An article I read lately informs me that the Southern accent is endangered: the “post-vocalic r,” the absence of which has heretofore characterized most Southerners’ speech, is creeping in, especially in middle-class circles, and especially among women. Ordinarily I stand up for schoolmarms—a genuinely endangered species, there-but if they’re behind this revolting development, I say to hell with them.
I regret to say that my children, growing up in a university town, have picked up Yankee intonations from their schoolmates. (Ringworm, too, but that can be easily cured.) In desperation, I have taken to watching the network news in the hope that Strom Thurmond or Fritz Hollings will come on and say something. It has become a rare delight to hear those fellows, utterly without regard to what they are saying.
But lately I’ve noticed something almost as distressing—convergence from the other side. Peter Jennings, by far the least obnoxious of the major network anchormen (“talking hair dos,” somebody called them), has taken up the Southern habit of accent ing first syllables. The other night he said both ree-search meaning inquiry, and add-ult, meaning grown-up. It seems to be catching, too. The next night, one of the ABC reporters said fie-nance, meaning to pay for.
Now Southerners, especially those of us from the uplands, have been saying per-fume and cig-arette and ho-tel (and some of us even po-lice and mo-lasses) from time immemorial. What I want to know is, where do these guys get off stealing our language?
Dammit, bring the spoons back, too.
Speaking of television, a North Carolina state legislator introduced a bill last summer to ban the sale of TV Guide in the Tar Heel state if the magazine did not apologize for insulting the sweet potato in one of its advertisements. The honorable gentle man pointed out that a town in his district, Tuber—er, Tabor City—has an annual yam festival, whereas no body has a TV Guide festival. (Listen, it keeps them out of trouble.)
Those of us who are tracking the decline of Western civilization take our indicators where we find them. Fifteen years ago my students made mistakes when they tried to use fancy words. One, for instance, trying to make the debatable point that the South’s early settlers were of distinguished lineage, blathered on about the “gynecology of the Southern stock” Another wrote that evangelical churches are “the bullworks of Southern culture.” In these postliterate days, however, I encounter simpler confusions. Recently, for example, one of our students advertised on our bulletin board for a “mail room-mate.” (Something like a pen pal?)
Meanwhile, the professoriate pursues its own brand of illiteracy. A special session at the 1986 convention of the Modern Language Association “aims at reunderstanding postmodern pedagogical practices as they produce and disseminate literary and cultural studies under the pressure of such new interrogations as literacy studies; the critique of institutions; and deconstructive, Marxist, feminist, reader response, and other- interpretive inquiries.” (Got it?) Among the papers to be read are “The Problematics of Interdisciplinarity in Feminist Studies” and “Canonicity and Theory: Toward a Poststructuralist Pedagogy.” (I must say that, as a sociologist, I get a certain grim pleasure from the spectacle of English professors writing this way.)
The announcement of the session noted that Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, coauthor of a third paper, “is not affiliated with the MLA and does not situate himself in the discourse of its pro grams.” Smart man.
Finally, what I know you have all been waiting for: the results of last July’s “Poetic Gems” contest, in which readers were invited to submit examples of lame verse by well-known poets. The contest elicited some truly dreadful entries, although none of them struck the judge (your servant) as awful in quite the same bathetic way as the work of William McGonagall or J. Gordon Coogler, who were to serve as models. The winner is Walter H. Bishop of Atlanta, for this, from Byron’s “Song to the Suliotes”:
Up to battle! Sons of Suli
Up, and do your duty duly!
There the wall-and there the
Bouwah! Bouwah! Suliotes,
There is booty-there is Beauty,
Up my boys and do your duty.
Shake your booty, Mr. Bishop: Your prize is a well-thumbed copy (my own) of McGonagall.
Runner-up is Fred Butzen of Chicago, who submitted the entire text of Browning’s “Why I Am a Liberal.” Look it up: It is every bit as sappy as it sounds. A curious fact, for the record: Mr. Butzen was the only non-Southerner who entered the contest. Is he the only non-Southerner who reads this sort of verse? Or is he the only one who reads this column?
In any case, Mr. Butzen avers that Chicagoans do not have to yield to Southerners when it comes to ø this stuff. He places in evidence the work of Alderman John J. “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, author of “Ode to a Bath Tub”; “Why Did They Build the Lovely Lake So Close to the Horrible Shore?”; “They’re Tearing Up Clark Street Again”; “She Sleeps by the Side of the Drainage Canal”; and many other works. “Like Wallace Stevens,” Mr. Butzen writes, “Bathhouse John had to devote most of his time to his career—in his case, political corruption—but surely his shade has earned the right to enjoy the company of Coogler and other immortals.” Surely, indeed, as this sample of his verse attests:
To a Hod Carrier
‘Tis not a ladder of fame he climbs,
This rugged man of bricks and mortar;
The mason gets six for laying the bricks
While the hod carrier gets but two and a quarter.
Two other readers deserve, ah, Honorable Mention, although their entries didn’t exactly meet the criteria.
Laurie L. Hibbett of Nashville sent a specimen of her own original verse (as well as several entries from her Grandmother Chandlee’s 1860 edition of Longfellow which were, Lord knows, pretty bad). Apparently I was wrong when I wrote that Coogleresque verse can’t be written on purpose. She did it, thus:
In 1865 we tried to forget the
But the Reconstruction laws
imposed were dirty as a pheasant nest.
Anarchy must answer for many crimes-not least some poems from The Illustrious Life of William McKinley: Our Martyred President, sent in by Byron Boyd of Savannah. The book’s editor observes that many of these samples from the spontaneous out pouring of folk verse evoked by Mc Kinley’s death express “the feeling that by too indulgent toleration of the infamous doctrines whose disciples slew the good President the nation has fallen into disgrace and incurred a stain upon its honor which must be effaced.” Refreshing.
Mr. Boyd’s entry started me wondering why there was no comparable effluence when John Kennedy was assassinated-and I suddenly realized that there was. Indeed, my state legislator at the time, the Honorable R. L. “Bobby” Peters of Kingsport, Tennessee, not only wrote something called “A Sunny Day in Dallas,” but set it to music, and recorded it, too. The tradition of McGonagall and Coogler (and, yes, of Coughlin) goes on-where else but in country music?