There are certain places which stay with you when you stay within them long enough. The spaces you inhabit cast their influence over you, a net of culture resting wherever you lay your head—towns, houses, homes. I once called it Atlanta; now I call it elsewhere.
Places which form you leave indelible marks—it’s hard to escape the stamp of something so significant, especially in childhood, formative years, the new and immiscible time between youth and adulthood.
Like anything you’ve become accustomed to or familiar with, it is hard to describe a place you know innately, like it’s your own limb, like it’s just an extension, another part of you. It has its mannerisms, and its character, and it is something you are aware of with a far-reaching depth and knowledge, the way you kick out in reflex. If we talk about Atlanta, I could tell you the right way to greet someone, where to go at night to discover the real city, why it’s like that, and what to do once you’ve found it, but the problem is that you would not know it as I do, not really; not if you’re from somewhere else. Yes, that is the problem, here: how to know what is inherently unknowable.
What does it mean to be a Southerner, to be someone grown and cultivated in the American South? Once, there was perhaps a simpler answer. Now, it just depends. One knows if not what the South means than what it signifies, and instantly one thinks of its racism, conservatism, backwards religious thinking, and a kind of people unable to be found anywhere else in the country, at once hospitable and hostile. What has brought us to this point where we cannot say as we once did, with surety, that certain things breed a Southerner and separate them forever from the rest of America?
My parents, like many others, are implants. English is not my father’s first language, America not his first nation; my mother is from the undefined, eclectic realm of Florida (Zora Neale Hurston’s Florida; backroads, orange groves, trailer parks). Because of this, I did not grow up with a noticeable accent, no Southern drawl, little hokey colloquialisms or agricultural parlances. I was raised in Atlanta, which has always been symbolized by the phoenix, and which has, since its inception, been touted as a city alight against the dark backwoods of the rest of the Deep South.
My experience as a Southerner is rather extraordinary, because Atlanta is a liberal city, and, because Atlanta was burned, any antebellum history in the city has very little impact on the reigning feeling today for the simple fact that it isn’t there anymore. Atlantans also have a long and sordid history of selling our morals out for a dollar, and thusly we have very little genuine cultural infrastructure to hold onto, the way other Southern cities and towns do. After Sherman burned the city down, we invited him back for a visit twenty years later. We are a city without loyalty to hard Southern morality, constantly in transit since our founding, a society always in flux, going in and out on the rails.
In that way, Atlanta both embodies and rejects the ideas of darkness, a blooded and violent past, which permeates the fiction of Faulkner, O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Du Bois. We are the great metropolis in the wilderness, just as bent as the rest, but our history has a way of finding us nevertheless.
Grotesque, damaged, delusional. The Southern Gothic is concerned with its postbellum reflection; its institutions have crumbled, its economy has collapsed, its land under federal occupation; whatever will it think of itself now? This is the rub of the Southerner, the rebel who wanted to win, and instead was crushed under the heel and, ashamed and chastised, it settled in within unchanging eyes to witness its reconstruction.
The South is slow to change, and who could be more bitter than the women who watched their cities burn, but the men who came home to them, beaten, faced with the sudden amendment to their society that the black slave they had relied upon and exploited was now delivered of freedom? Obstinate white men abound in the Southern Gothic: Old Tarwater in O’Connor’s “The Violent Bear It Away,” Faulkner’s sole favorite of the cold Mrs Compson, the hateful Jason, in “The Sound and The Fury”, the judge and his son in Du Bois’ “On the Coming of John”. America at large wanted to believe that the South would be tarred and feathered into acceptance; you can whip an ass all you’d like to, but you can’t make it move.
Old Tarwater hides out in rural Georgia, preaching to his nephew until the day he croaks at the breakfast table that all outsiders are evil, agents of the unbaptized and the devil, and one day the Revelation will be at hand, yet he does not teach him how to dig a grave, a crucial element of his burial. The Compsons defended Faulkner’s fictitious Jefferson, Mississippi during the Civil War, and then watch their money, their land, their sanity, cede to time, mired in tragedy, alcoholism, suicide. Jason IV, the remaining heir, loveless and miserly, spends his time wallowing in self-pity and counting coins, bitter over the loss of his economic independence. Du Bois tells the story of John, a black man from Altamaha, Georgia, who is constantly belittled and degraded by the white society he tries to penetrate, ultimately fired from his teaching position for trying to teach black children about the French Revolution. In a pique of disassociation, its vengeful sum realized from the years of unrelenting oppression—”who had called him to be the slave and butt of it all?”—he kills the judge’s son as he presumably tries to rape or molest John’s sister.
This is the legacy of the antebellum South: we sow our own seeds, and we reap what we have planted. Old Tarwater’s corpse sits in the sun while Francis, his nephew, instead gets drunk and decides to forgo a grave entirely, burning Powderhead down with the body inside and leaving for the city. The Compsons, once proud and powerful, are reduced to their foibles, their only gleams of salvation dredged out by their black maid, Dilsey. The judge and his son are subjected to the consequences of their uppity racism, and they pay in blood. The Southern Gothic style reveals, in short, the repercussions of an economically and socially defeated South, tattered and clinging to a life that cannot sustain itself because the price of the lesson is more than they are willing to offer or relinquish in hopes that everything might, some day, be as it was without any work on their part.
Here, an attempt at explaining why the ass stays put in the sinking sand from someone stuck on its back: digging salt out of the wound is painful, and unbearable, because its weight rests on the question of was done wrong, and why. It is easier to be the wounded party. You can hold your head up high that way, and the Old South is prideful, sometimes obtusely so. Southerners often see the aftereffects of the Civil War with a feeling synonymous with catachresis; misrepresentative, confusing, ill-fitting. We do not want to admit that we fought a war over which man has which right to determination, and we lost, and since the act of losing always requires a recompense of some sort, in the South we went along with the logic that you cannot cut a head off if it’s buried in the sand.
Our loss was bitter, and it never healed straight. When the economy and the structure of society it leans on collapses, when the people you once looked down on because that was all who was below you are now free on someone else’s orders, where do you turn to so you can see where you fit in all of this? Where do you get your sense of identity from?
You get it from what you had before, even if the sweater’s shrunk in the wash, even if it will never fit right again. Our book of catechisms is wet, and the ink has run, and we are doing our damndest to remember what used to be there, but, as with anything involving memory, it is often distorted or wrong or just as we’d like to think of it, which is the natural problem with it all.
The South is saddled with the children begot of its own violence, yet it looks upon them with confusion. This is the comeuppance of the Southern Gothic, burned and burning as the embers turn, roasting in its own impertinence. The South has always wanted to be its own judge, jury, and executioner, and so it will be, damn the consequences. Old values, yellow with age, don’t seem so in a dark house. Such is the great tragedy of the South.
Is there a solution? Of course there is. But then comes the real question: will it take?
Bibliography + Further Reading
- Chapman, John Jay. “Coatesville”. Best American Essays of the Century. ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000. Read Online
- Du Bois, W.E.B. “On the Coming of John” (1903). Best American Essays of the Century. ibid. Read Online
- Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Vintage Books. 1946.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Coloured Me”. Best American Essays of the Century. ibid. Read Online
- Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Penguin Books. 2006.
- O’Connor, Flannery. “The Violent Bear It Away”. 3 By Flannery O’Connor: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Signet Classic. 1983.