Today in Savannah, Georgia, a parade and street fair were celebrated to honor the memory of writer Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll be familiar with posts I’ve written about her. I’m often reminded of O’Connor when I come across Pulitzer Prize winner (for editorial writing) Paul Greenberg‘s occasional discussions of the South.
An editorial writer for our state’s newspaper, Greenberg’s cogitations on the South are (for me) always thought-provoking. Last Sunday, he asked the question: Where does the South begin? This column has some similarities to a previous column he wrote back in 2009: Where does the South end? (Disregard the title at that link; the column is the correct one.)
In my view, Greenberg’s awareness of the South is something of a throwback. Because our culture has become relatively homogeneous, regional differences seem less regional than in the past. Furthermore, lots of people (who once would have willingly identified as Southern) have scrapped the description, considering it tainted and out of favor.
Besides Greenberg’s columns, I’ve read and heard numerous discussions attempting to define the South. Professor John Shelton Reed provides an interesting overview, The South: Where Is It? What Is It? He links to informative charts to build his case, and his overview is well worth the read.
Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I always thought of myself as Southern. Though the Missouri Compromise (1820) prohibited slavery above the southernmost border of Missouri (for states that formed west of Missouri), my state entered the Union as a slave state. But Missouri’s history as a slave state is not why I considered myself a Southerner. There was another quality − a je nais se quoi, if you will − that defined my Southern state of mind … before I was even aware of it!
Greenberg admits his reluctance to cede Bentonville, AR (to the north of where I sit right now) its Southernness. He prefers the label midwestern, a term I’ve often deplored. But he does offer: “If you think it’s a step down [being called a midwestern], you must be a Southerner.” Indeed.
Additionally, Mr. Greenberg, with all due respect, please don’t describe the northwestern corner of your state (now mine, nearly forty years) as somehow “Oklahoman.” If midwestern is a step down, well, you should be able to understand how utterly inappropriate Oklahoman would be.
I’m not as old as Greenberg, but I also remember singularly Southern culinary delicacies including Moon Pies, Grapette Soda, and RC (spoken as one word, AhrCee) for a hot summer’s day thirst quencher. But memories don’t necessarily make a person Southern.
My daughters, one born in Texas and the other born in Iowa (but both mostly raised in northwest Arkansas) are Southerners. The younger one is married to a member of the Kappa Alpha Order, an organization Reed states is a “college fraternity with an explicitly Confederate heritage.” Reed’s observation notwithstanding, I think it would be wrong to read into that comment any kind of racist or hate-filled underpinnings; we simply honor our heritage. We don’t deny its warts and shortcomings, we choose to rise above them.
Reed uses the words of Josiah Royce in formulating a working definition of the South. He suggests specific things and I summarize them here: the South is a geographic and social domain with a unified consciousness and pride in certain ideals and customs and a sense of distinctness apart from other regions in the country. I think that sums it up fairly well.
I also like Reed’s concluding comments: “… the South exists in people’s heads and in their conversations. From this point of view, the South will exist for as long as people think and talk about it, and as for its boundaries well, the South begins wherever people agree that it does.”
Mr. Greenberg will, no doubt, continue to think about … and write about … the South. It has penetrated his soul, just as it has mine. It is part of the culture in which I grew up. It’s part of that mystery through manners about which Flannery O’Connor wrote. O’Connor called her home region the “Christ-haunted South.” Yes, the South is a place where there is still a belief in the soul … it’s fading, but more slowly than in other parts of the country.
If all other definitions fail you, the South is where kudzu grows.