We live in a day and a time when nearly every Christian norm once taken for granted has come under withering attack, whether the family, sexuality, hierarchy, or what have you. This was amply illustrated earlier in the year by Coach McGraw of Notre Dame and here recently by Megan Rapinoe of u. S. soccer fame. But we in the South do have a source of strength and guidance to help us navigate through this murky miasmal time, to remind us of what it means to be a normal human being: our literature. It has within it the sort of down-to-earth spirit that is necessary to help us live good lives in a world that has lost its moorings.
One such book from the Southern literary canon is the novel Silverwood: A Book of Memories by Mrs Margaret Junkin Preston (1820-97). Even in its opening pages, we find a very important means of keeping our wits about us: holding on to our connections with the past. The South is not trying to create a utopia based on new principles uncovered in theoretical speculation. Rather, she has always tried to remain faithful to the old ways of her ancestors, to carry them over and adapt them here in her new homeland in North America as best she can. Speaking about a painting in the house to her son Lawrence, Mrs Irvine, the matriarch of the story whose husband had died some years before, gives voice to this, saying,
“ . . . It was always full of interest for me, principally, perhaps, from home associations. One of the earliest memories of my childhood is, being held up before it by my father, while he told me the sad story it delineates, with all the touches of pathos which Chaucer introduces into his version of it. I can recall even yet," continued Mrs. Irvine, musingly, “the very tones in which he used to recite some of the lines:
--'Father, why do ye weep?
Is there no morsel bread that ye do keep?
I am so hungry that I cannot sleep!'
As I grew older, I was, perhaps, more interested in it from the fact that it used to hang on the wall in the old ancestral home of our family, on the southern border of Scotland. Your great grandfather, ‘the Laird of Newton,' as he was called, looked on that picture many a time as you do now, no doubt; so that the associations it furnishes, make me prize it more than its own intrinsic merit as a work of art. . . .”
--Silverwood, Derby & Jackson, New York, 1856, pgs. 10-11, available online
Developing an identity fixed in the history of one’s forefathers is a guard against the anxiety and despair caused by a lack of roots in anything other than the shallow, toxic, never-settled culture of Modernity.
One of the virtues that grew out of this veneration of the past in Dixie was the centrality of the family in her life, and the great affection of the members for one another - in particular, the love of sons for mothers, part of the code of chivalry held dear by Southrons. Mrs Preston illustrates:
A laughing group entering the parlor, interrupted the conversation. Josepha, a child not much over ten, installed herself upon her brother's knee; Eunice, the next older sister, couched herself upon the rug, and took the head of the little grey-hound into her lap; Zilpha sat on a low seat beside her mother: and to the cheerful voices that floated through the twilight room, the music, tender and soft, which Edith's fingers awakened, formed a subdued accompaniment, as she played and listened.
. . .
There was something very beautiful in his [Lawrence’s] manner towards his mother. He loved to choose his seat near her; he addressed to her the most of his conversation; he anticipated her minute wants,—the stool for her feet,—the cushion for her head,—the books she liked best near her,—the first flower of Spring,—the first tinged leaf of Autumn: there was no limit to the unobtrusive manifestations of his thoughtful love. He never overlooked her presence in a room; and many a time would he leave the group of interested talkers, if he chanced to observe her sitting apart, and address himself to her entertainment. His attentions were more than the dictates of filial devotion,—more than the simple homage of graceful youth to riper age. Had she been a young beauty, whose fascinations had enthralled him, there could not have been a more delicate mingling of what might be termed the chivalry of the heart with the tenderness of his love. The language of look and action was,—"others may do much for me,—but no suffering in my behalf,—no ministrations,— no devotedness, can be like a mother's!" And as he now sat with his arm over the back of her chair, talking with her of his plans and prospects, and the eyes of each strayed to the circle about the table, animatedly discussing what particular thing they would like best to have brought them from abroad,—the gaze of the mother and son was simultaneously raised to the grim canvas on the wall, with an inward ''thank God," that, as yet, the home-picture was shadowless.
--pgs. 14, 16-7
Yet shadows do come for the family, some very dark ones in fact, but those events serve to bring out one of the main themes in the story, which is also another one of those Southern virtues that can help us much in life: a deep trust in God’s providence to direct our lives to good ends, no matter how bad the present looks. A conversation between Edith and Dr Dubois brings this theme into the open for the reader at one point:
. . .
The rest is at https://www.reckonin.com/walt-garlington/silverwood-the-south-and-whats-normal-anyway .
Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!
Anathema to the Union!