In the aftermath of a conference not long ago, a dozen of us spent a night in downtown Little Rock. (No, this wasn’t the Economic Summit. It was a gathering of poets, novelists, and essayists to discuss Southern autobiography, and the talk was a whole lot better.) All in all, I’m a little more cheerful now about having an Arkansas politician running the Big Show. Despite some accretions of yuppiedom (too many brasseries and bistros to suit me) Little Rock is still a pleasantly funky Southern state capital.

We stayed at a hotel next door to the Old State House, familiar to television viewers as the scene of Clinton’s victory celebration, and I dropped in to browse in the museum it now houses. In the museum’s newsletter officials were busily pooh-poohing reports in the national press that the building is haunted by the ghost of a representative killed in an 1837 knife-fight. The knifing death is a matter of record, but a spokesman protested that “there is no evidence that we are any more prone to soulless, lifeless zombies than any other state agency.” The alleged sighting of the back of a man dressed in a frock coat, he said, was probably just “a very homely woman in a pantsuit.”

That evening we went for supper to Bill Clinton’s favorite restaurant, Doe’s Eat Place, and pigged out on steak, tamales, and fried shrimp, served family-style at long tables. The beer and wine flowed freely (reminding me of the etymology of the word “symposium”) and the conversation flowed freely, too. When it was my turn, I told one of my favorite stories, told to me by a Southern historian at a gathering very much like this one.

It seems there were these two Southern historians who had been to a convention, and after an evening of well-lubricated conversation they dropped into a truckstop for some coffee before retiring. One of them, a little guy who spoke with a lisp (that I undertook to imitate), was talking rather loudly, and after a while his friend noticed that the place had fallen silent. Several large, unkempt loungers were listening to him and snickering to each other. They started to make rude remarks, less and less sotto voce, which the speaker didn’t seem to notice, but his friend certainly did. “Let’s pay up and get out of here before there’s trouble,” he muttered. The little guy finally seemed to notice what was going on. To his friend’s dismay, he pushed back his chair, stood up, and glared at the locals. “I know what you’re thinking,” he told them. (“Oh, Lord,” his friend thought. “Here we go.”)

“You think we’re pretty sissified,” he lisped. “Well. If you’re so smart: When did Hank Williams die?” The silence was intense. “January first, nineteen fifty-three. Now shut your go–amn mouths.” They did.

That story always goes down well with an academic crowd—it shows what a knowledge of history can do for you—and the Little Rock group was no exception. As the laughter died down, however. Our Host—a historian lately diverted into administration—said quietly: “Cityfied.”

Say what?

“Cityfied.” He said, “You think we’re pretty cityfied, not sissyfied. I was there. That was me—the friend. The other guy was . . . ” and he gave the name. “You got the rest of it right, though.”

“Wait a minute,” said the Distinguished Male Poet, “I know him.” And the conversation was off in a different direction. Later, though, I shook Our Host’s hand. It’s not often one meets a living legend.

Wiping the grease from our chins, we left Doe’s. “You got anything like this in Chapel Hill?” the Celebrated Illustrator asked me. I had to confess that these days we lack the necessary concentration of unselfconscious carnivores to sustain a place like Doe’s. “We’ve got too many folks who are ready to lecture you on how many bushels of corn it takes to produce a pound of meat,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m waiting for them to start on how many bushels it takes for a quart of corn liquor.”

We took our symposium on to the bar of the old Capital Hotel, where we talked late into the night. At one point, the conversation turned to the subject of conversation—we had, you might say, a meta-conversation. The Expatriate Woman Writer kicked it off by saying how good it was to be back where people tell stories. (She teaches in the Midwest.) Someone quoted Roy Reed’s characterization of conversation in New York as “hurled stones,” compared to the Southern style, “moonshine passed slowly to all who care to lift the bottle.” We all nodded sagely and self-satisfiedly, and each took a literal sip.

The Famous Humorist complained gently about his current lady friend, a Yankee, who keeps interrupting his stories, trying to be helpful. I quoted Eudora Welty’s character. Miss Edna Earle Ponder, who feared that her dimwitted uncle would encounter some guest at her hotel who “would break in on a story with a set of questions, and wind it up with a list of what Uncle Daniel’s faults were: some Yankee.” Someone suggested that a nice multicultural gesture would be for Yankees to adopt the Native American “speaking stick,” passed from hand to hand. We giggled to think how frustrating that would be for our opposite numbers, professors and writers, in New York.

Yes, the Black New England Poet said, she loved being with other people who answer questions with anecdotes. It was her first time, really, in the South, with Southerners, and she felt as if she had stumbled into a family reunion—of a family she didn’t know she had. God bless her.

Later, back in Chapel Hill, I was reminded of her wonderful, generous, unexpected observation as I struggled to write a memorial of my friend Mel Bradford, dead too young at 58. The first time I met Mel was in a setting very much like the one I’ve been describing, a gathering of Southern scholars in someone’s hotel room. As it happens, Mel later wrote about that evening, and I wound up quoting him. The conversation, he said, involved “the rehearsal of common bonds antecedent to our professional identities, visible as much in the manner of our speaking as in its content—in idiom, in humor, in certain hyperbolic gestures, verging on swagger, panache, and familiarity.” He characterized “the round robin of the talk” as “intense and friendly, serious and droll, carried on as if all present feared that it would be some time before they would all be together again and were determined to hear and say it all.” All in all, a non-Southern visitor told Mel, it was like (yes) “a family reunion.”

Now, I went to graduate school in New York and I spent a year at Oxford (the one in England), and I can tell you that academic conversation in those parts is stimulating, witty, learned, vicious, all sorts of good things, but no one would ever confuse it with a family reunion. Fortunately, given my occupation, I don’t mind cut-and-thrust, but I’ll take the Southern mode for the long haul—even for eternity. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie,” Hank Williams Jr. sings, “I don’t want to go.” Pass the bottle.

* * *

On another subject: A while back I heard from some people who objected to my observing that those with a Confederate heritage shouldn’t be required to renounce it. Now, after writing that Georgians ought to think about removing the Confederate battle flag from their state flag, I’ve heard from a couple of dozen good folks who take exception to that conclusion. Consequently, I’m in a position to compare the two sorts of enthusiasts. (I could even lie and say the whole exercise was just an experiment to let me make that comparison, but I won’t.)

My major observation is that the traditionalists have better manners than the reformers. They avoided ad hominem arguments and guilt-by-association, and (this is interesting) they wrote to me personally instead of to my editor. Their tone was usually more one of sorrow than of anger, although that may just have been recognition of the fact that I’d pretty obviously like to be able to agree with them. On the other hand, I can say this for the reformers who complained: at least they understood what I was saying. The traditionalists wasted a lot of shot on arguments I never made and don’t accept.

Since they took the trouble to write, and since they were so nice about it, let me rephrase my argument in terms that they may find more agreeable. Try this: Have you ever considered that maybe modern Georgia doesn’t deserve the Confederate flag?

There. My last word on the subject. I promise.