large number of talented Southerners have had that response to living in the North.
Consider the Vanderbilt Agrarians, for example, the authors of I’ll Take My Stand, a slashing attack on industrial—that is, Yankee—society, published in 1930.1 believe that all 12 of them had lived outside the South before they came to write that book, and a number of them still did as the book was being written. For these men, living outside the South had inflamed their Southernness. Their Southernbred distaste for Northern ways gave them their theme, and their considerable literary talent means the book is still worth reading.
Funny thing: within a few years, several of the Agrarians had teaching jobs in the North—pretty good ones, too. Can’t Yankees read?
Consider the similar, more recent, case of Tom Wolfe (the New Journalist, not the Tar Heel novelist). Here is a studiedly Southern boy, a graduate of Washington and Lee, wearing the custom-tailored white suits of a real Dixie dandy. This pose, of course, disguises a brilliant writer and an acute social critic, with both the literary style and the criticism rooted in traditions that Southerners, at least, ought to recognize as Southern. The writing is strikingly innovative—but in an ornamented, particularistic way that reminds me of James Agee, that premature New Journalist from Knoxville. The criticism is profoundly conservative.
Look at what Wolfe does: he savages nouveaux riches social climbers, shallow left-wing trendinistas, fast-track yuppies. Third World rip-off artists, and other denizens of modern New York and California. Who is presented as admirable? Well, a North Carolina stock-car racer and a West Virginia test pilot, for starters—the “last American hero” and exemplar of “the right stuff”,” respectively.
And Wolfe still gets invited to the right parties. What’s going on here? George Garrett has written about this in his contribution to a collection of essays called Why the South Will Survive (whose list of contributors largely recapitulates the masthead of Chronicles, by the way). The answer, Garrett suggests, lies in those regional differences in manners I mentioned earlier. Southern critics of the North like Wolfe and the Agrarians and, in their own ways, Truman Capote and James Dickey, have exploited those differences. The element of real hostility in their criticism goes largely unrecognized outside the South, because criticism is understood differently there.
Southerners generally regard outsiders’ criticism as offensive, never mind whether it’s fair or not. Unless guests mean to be offensive, they don’t criticize their hosts. It’s bad manners, and Garrett observes that for Southerners “A violation of the code of manners [can mean] the same thing as a fist in the face or a blade between the ribs.” So when Southerners outside the South criticize what they see around them, they are, by their own lights,’ being very rude indeed—and on purpose. As somebody once observed. Southerners will be polite until they are angry enough to kill you. Thus, as Garrett puts it, by Southern standards, “Wolfe’s satirical assault on both the intellectual hypocrisy and the bad manners of the New York scene . . . is just about as violent an attack as he could make, short of tossing around a case of fragmentation grenades.”
But Northerners simply don’t seem to understand that their Southern critics are shooting to kill. They admire Wolfe’s style. Capote’s wit, the Agrarians’ vision—and don’t recognize that these men don’t like them very much. Garrett implies that if the “Northern establishment” ever figures that out, these men will wind up like poor, silly Ward McAllister—discharged servants. (Garrett’s own novel, Poison Pen, makes the point much harder to miss—but he published it only after moving back to the South from Michigan and, whether by design or not, it is damned hard to get hold of a copy. Don’t wait for the paperback.)
I’m not sure Garrett is entirely right, though. The “Northern establishment” he’s talking about is basically the New York literary crowd, and I don’t think he entirely understands their code of manners. Unlike ours, it rewards criticism, even grotesquely unfair criticism, provided it’s sufficiently clever or amusing. That’s why New Yorkers fight all the time: they enjoy it, and they’re not really in earnest about it.
Some survey data are to the point. When asked some time back what the best American state was, over 90 percent of native North Carolinians picked North Carolina, and other Southerners were almost as enthusiastic about their states. Less than half of the residents of New York and Massachusetts said they were living in the best state. Think about that. North Carolina really is the best American state, of course, and other Southern states are almost as good. I wouldn’t want to deny that. But they’re not that much better than New York and New England.
The explanation of these findings surely lies at least partly in regional differences in manners. Southerners expect each other to show state loyalty and pride. Yankees expect each other to complain—and they don’t seem to mind if Southerners complain, too, so long as they do it eloquently or amusingly. In other words, as long as Southern expatriates criticize Northern society well, they can be surprisingly successful. Right many talented Southerners have been moved by living in the North to do exactly that, and the literature of American social criticism is richer for it.