Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Dr. Percy's South

I have been reading some of the comments on Jeffrey Hart's essay in the Wall Street Journal about conservatism. A line about how the shift in the base of strengh to the Sun Belt South and West has had a negative effect "with respect to prudence, education, intellect and high culture." has generated controversy in National Review's The Corner and other places. Matt Yglesias would seem to have a point arguing:
Can anyone seriously dispute that the vast majority of America's premiere institutions of education and high culture are located in the "blue" areas? That's not to say the South is some kind of total wasteland -- I visited the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum earlier this year and it's first-rate, albeit a bit small -- but on the whole this stuff is primarily in the Northeast and to a lesser extent on the Pacific coast. At the same time, these institutions used to be bastions of conservatism and now -- as conservatives are wont to complain -- go the other way politically.

But there is another way of looking at it. Which state has made the greater contribution to American culture in the last one hundred years -- Mississippi or Connecticut? I would imagine that most people would conclude that poor, benighted, Yaleless, Mississippi would win the contest. What is the Nutmeg state's answer to Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Marty Stuart?

Walker Percy addressed this apparant contradiction -- at least as itconcerns writers -- in his "Self Interview" pubished in Esquire and reprinted in Signposts in a Strange Land:
Well, I've heard about that, the storytelling tradition, sense of identity, tragic dimension, community, history, and so forth. But I was never quite sure what that meant. In fact, I'm not sure that the opposite is not the case. People don't read much in the South and don't take writers very seriously, which is probably as it should be. I've managed to live [in Covington, La.] for thirty years and am less well known than the Budweiser distributor. The only famous person in this town is Isiah Robertson, Linebacker for the Rams, and that is probably as it should be too. . .

I have a theory of why Faulkner became such a great writer. It was not the presence of a tradition and all that, as one generally hears, but the absence. Everybody in Oxford, Mississippi, knew who Faulkner was, not because he was a great writer, but because he was a local character, a little-bitty fellow who put on airs, wore a handkerchief up his sleeve, a ne'er-do-well . . . One of the nice things about living an obscure life in the South is that people don't come up to you, press your hand and give you soulful looks.

Ten years ago, when I was living outside of the South, I would probably have been offended by Hart's and Yglesias' assertions about my native region. These days I'm not so sure that they are wrong -- Jeff Foxworthy has made a mint spoofing Southern redneck culture -- but I still prefer to live here. I spent seven years in Port Townsend, Washington. It is a wonderful place and I miss living there sometimes, but it was the opposite of the type of community that Percy describes. It is larded with creative types -- I was once the only person at a party who didn't at least claim to be an "artist" or "poet." Some of them actually create.

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C. Van Carter said...

Richard M. Weaver wrote on this topic. See his essay "Scholars or Gentleman?" in particular.