The Southern Dilemma, Part One

This is the first in a number of posts on Southern identity. The following exploration of the issue was inspired by a series of three linked articles whose content will largely structure the upcoming posts. They can be found here, here, and here.

Recently Dr. Peter Leithart posted a quote on his blog over at First Things. The originator of the quote compares Ireland’s relationship to England as a literary center with that of the South’s relationship to the remainder of the United States. He offers an interesting explanation for our significant literary output, grounding greater creativity in the experience of defeat.

“The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not.”

This is an interesting point, and strikes me as true. There is depth to having known defeat, a certain humility when confronted with life that I believe allows a deeper and more poignant experience of the world. But there are greater consequences to such an experience than increased creative potential.

The problem with American history is that it is very short. It has been said that a very old man today could have, as a child, sat in the lap of another old man who in turn had known people alive at the time of the War for Independence. Much has happened in the past two hundred and fifty years, but we are still very much settling into our place in history. We have not been conquered and re-conquered, we have not experienced centuries of changing regimes and lifestyles. The first war the whole United States really lost was Vietnam.

So when the South includes in its narrative a story of defeat, that means a great deal. We are still Americans, with a strong desire for progress and optimism. We cannot fathom the concept of a narrative with rises and falls, defeats and victories, different struggles in different contexts. Change is foreign. Our narrative has only gone so far, and our imagination cannot go much farther.

That defeat, then, defines us. It has the cold air of finality about it, and that terrifies the Southern psyche. No man can maintain a narrative of final defeat. If his worldview has no room for victory or potential happiness, then either he will die or he will find a new worldview.

In the South, that is largely what has happened. In our short-sightedness we think Appomattox meant not just the end of Confederate efforts in the Civil War, but the end of the South as a culture. This drives some to seek out a new culture, whether a Yankeefied liberalism or some broader form of Americanism. Others do not want to abandon their culture so quickly, and instead attempt to change the narrative. The South must rise again, or at the very least be vindicated and accepted in the larger American context. In some sense, our defeat must be undone.

This dilemma largely defines the South as it is now, and if not addressed, will lead to our death as a culture. And it is a problem not for those who are willing to forget the South, but for those who love it and want to see it prosper. We are the ones who have stop living in the past, and address our culture as it stands now. We have to adapt to a new context and become forward-thinking while still affirming our own heritage and way of life.

I do believe that the South has done this on occasion, but almost by accident. We are constantly going back to that same war, rehashing the same old issues, and clinging to that bitter defeat. If we are to maintain an upbeat and forward-thinking culture, we cannot continue to do that. We must deliberately and firmly make a lasting change to our understanding of our own narrative. But that is a topic for a later post.

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