“And somewhere, waiting for its birth, /
The shaft is in the stone.”
Searching for the “Southern quality” once identified by Marshall McLuhan can be an absorbing and rewarding quest. After all, the South is a vast and varied region, one that has, as things go in this country, a lot of history and a brace of interlocking cultures. But even though the South is there, you still have to search for it: so many interstate highways. Chicken Lickin’s, Honda factories. West German pharmaceutical plants, and transplanted Yankees get in the way. When you finally do run into an authentic item or personification of Southern culture, you would know it in the dark. Some months ago I was sitting with some company in the reconstituted basement of an antebellum mansion (complete with its original boxwoods and crepe myrtles, with a sword hanging in the hall upstairs), listening to a 90-year-old lady explain just exactly why Flannery O’Connor was a spoiled child, a malevolent person, a literary fraud, and a purveyor of ugliness. The lady spoke from personal familiarity and was proud she had slammed Wise Blood shut on page 5 back in 1952. She had no intention of ever opening it again!
The worse, the better. Feeling a bit like Quentin Compson listening to Miss Rosa, I was glad there were witnesses to confirm the occasion. But of course there are other ways of exploring or identifying Southern culture, and I don’t necessarily mean reading Lewis Grizzard or getting on the outside of real biscuits and serious ham or viewing Ernest Goes to Camp or consulting Ernest Matthew MicMer’s White Trash Cooking. But I do mean reading some recent serious studies of the South, such as Jack Temple Kirby’s Rural Worlds Lost: The American South 1920-1960.
Professor Kirby relates a story that every Southerner who didn’t (or even did) fall off a turnip truck knows something about. His big book is a study of modernization, rural industrialization, displacement and migration, in short, of a transmogrification of a culture:
But all the while most of the local folk had also clung to traditional securities—the country home, the little farm, the garden and animals—even as they ventured out to mine and mill. Keeping and using the land and domesticated beasts were prudent in an uncertain world, as well as very old habits. Then during the early 1960’s something very quiet and profound happened. It became apparent . . . that mining families and even farmers had abandoned their gardens, hen houses and pigpens. Chain grocery stores had arrived and won acceptance. Cash flowed, especially from the mines; hard times seemed remote. So village and country folk at last gave up their old culture of living at home in favor of living out of bags. The phenomenon of the pickup truck parked outside the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, now so common it provokes little comment, had materialized.
But in spite of an abundance of statistics, information, and distinctions, what we don’t find much of in Rural Worlds Lost is a sense of—loss. Indeed, Professor Kirby’s book puts me in mind of 1930’s dustbowl photos and of movies like I Was a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang. The picture he draws of extended misery is an academic symphony of ideological cliches, hackneyed images that lead us to wonder: My goodness, how did those people survive!
Kirby’s portrait of a South he carefully varies winds up as an informed and thoughtful rehash of Popular Front ideology. After you get through with all those vicious landowners, hookworm and pellagra-ridden white trash, shiftless rednecks, long-suffering blacks, battered wives, laboring children, and abused animals, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Clearly, Southerners desperately and simply needed the TVA, government intervention, the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union (heavily emphasized), the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America—there was no South at all, except as a slum project for idealistic reformers like Alger Hiss and Carey McWilliams. It’s at this point that we begin to see Kirby’s best pages, as the ones on mule flatulence.
So what, after all, was lost? The man on the street could tell you, but Kirby can’t.
One is at a loss to discover, then, a southern folk who shared some broad sense of history, class consciousness, cultural cohesion, or mission. To be sure some segments of the region’s rural population did—most notably organized coal miners and members of radical tenant farmer organizations. Most southerners might best be described, however, as less a folk than a folkmash: this is an excellent Yiddish term which means (in Irving Howe’s explanation) that people “responded more to the urgencies of their experience than to any fixed idea”; there was “no ‘principled’ reason” behind their actions.
Does this mean that the oblique gain of a Yiddishism easily makes up for the loss of nothing?
In such a context, Kirby’s predictably grudging recognition of William Alexander Percy leads to the trashing of a class: “Percy’s class made a mockery of the term gentleman, which they loved so well, and discredited themselves before the class and the race they pretended to protect. Posing as premodern aristocrats, they lost credibility long before their fragmented plantations were depopulated and enclosed.” Obviously anyone Southern and white who has an idea not on the approved agenda is “an intellectual interventionist,” or worse. Kirby’s odd digression on John Powell leads to an obtuse dismissal of the Vanderbilt Agrarians as “eccentric reactionaries who condemned the city and factory and ignorantly celebrated an idyllic rural tradition.”
Anyone anticipating an account of “rural worlds lost” will be disappointed by Kirby’s rendering of women—those repressed, suppressed, oppressed victims obviously had everything to gain from birth control, abortion, divorce, and employment in factories. Freedom and familism and identity—shabby stuff—were “mercifully executed” in an exodus out of Gemeinschaft into Gesellschaft; and the “adaptation” or migration to the cash nexus is a “preeminent ‘solution”‘ to the social problem that was the South. The progressive Professor Kirby’s book—which should have been titled Urban Lifestyles Gained—will play well in centers of contemporary consciousness.
Jack Temple Kirby’s Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination doesn’t quite square with his Rural Worlds Lost, because in his study of popular culture, first published in 1978, he forgot to bash the Agrarians. In recognizing the merit of Frank Owsley’s Plain Folk of the Old South, he calls Owsley’s decriers, not Owsley, “romantic.”
What Media-Made Dixie could use is less confusion and more imagination. Kirby fumbles the easy ones too often. For example, the Robert Mitchum movie Thunder Road is cited in terms of stockcar racing, but that film’s dramatization of rural versus urban values and systems, its subtext of conflict and war, its celebration of the culture of moonshine, and its immense and recycled popularity in the South, where Ted Turner still reruns it, are not analyzed.
The treatment of “Dizzy” Dean as a “mellow” sportscaster is botched by a significant omission. Kirby remembers that “Old Diz” was attacked by schoolteachers in 1946 for his grammar and pronunciation but neglects to tell the story of how Dean was attacked in 1964 by the Congress for Racial Equality because he had a way of praising the “good people down in Mississippi.” Heaven forbid! A year later, Dizzy Dean, the cotton-pickin’ personification of the Southerners as a nice guy, was off the air for good. But Media-Made Dixie has nothing to say about this episode of Dixie being unmade by the media.
Even in expatiating on The Waltons, Kirby can’t get things straight. Earl Hamner Jr.’s remarks, cited by Kirby as showing “unmistakable conservative militance,” are in effect the answer to Rural Worlds Lost:
I learned that we had been “economically deprived”; that we lived in a “depressed area” and that we suffered from a disease called “familism.” Familism is “a type of social organization in which the family is considered more important than other social groups or the individual.” Unaware of the affliction, we thought we loved each other. Even today, with a highfalutin sociological name for it, I still prefer to call it love.
The problem of discrimination, of judgment, fatally compromises Media-Made Dixie, which discusses Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Roofs without any reference to the strongest statement ever made on the tangled sequence—Leslie Fiedler’s The Inadvertent Epic (1979). Kirby even has trouble with the movie Walking Tall: “It had most of the ugly, majoritarian sentiments of Richard Nixon’s ‘law and order’ reelection campaign that same year.”
Kirby ends with a celebration of the tenuous talents of Alice Walker, attributing to her a “skill with free verse” which we would be hard pressed to justify—unless, of course, her “Song” indeed were an apotheosis of Parnassian inspiration. I mean, should we say that the poet’s lips are touched with fire?
The world is full of colored people
People of Color Tra-la-la
The world is full of colored people
Tra-la-la-la-la . . .
If Alice Walker’s “Song” is “skilled,” then The Color Purple is even yet more ineffably and bodaciously skilled, you bet. In Media-Made Dixie, Jack Temple Kirby cites Jack Temple Kirby’s Rural Worlds Lost as a justification of Alice Walker’s profound insights:
Walker is old enough herself to know some sad truths about relations between the sexes as well as between the races. And my own research on the home lives of thousands of southern rural folks, black and white, during the first half of the twentieth century, bears her out. Women were enslaved by family and drudgery in homes and fields. Men, even sharecroppers, were relatively free to go about, to hunt and socialize, to carouse, to leave. Some men were loyal, kind, loving. Most were not, but over the generations showed more consideration to mules and dogs than to their women.
How do you spell relief? Though Mr. Kirby’s books make me long to abandon reading and take off for Tuscaloosa, I’m glad I tarried for John Shelton Reed’s Southern Folk, Plain & Fancy. Professor Reed’s relaxed little book may have gained some of its grace from its origin as a series of lectures. In any case, Reed’s observations and speculations are braced not only by his erudition but also by a sense of humor, a lack of contempt, and a gift of style.
Expanding on the theory of social types known from Orrin Klapp’s Heroes, Villains, and Fools (1962), and projecting from Daniel R. Hundley’s Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860), Reed essays a taxonomy of Southern social types, examples of which stretch from Ashley Wilkes to Boss Hogg. Professor Reed’s polite skepticism allows him to juggle deftly a parade of “problems”: Backwoods Hussy, Ernest T. Bass, Burt Reynolds, Billy Carter, and so on.
John Shelton Reed has, here as elsewhere, implied a future for the South, for Southern social types, for the survival of sectionalism even in the Global Village. I wonder if he’s right; and I hope he is. But I recently heard a seasoned observer of the Southern scene speculate about the future of the “good old boys.” He said, “They have their culture—their food, their John Deere caps, their pickups. But their trucks are made in Japan and those caps come from Taiwan.” Paul Hogan’s success in “Crocodile” Dundee was anomalous and perhaps portentous: the American public reached to the Antipodes for a retread of Gary Cooper, once so close to home.
I will surrender the books of Kirby (even Reed) in exchange for a parole to the reality one distorts and the other describes. I take with me the reassurance inspired by Reed’s quotation from a New York intellectual: “I can never encounter a white Southerner without feeling a murderousness pass between us. As though, whatever his personal instincts, his ethnic history predisposes him to regard castration and rape as his prerogatives.” This in turn will forever remind me of another quotation of Reed’s—from Junior Samples: “I don’t know nothin’, but I suspect a lot of things.”
[Rural Worlds Lost: The American South 1920-1960, by Jack Temple Kirby; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press]
[Southern Folk, Plain & Fancy: Native White Social Types, by John Shelton Reed (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press) $13.95]
[Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination (revised edition), by Jack Temple Kirby (Athens: University of Georgia Press) $12.95]