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Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Old South, Its Fragrance, Elegance, Grace, And Storied History–And Woke Attempts To Cancel It

The Deep South is many things to many people – Gone with the Wind, virulent racism, the sophisticated tradition of the cavaliers and gentlemen, the Mississippi River, Delta blues, cotton, quadroons, and much more.  It cannot be ignored nor forgotten.  As much as many would like to think that it never existed or at best should be consigned to the dust bin of discredited history, it will not go away.

Rhett, Scarlett, pocket doors, mint juleps, cotton plantations, and Reconstruction cannot be wished into oblivion, airbrushed, and forgotten.  The great antebellum mansions of the Old South not only existed but still exist, visited every year at Southern pilgrimages, tributes to a simpler, more sophisticated,  graceful, and elegant way of life.  Residents of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi may have moved on from the civil war and Northern occupation, but they have not forgotten Southern traditions.

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Manners, hoop skirts, formal dances, broad lawns and civility are not a thing of the past, but a living history, a present, and a permanent piece of both Southern and American history, a vital and essential piece of our past.

There is a move on to expunge the South from American history.  Its history of slavery, Jim Crow, and resistance to civil rights is enough to airbrush it once and for all.  All statues, engravings, paintings, inscriptions, and accounts derived from that history – heinous remembrances of America’s worst time - must go.

Of course more sensible observers refuse to capitulate to such Orwellian measures.  History is what it is, and ignoring it - let alone deleting it – is nothing but revisionism.  A statue of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis may be to many a recidivist memory to slavery and the fight to retain it; but to most, it is a reminder of how we behave, if given a chance.  How human nature has not changed since the first human settlements, how morality is a relative, imprecise commodity, and how politics and the imperatives of human society cannot be ignored.

Unless one understands Southern history, one can never understand American history. Not only was the Civil War a major event of the new Republic, it was the event against which all other are judged and according to which political philosophies depend.  A recent political observer noticed that interest in the Civil War is waning – fewer visitors to Gettysburg and Antietam, and fewer borrowings and purchases of books on the great, decisive battles of the conflict.

More disturbing was the fact that few young American understand the antecedents of the war – why it happened and more importantly should it have happened – and even fewer have any knowledge of Reconstruction, perhaps the more telling and more significant outcomes of the War.  Because of radical Republican Reconstruction – punitive, repressive, harsh, and unforgiving – the South resented the North even more than as its wartime enemy, and soon returned to a society little different from the slavery of the antebellum period.  Reconstruction is a lesson in retribution and forgiveness denied.

Yet Northerners remain universally critical of the South.

Visiting Mississippi 150 years after the War, 200 after the first slaves were brought from depleted tobacco fields of East to work the black, fertile soil of the Delta, and 60 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act is still tantamount to treason and at best a reprehensible, immoral act say progressives.  Spending dollars in Mississippi would be giving succor to the enemy, validating the South’s heinous and unforgivable past, and turning one’s back on liberalism and its moral conscience.

Yet how can anyone deny history, since Southern history is American history?  The war was fought for many socio-economic reasons but also for cultural ones.  It was indeed more like a war between countries than a war between the states, countries with different economic systems, a different society, and a very different culture; and in a review of two books by the historian George Frederickson, James McPherson discussed the issue of regional identity of the South and the North – Cavalier vs. Yankee.
Historical relativity aside, dismissal of the the South, particularly the antebellum South is to ignore a particularly elegant, graceful, and impressive culture – a culture of Elizabethan manners and good taste.

The legend of the benevolent South, committed to land, family, and chivalry, intrigued two classic, Northern-born, novelists: Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James.

The former describes his father, descended from a Maryland planter family, as a man who "came from another America". In some of his short stories Fitzgerald betrays an uncritical fascination with the myths of plantation life and the Southern belle; and in The Bostonians (1886) James idealizes the South
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In ne Southern novel, Walker Percy's 1987 The Thanatos Syndrome,describes the South and its relationship with the North: "The place where the strange events related in this book occur, Feliciana, is not imaginary. It was so named by the Spanish. It was and is part of Louisiana, a strip of pleasant pineland running from the Mississippi to the Perdido, a curious region of a curious state. Never quite Creole or French or Anglo-Saxon or Catholic or Baptist like other parishes of Louisiana, it has served over the years as a refuge for all manner of malcontents."
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These writers among others have appreciated the South for what it was in its entirety.  History plays no favorites and the Old South, a land of graciousness, civility, and a certain elegance cannot be arbitrarily extirpated to salve woke, Northern liberal consciences.

The South has remained a separate country not only because of Northern liberal intemperate refusal to accept history, but because of its long and storied culture, geography, and social integrity.  There is something implicitly beautiful about acres of white cotton fields before harvest, the impressive permanence of the Mississippi River, the smell of red dirt, dark alluvial Delta earth, jacarandas, jasmine, and the scent of pine.

There is an irrefutable elegance to old antebellum plantation mansions – their appointments, live oaks, allées, and formal dining rooms, salons, gardens, and tea rooms – in many ways an anodyne to the harsh, brutal urban landscapes of Chicago and Baltimore.

Northern intellectuals hate the South and would like to finish the job that Sherman started – burn all vestiges of plantation life.  The very existence of manors and estates is anathema and a constant reminder of the evil history of the South; yet few of these Northerners can look at the architectural beauty, impeccably tasteful interiors, long, live oak-lined allées, formal gardens, and sweeping lawns without envy; but image and romance trump political philosophy any day of the year.

Historical revisionists in their attempts to rewrite history according to prevailing notions of inclusivity and progressive democracy ignore the best of American history.  Not only should  historical figures like Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton be taken as is and for what they were, great and important figures of the American past; but so should regions.

The Wild West, the Prairie, and the South are unique, incontrovertibly important parts of our history.  Attempts to criticize, marginalize, and dismiss Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, Louis and Clark, the Frontier, the industrialists of the early Twentieth Century, and the Cavalier South are myopic and misplaced.

The Antebellum South was a unique period of American history whose Cavalier culture may have contributed to the Civil War; but which cannot be denied nor branded as exclusively evil.  Nothing ever is.  The period of the Robber Barons was in the view of many progressive historians, one of the worst and most destructive of recent history.  The aggressive, laissez-faire greed of the Rockefellers, Mellons, and Carnegies destroyed the lives of many working class Americans, reinforced the idea of the rightful concentration of wealth, and set the stage for predatory capitalism.

Yet these billionaires created and led an elegant, graceful, mannered life little different from that of Southern gentlemen.  Their Newport ‘cottages’, homes on Jekyll Island, and estates throughout New York and New England were as impressive as the great antebellum plantation homes of the South.

A walk through the back alleys of Washington, DC is a walk through the Southern history – lush semi-tropical gardens, covered porches, tall sycamores and Southern pines.  This Washington along with the Southeast black enclaves and official Washington is a legacy of the South – a sensuous emotive reminder of where we have come from.  We all live American history – it is our legacy, our foundation, and our home.

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