By Sam Burnham
I awoke following a long weekend of football, home projects and more football (especially a long night sitting up to see if Tennessee was going to give ABG CFB a losing record on opening week) to a few tweets from a reader. This sort of thing often leads to me sitting at the keyboard spitting out whatever rebuttal needs to be communicated. So here I sit.
The point this time is an article in the New York Times (continuing their fascination with Southern stuff) about Southern publications and their approach to dealing with this region we call home. There were particular publications and links mentioned both in the article and in the aforementioned tweets that had me clicking on a few articles and reading what I could of them.
This was followed by a lot of thought. I see what is going on in many publications, both print and on line, and how they both experience and portray the South. We see in this article that one is setting out to try to fix it. Another is boasting it is "Reckoning With the South." And then we see a few others that may be taking a little too much of a Pollyanna experience of it. What this leaves us with is an incomplete picture. The South is not a neat and pretty artisan doily that comes in a package via UPS. But it is also not broken and it is not in need on some progressive vengeance. All of this points to the same idea - that there is something inherently wrong with the South and being a Southerner. The two sides of response to this problem, polishing it up nice and "fixing" it, equally mistreat the South.
I chose the title of this article from the opening essay of I'll Take my Stand. John Crowe Ransom opens that volume with the essay and it's warning that if the South capitulates to the rest of the nation, if it merely takes its lumps and hops on the train of progress, it will cease to be what it is. It will cease to be Southern. Looking at this some 87 years later, I see much of his warning already blossomed and withered. His talk of the factory system moving in and exploiting Southern villages can be documented in a thousand mill villages across the South. Perhaps you've seen a few.
But more than a warning to mill villages, Ransom was warning us against a mass assimilation. He foretold the possibility of a future in which the South became so enamored with "progress" that the Southern Tradition itself would be threatened. And as Atlanta has spread across the landscape, we see that tradition being overwhelmed by an onslaught of chain restaurants and shopping malls - many now vacant or in disrepair. What factories remain have downsized their work forces with robotics and any new industries are using automation as well. The small country store is a thing of the past. The television broadcasts new stories by people with strange accents who can't correctly pronounce the name of the town they're reporting from. And now we are starting to see statues that have stood in town squares for over 100 years must be removed. No one must ever speak anything respectable about any man who served in the Confederate military. Anything that happened before 1865 falls under the "slavery" tab and anything that happened in the next 100 years was nothing but Jim Crow. And under no circumstances must anyone ever whistle Dixie.
By industrializing the South took the road more traveled. And it has made all the difference.
The progress isn't all bad. Good riddance to slavery and Jim Crow. In my years I've learned that the color of a man's skin does not determine his worth as a human. And as Dr. Sean Busick recently said, "The Southern Tradition is big enough to include both Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash." If we're honest, the Southern Tradition is incomplete without both of them. And no one is complaining electricity, paved roads, or indoor plumbing. Again, some of the progress has been good but not all of it.
The trick is trying to find the balance between totally shunning modern innovations and becoming Yankees that eat grits and enjoy Bluegrass. The real South will be found high in the Appalachians, down on the coastal islands and marshes, or along the red dirt roads. In these places the New York Times has never seen, Atlanta has forgotten, and we cannot help but love, we find truth. It's not always pretty or profitable but that's the South for you.
ABG is not here to fix the South. We're not here to reckon with it. We're not here to modernize it. We don't care much for craft cocktail lounges or the (mostly non-Southern) idiots who brought violence to Charlottesville. Neither of those things sound very Southern to us in 2017. We're here to talk about the real South, not one we wish to re engineer.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire