Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Offsite Post: ‘Rebuilding from the Rubble’

‘ . . . you know only
A heap of broken images . . .’
--T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I.  Destruction

The description of the South as a land that has fallen into desolation is familiar to many.  Sometimes this historical reality is presented to us in unfamiliar ways, however.  For instance, in his short story ‘Jericho, Jericho, Jericho’, originally published in 1936, Andrew Lytle uses the allegory of a dying woman to explain what has happened to the South and why. 

Kate McCowan, the widow of a man known in the story only as the General and the owner of a plantation named Long Gourd, is on her death bed.  She is the personification of the Old South, both slowly making their way to the grave.  But before they get there, they are desperate to impart to the rising generations the good traditions they have inherited from their ancestors.  Ms Kate’s grandson Dick represents the young Southerners, the vessels the Old South is trying to prepare to receive the treasures of the past:

Soon now she would be all water, water and dust, lying in the burying ground between the cedar—and fire.  She could smell her soul burning and see it.  What a fire it would make below, dripping with sin, like a rag soaked in kerosene.  But she had known what she was doing.  And here was Long Gourd, all its fields intact, ready to be handed on, in better shape than when she took it over.  Yes, she had known what she was doing.  How long, she wondered, would his spirit hold up under the trials of planting, of cultivating, and of the gathering time, year in and year out—how would he hold up before so many springs and so many autumns.  The thought of him giving orders, riding over the place, or rocking on the piazza, and a great pain would pin here heart to her backbone.  She wanted him by her to train—there was so much for him to know:  how the creek field was cold and must be planted late, and where the orchards would best hold their fruit, and where the frosts crept soonest—that now could never be (Stories: Alchemy and Others, Sewanee, Tenn., Univ. of the South, 1984, p. 6). 

Mr Lytle gives us in this passage a more than subtle hint that some things had gone wrong in Southern life that would have to be answered for.  We know that they are not the world-breaking evils that many on the Right and Left make them out to be.  Nevertheless, we must be forthright in acknowledging them (and there are few nowadays who do not), lest the South endure more hardships than she already has. 

In Mr Lytle’s view some of these evils include plantations that had become too big, and sometimes by unjust methods:

Four thousand acres of the richest land in the valley he would sell and squander . . . before the footboard the specter of an old sin rose up to mock her.  How she had struggled to get this land and keep it together—through the War, the Reconstruction, and the pleasanter after days.  For eighty-seven years she had suffered and slept and planned and rested and had pleasure in this valley, seventy of it, almost a turning century, on this place; and now that she must leave it . . .

The things she had done to keep it together.  No.  The one thing . . .

 . . .

“My husband won’t squander my property.  You just want it for yourself.”

She cut through the scream with the sharp edge of her scorn:  “What about that weakling’s farm in Madison?  Who pays the taxes now?”

The girl had no answer to that.  Desperate, she faced the lawyer:  “Is there no way, sir, I can get my land from the clutches of this unnatural woman?”

The man coughed; the red rim of his eyes watered with embarrassment.  “I’m afraid,” he cleared his throat, “you say you can’t raise the money . . . I’m afraid—”

That trapped look as the girl turned away.  It had come back to her, now trapped in her bed.  As a swoon spreads, she felt the desperate terror of weakness, more desperate where there has been strength.  Did the girl see right?  Had she stolen the land because she wanted it? (pgs. 12-3)

Also, the casualness with which punishment was meted out to the servants:

Well, sir, that morning Della was late.  Ma had had to send for her twice, and she come in looken like the hornets stung her.  She fluffed down to her sewen and went to work in a sullen way, her lip stuck out so far it looked swole.  . . .

Directly ma said, “Della, take out that seam and do it over again.”

“Take it out yourself, if it don’t suit,” she flounced back.

In a second pa was on his feet:  “Woman, lay down that sewen and come with me.”

 . . .

“I have whipped Della and sent her to the field for six months.  If at the end of that time she has learned not to forget her manners, she may take up again her duties here.  In the meantime, so you will not want, I’ve sent for P’niny.  If you find her too old or in any way unsuitable, you may take your choice of the young girls” (‘Mr. MacGregor’, ibid., pgs. 58-9).

Because of these distortions in her life, the Southern plantation system had to be held together by unnatural means, which ended eventually in catastrophe.  Mr Lytle uses the following images to illustrate.  Ms McCowan is speaking:

“Old Mrs. Penter Matchem had two daughters with just such waists, but ’twarnt natural.  She would tie their corset strings to the bed posts and whip’m out with a buggy whip.  The poor girls never drew a hearty breath.  Just to please that old woman’s vanity.  She got paid in kind.  It did something to Eliza’s bowels and she died before she was twenty.  The other one never had any children.  She used to whip’m out until they cried.  I never liked that woman.  She thought a whip could do anything” (‘Jericho’, p. 10).

As with Mrs Matchem, so with the Old South:  She used the whip and other constraints to keep the plantation system afloat, but as was said above, it did not bring about a good end.  Indeed, like Ms McCowan, the time for repentance and the time for rightly teaching and forming the next generations ran out:

She had plenty to say, but her tongue had somehow got glued to her lips.  Truly it was now too late.  Her will left her.  Life withdrawing gathered like a frosty dew on her skin.  The last breath blew gently past her nose.  The dusty nostrils tingled.  She felt a great sneeze coming.  There was a roaring; the wind blew through her head once, and a great cotton field bent before it, growing and spreading, the bolls swelling as big as cotton sacks and bursting white as thunder-heads.  From a distance, out of the far end of the field, under a sky so blue that it was painful-bright, voices came singing, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho—Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls come a-tumbling down (p. 18).

Truly the South did fight in the War, but she fell just as Jericho did.  And now the young generations want to abandon the settled, orderly agrarian ethos of their forefathers for city-life, for its fads and trends.  Ms McCowan says at one point before her death to her grandson Dick about his fiancée:

“She’ll wrinkle up on you, Son; and the only wrinkles land gets can be smoothed out by the harrow.  And she looks sort of puny to me, Son.  She’s powerful small in the waist and walks about like she had worms.”

“Gee, Mammy, you’re not jealous are you?  That waist is in style” (p. 10).

Just a little later, when discussing a sick cousin who stays at the plantation house, Dick says to his grandmother,

“I was wondering about Cousin George . . . If I could get somebody to keep him.  You see, it will be difficult in the winters.  Eva will want to spend the winters in town . . .” (p. 11)

The New South has become a wretched a place, unrecognizable in many ways to the generations who came before it.  As with Dick and his cousin, there is little in the way of self-sacrificing love anymore, and as Miss Elizabeth Madox Roberts shows in her short story ‘The Haunted Palace’, even the Adamic vocation of naming and caring for creatures has been replaced with cruelty towards those living beings:

“Fannie Burt asked me what was the name of the sow or to name what kind or breed she was.  ‘Name?’ I says.  As if folks would name the food they eat!”

Hubert laughed at the thought of naming the food.  Names for the swine, either mother or species, gave him laughter.  To write with one’s hand the name of a sow in a book seemed useless labor.  Instead of giving her a name he fastened her into a closed pen and gave her all the food he could find.  When she was sufficiently fat he stuck her throat with a knife and prepared her body for his own eating (Not by Strange Gods, New York, Viking Press, 1941, pgs. 7-8).

The inhabitants of the New South do not understand and do not value the virtues of their ancestors.  This fills them with fear and anger when confronted by them, and they lash out in agony to destroy that which torments them.  Miss Roberts again illustrates with Jess, wife of Hubert, who is exploring the fine old plantation house they have come into possession of:

Tall white doors were opened into other great rooms and far back before her a stairway began.  She could not comprehend the stair.  It lifted, depending from the rail that spread upward like a great ribbon in the air.  . . .

When she had thus, in mind, ascended, her eyes closed and a faint sickness went over her, delight mingled with fear and hate.  She was afraid of being called upon to know this strange ribbon of ascent that began as a stair with rail and tread and went up into unbelievable heights, step after step.  She opened her eyes to look again, ready to reject the wonder as being past all belief and, therefore, having no reality.

“What place is this?” she asked, speaking in anger.  Her voice rang through the empty hall, angry words, her own, crying, “What place is this?”

 . . . What she could not bring to her use she wanted to destroy.  . . . Before her a long mirror was set into a wall.  In it were reflected the boughs of the trees outside against a crisscross of the window opposite.

She was confused after she had looked into the mirror, and she looked about hastily to find the door through which she had come.  It was a curious, beautiful, fearful place.  She wanted to destroy it.  . . . Turning her back on the place, she went quickly out of the doorway.

 . . . A sadness lay heavily upon her because she could not know what people might live in the house, what shapes of women and men might fit into the doorway.  She hated her sadness and she turned it into anger (pgs. 26-9).

Such are New South Southrons today, confused and angry as it regards their heritage.  And because of this, their longing, like that of Jess and Hubert, has become to defile this heritage:

On a cold day in January when his ewes were about to lamb, Hubert brought them into the large house, driving them up the stone steps at the west front, and he prepared to stable them in the rooms there.  . . .

“It was a good place to come to lamb the sheep,” she called to Hubert.  “I say, a good place.”  She had a delight in seeing that the necessities of lambing polluted the wide halls.  “A good place to lamb. . . .” (pgs. 29-30)

But all of these thoughts and actions merely serve to show how monstrous the New South has become:

All at once, looking up suddenly as she walked forward, she saw that an apparition was certainly moving there and that it was coming toward her.  It carried something in its upraised hand.  There was a dark covering over the head and shoulders that were sunk into the upper darkening gloom.  The whole body came forward as a dark thing illuminated by a light the creature carried low at the left side.  . . . It came forward slowly and became a threatening figure, a being holding a club and a light in its hands.  . . .

As she hurled forward with uplifted stick the other came forward toward her, lunging and threatening.  She herself moved faster.  The creature’s mouth was open to cry words but no sound came from it.

She dropped the lantern and flung herself upon the approaching figure, and she beat at the creature with her club while it beat at her with identical blows.  Herself and the creature were then one.  Anger continued, shared, and hurled against a crash of falling glass and plaster.  She and the creature had beaten at the mirror from opposite sides.

 . . . Jess stood back from the wreckage to try to understand it.  Then slowly she knew that she had broken the great mirror that hung on the rear wall of the room.  She took the lamp again into her hand and peered at the breakage on the floor and at the fragments that hung, cracked and crazed, at the sides of the frame.

“God’s own curse on you!”  She breathed her oath heavily, backing away from the dust that floated in the air (pgs. 32-3).

Decades beforehand, Miss Roberts has captured the spirit of the ‘woke’ social justice warriors roaming the college campuses and government buildings of today’s Southland who can think of nothing better to do with the physical cultural monuments of their past than wreck them.  But like the mirror does for Jess, such actions reveal the truth of their inner nature:  It is deformed and ugly, summoning with it the curse of God upon themselves.

II.  Rebuilding

But now that Dixie has come to her lowest point, it is possible for her to begin to think about renewal and restoration.  We turn again to the short stories of Miss Roberts for this.  She points out several features of the Southern inheritance that must be maintained if Dixie’s culture is to remain alive.

The first of these we see in her short stories is singing.  Those who can sing the old songs of their fathers are whole people.  Patty in ‘I Love My Bonny Bride’ exemplifies this.  She is full of life; her nieces and nephews adore her; and her singing is filled with a strange power:

Then Allie asked Patty if she still knew a song about an old gray goose, and she sang one about an Aunt Rodey whose old gray goose was dead.  While she sang she looked first like Aunt Rodey who was full of grief and loss over the death of her favorite goose, and later looked like the good old gander who was weeping for the death of his favorite wife.  The gander came up into her face and looked out through beady eyes and a long, querulous, stiff bill.  Patty laughed and the gander went out of her face, and then she was Patty again, whose eyes were dark gray and bright and whose lips were pink (p. 65).

On the other hand, those who let radios and other gadgets sing songs for them are inhuman, like Jess and Hubert:

She did not sing about the house or the dooryard.  Singing came to her from the wooden box that was charged by a small battery.  She adjusted the needle of this to a near sending station and let the sound pour over the cabin.  Out of the abundant jargon that flowed from the box she did not learn, and before it she did not remember. . . .  (‘The Haunted Palace’, p. 9)

Singing, as Miss Roberts makes clear here, is a key to passing on traditions from one generation to the next.  Participation in other family rituals is important also, however.  In ‘The Betrothed’ we find Rhody and her grandmother taking part in the annual hog butchering in December:

But the work of preparing the food went forward, hurried now, for the cold might any day give way to a warm rain.  Rhody and the grandmother were asked to perform together a light part of the labor.  They were to search out the dainty bits, sweetbreads and other glands.  Two large tubs holding the entrails of the hogs stood outside, near the kitchen door.  They worked apart from the others, sitting together beside the tubs.  The grandmother would bring the small dainties out of the mass and hold them up so that Rhody might cut them free (p. 199).

Out of these traditions come insights difficult for others to perceive:

 . . . She tore the inner portions about in the tub and passed kinds to Rhody, who took away the dainty with her sharp knife.  She seemed to be hovering on the brink of some revelation.  . . .

 . . . She seemed to be approaching some matter, to be willing to devise relations between themselves and the hog.  . . .

 . . . She would try Rhody’s fortune with the entrails of the hog, she said.  . . . (pgs. 199-200)

 . . . “I’ll show you a fortune, your fortune.”  The old hands were slow in the offal, but they were quick to find.  “I’ll find Kirk for you, here in the tub.  See, here.  You’ll hear ’im sing and talk sweet right outen this tub.  I had my hand on ’im just a little while ago.  ‘I’ll show ’im to Rhody,’ I said to myself” (p. 202).

We find the same thing described in ‘I Love My Bonny Bride’:

“An ancient custom,” the uncle Tenny was saying.  “A home marriage.  Dishes of rice.  Sacred wheat.  Fecundity rites.  Use of fruits or grains, sprinkled over the newly wedded pair or around the nuptial bed.  Dangers apprehended.  The subjective forebodings often conceived in the form of evil agencies.  Demons, ghosts, black magic.  All of which gives rise to lucky and unlucky days.  Taboo” (p. 79).

Such rites may look silly to the overly rational mind of the Modern Age, but there is a good bit of wisdom to be gained if we look beyond the superstitious outer husks.  It is that wisdom that we lose by rejecting the old traditions of our forefathers. 

But by throwing away their ancient customs and wisdom, we are also breaking our bond with a larger community that transcends our own little sliver of time.  This is the result of a lack of trust in them.  Trust, Miss Roberts says, is essential for community.  She illustrates this in ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.  A maturing boy named Amos ‘Moss’ Beavers has alienated himself from his church and family by associating with some unsavory characters in the town.  Afraid that he is going to be punished for some of his misdeeds, he runs away.  But when the chance for repentance and trust comes again, he takes it:

 . . .


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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