In the Introduction to the first of these two volumes, Clyde Wilson allows, after a few paragraphs of justified complaint against the wholesale academic and political assault on Southern identity as well as Southern culture, that it was not always thus.  “Southerners were seen as different and perhaps a little quaint, but tolerated as Americans.”

Quite right, except that historically Southerners were more than tolerated.  As late as the 1960’s, when I was an adolescent in Minnesota, one learned that Lee and Stonewall Jackson ranked among the greatest Americans and that the Confederate soldier was far superior to the Yankee variety.  Proving the latter, which impressed even bookish boys who excelled studying history, was the fact that it took more than twice as many Billy Yanks to beat Johnny Reb—and four years to do it.

Since that teenage history maven was also enamored of literature, he knew that the South was then a literary powerhouse, in which dwelt, if not always physically but at least imaginatively, the best American novelist (Faulkner), the best American playwright (Williams), the best American short-story writer (Welty), and the most important clutch of American poets who stayed at home instead of absconding to Europe (the Fugitives).  And oh, yes, the best American film critic (Agee).  Southerners were also prominent in the forefront of younger American writers—McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, Styron.  Such was the state of the American literary firmament of his young lifetime.  So he—I—became fascinated by the South, not least because to be so gratified a contrarian streak inherited from my father’s father, whose relish for a good argument was a family legend.  (Yet that gentle, gentle man, my father, talked the old ranter out of his lifelong Socialist Party loyalty and into voting Republican—in 1936!)  I have never lost my interest in the South, though I’ve sometimes rued my advocacy for it after an equally stubborn friend’s anti-Southern prejudice has exasperated me to exhaustion.

Besides martial valor, what impressed me about the South were its historic cultivation of honor (despite its politicians’ frequent rascality; Earl Long stories made it all the way up the Mississippi) and its respect for history.  Way up north, honor was dismissed as overweening pride, and historical consciousness deemed a matter of personal taste best not brought up in company (much like religion nowadays).

Unfortunately, the rest—the latter half—of the 60’s happened to me, way wound unto way, and only a quarter-century later did my affinity for the South revive.  I discovered Chronicles, and in its pages from December 1993 to the present I first read most of the selections in this set.  That I hadn’t read Madison Smartt Bell’s talks with Andrew Lytle and George Garrett; nor Garrett’s two speeches here, one in each volume, both horned-in on by the hilarious scoundrel John Towne from Garrett’s novel Poison Pen (1986); nor any of the observations and analyses of Southern folkways (NASCAR races, competitive barbecue, wising-up Yankees, dreaming the dream that the South won) by John Shelton Reed, “the only real live sociologist in captivity who can write well and has a sense of humor,” says Wilson—that I hadn’t, I say, ensured Chronicles of the South an absolutely permanent place in my library and a thorough reading as well as rereading before setting digit to key to review it.

Chronicles of the South roundly confirms what made me esteem the South as a youth.  You can’t miss the insistence on regional, familial, and even personal honor that suffuses the contents.  The South was right about secession, Donald W. Livingston insists with historical and logical precision (“One Nation Divisible”).  Separate-but-equal was what fair-minded Southerners, black as well as white, wanted, William J. Watkins, Jr., maintains (“Plessy v. Ferguson—One Hundred Years Later”), and significant portions of the African-American citizenry lately seem to want it again.  Virtue, conceived as “a striving for republican ethics and personal honor,” and not material security, is the object of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as Clyde Wilson follows William Faulkner in asserting (“Ideology and Our Daily Bread”).  The Christianity of the antebellum South was the glue that held together the last unified society in North America, Fr. Alister Anderson holds (“A Southern Legacy: The Christian Sense of Place”), and to its model we must attend if we are ever to achieve “a Christian sense of place, . . . the only guarantee of a stable civilization.”

The honor asserted becomes personal in Thomas Fleming’s declaration of his love for Charleston (“Where the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers Meet . . . ”), his ardor for the first city of the South mingling with his confessions of young idiocy as a student arriviste there “some 45 years ago”—all to the reader’s delight.  Personal, too, is the honor Evetts Haley, Jr., upholds in his profile of his father, a great Texas rancher and historian (“J. Evetts Haley—Cowboy, Patriot”).  Communal as well as personal is Egon Richard Tausch’s redemption of his heritage, the Texas Germans whom he shows have been successively patriots of Texas, the Confederacy, and the Union.  Tausch’s other contribution (“Tom and Sally and Joe and Fawn)” defends nothing less than the national honor by repudiating—or, more precisely, by offering evidence that all but throws out of court—the recent DNA researchers’ contention that one of the South’s and the nation’s greatest intellectual heroes, Thomas Jefferson, fathered a slave woman’s child.

Notice that history is essential to all these assertions and defenses of the honorable and what is worthy of honor.  But then, to do honor is a major reason for studying and learning history, and those are activities akin to worship, through which we may descry God with us.

Gratifying my other youthful and continuing passion besides history, a great many of these pieces (particularly in Volume One, Garden of the Beaux Arts) are about writers and books.  Any habitual reader will revel in these and eagerly comb their references for previously unread treasure.  William Pratt’s and M.E. Bradford’s appreciations of Andrew Lytle and Bell’s conversation with him pique interest in this longest-lived of the Southern Agrarians who contributed to the landmark I’ll Take My Stand (1930).  Bradford’s absorbing essay on the poetry of Donald Davidson does as much for Lytle’s older colleague, and Davidson’s own “Lyric of Tradition,” which Chronicles published 21 years after its author’s passing, makes his achievement as critic of poetry as enticing a subject for further acquaintance as his poetry itself.  Bradford himself will become for many readers another must-read-more-of figure, both because of the elegance and precision of his writing in the essays in this collection and because of the attractiveness of his personality as sketched by Thomas Fleming at the end of “Southern Men, American Persons” in Volume Two, In Justice to So Fine a Country.  George Garrett is the remaining writer represented by both his own words and others’ about him in these pages; and because, on the evidence of the former, he is one of the most deeply funny writers in recent memory, he’ll be the one whose books will be sought out first by those first meeting him here.  Fred Chappell’s appreciation of Garrett helps his cause, too.

Several book reviews minister to hardcore readers.  J.O. Tate, who frequently turns the modest form into a stem-winder of cultural critique that makes you want to grab a torch, charge out there, and, by God, set things right, is in fine form rebutting a condescending book on Flannery O’Connor and as good or better on two biographies of one of the monsters bred by the Civil War, William Clarke Quan­trill.  (Alas, in passing, Tate does serious pop novelist W.R. Burnett wrong when he scores Little Caesar and High Sierra for “glorifying urban violence and outlawry”: ’tain’t so; just read ’em.)  Reviewing Remembering Who We Are (1985), the great historian-explicator of conservatism Russell Kirk exposes disingenuousness in none other than M.E. Bradford (he apotheosized Richard Weaver while conveniently overlooking Weaver’s approbation of Lincoln) even as he confirms what we sense from reading Bradford’s articles and Fleming’s tribute mentioned above, that Bradford was “humorous, patient, learned, and good-natured.”  Clyde Wilson on Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture (1988) more than doubles the itch to know book and thesis by advantageous placement directly after McWhiney’s own piece on just who the Old Southerners were.

More for book lovers comes in the memoirs of appreciation by famous conservative journalist (and excellent commentator on jazz) Ralph de Toledano for Conrad Aiken and James Branch Cabell, two of the South’s most distinctive literary artists in their day, now sadly neglected.  Fred Chappell, in “The Poet and the Plowman,” looks at the Southern Agrarian writers through the lens of Vergil, with an assist from Allen Tate, and thereby participates in the most important topical focus in Garden of the Beaux Arts.  James Everett Kibler’s “The Writer as Farmer” relates directly to Chappell’s entry, and other perspectives on agrarianism come from Thomas Fleming, Mark Royden Winchell, Mary Berry Smith, Katherine Dalton, and, most affectingly for this reader, Tom Landess.

Other sterling selections, such as John Shelton Reed’s acute and entertaining sociological forays, bring less historical and literary subjects within the collection’s ambit.  Jack Trotter profiles Charleston’s longtime representative in the State House, John Graham Altman III, whom you will wish was your elected representative, too.  Trotter also notes the “troubled marriage” of country music and the GOP, which justifies easy divorce if anything could.  Samuel Francis’s withering exposure of Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center and Clyde Wilson’s flaying of Southern Babbitts for falling over one another to invite the state capitalists of the Republican Party to rape long-established communities and impoverish the middle class introduce very grim matters indeed, which are offset somewhat by Don Anderson’s report on the revival of Jeffersonian self-rule by associations of the Southern poor.

There is yet more and, depending on one’s most particular interests and habits of mind, better: Aaron D. Wolf’s succinct explanation of why Bob Jones University’s revocation of its ban on interracial dating and marriage on campus was the Waterloo of Christian fundamentalist higher education; Katherine Dalton’s eloquent, limpid, and personal advisory speech (delivered to high schoolers!) on staying “Homegrown” and, if at all possible, close to home; John J. Duncan, Jr.’s “In Praise of Accents,” whose title is its most effective advertisement; Walker Percy’s delightfully discursive-seeming testimony for the novelist as physician; Patrick J. Buchanan’s admirable distillation of the case against Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War; Chilton Williamson, Jr.’s piquantly rounded assessment of Stonewall Jackson (in yet another nourishing book review); Michael Hill’s stirring defense of Southern “backwardness”; William Murchison on Southern cuisine.

Well.  The South is a large country, full of folk, and Chronicles of the South does not completely represent it.  In particular, such prominent and representative Southerners as Jimmy Carter and John Lewis, Bill Clinton and Marian Wright Edelman, Toni Morrison and Terrence McNally, are mentioned with jaundice, if at all.  And yet, as I forget who said of The Canterbury Tales (though I’ve long treasured the remark), here is God’s foison for all respecters and admirers of the enduring South.


[Chronicles of the South, edited by Clyde N. Wilson (Rockford, IL: Chronicles Press) Vol. 1: Garden of the Beaux Arts, 291 pp., $39.95, Vol. 2: In Justice to so Fine a Country, 289 pp., $39.95]