I miss the South these days, which are odd days to miss it, since it’s being smothered by wet heat like a hot towel in a sauna. Nevertheless, the South is my home, and I miss her. I blame Warren Cole Smith for reminding me. To mark the forty-sixth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death, in 2010 Warren penned a nostalgic piece for WORLD Magazine. He reposted links to it this year, which is how I picked it up.
Warren recalls a trip he took with his daughter and his mentor — Marion Montgomery — to O’Connor’s gravesite and homestead. Montgomery was a friend and cobelligerent of O’Connor. They both spun stories in the Southern tradition, a tradition that invokes dusty memories and stubborn relationships. As O’Connor put it in a letter to Montgomery, “The Southern writer can out-write anybody in the country because he has the Bible, and a little history.”
In describing the drive from north Georgia, where Montgomery lived, down to Milledgeville, Georgia, where O’Connor was buried, Warren fashioned a beautiful sketch of subtle southernalities.
There and back, Mr. Montgomery filled us with stories of his previous trips to Andalusia, as O’Connor’s home is called, and of times they spent together, sitting on her home’s front porch. Or, for that matter, time spent apart, but concerned about the same things: St. Thomas Aquinas and a cow-pond down the way. God as both transcendent and immanent. Sin, grace, and open fields not like those they had both seen in Iowa, fields that stretched to the horizon. No, these were Southern fields, cleared by human hands, but cleared only tentatively, temporarily, constantly threatened by creeping vine and encroaching pine trees, and so were surrounded by mysterious thicket and woods.
I know Milledgeville well. My wife spent the better part of her growing up years there, and we were married in a little pink church in that town, the antebellum capital of the state. Julie’s childhood home was even on O’Connor drive, not very far from the writer’s grave. I attest to the accuracy of Warren’s statements above. As the heat and humidity choke off any refreshing air from the South, a less physical but no less palpable air seems always present — especially in the summer — as a child feels his father’s hand reaching down and nearing the back of his neck, as if to steer him from behind. The hand never takes hold, but it never retreats. Perhaps due to its history — or perhaps because we Southerners can’t seem to let our history go — it’s always as if something is impending. The unrealized effect of some un-recollected cause.
Everything Means Something
Though the West breathes its own beauty and history, I miss the South. Everything there carries significance. To my knowledge, we southerners are the only ones in the country to name our homes as recently as a few decades ago: O’Connor named hers Andalusia; Virginian Thomas Jefferson called his Monticello; Andrew Jackson’s home in Tennessee was known as The Hermitage. Even in our literature we signify the importance of this practice: Scarlett and Rhett’s home in Gone with the Wind wasn’t just a home. It was Tara. Our homes aren’t mere buildings of wood and stone; they are members of our families who huddle us for get-togethers. They are refuges. They are extensions of the stories that have brought us to the present. Naming something imparts upon it thick meaning, thick as the August evening air, and our homes mean a great deal to us. They mean we belong, as a surname means we belong.
Julie and I have tried to remember the importance of meaning and belonging in our family. Our son, Jesse Thomas Reneau, carries three family names. Jesse was the name of my great-grandfather, a man my dad remembers as gentle, soft-spoken, kind, and somewhat mysterious. Dad has spent many hours talking about his grandfather and trying to hunt down his mysterious genesis in upper East Tennessee. Jesse also means “God with us,” very much a mantra during the lean times for Julie and me in which he was born. My son’s middle name comes from Julie’s dad’s family: a grandfather who fought in the Civil War (known in the South as the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression, and by the inhabitants of one unique city, The Recent Unpleasantness — I told you we can’t let it go). Ironically, he was a Billy Yank, fighting in an Illinois regiment, and even served in the Battle of Shiloh in my native Tennessee. A square of blue wool, pierced by a Minié ball, now sits framed on a wall at my in-laws’ home. We’re proud that our boy’s names were not picked out of a book because they landed nicely on the ear. Even if we fail to communicate with him the textured history running through his veins, he will bear it anytime someone calls his name. Now we’re deliberating just as carefully the names for the next little boy on the way.
Sin and Grace
Part of the meaning that hangs heavy in the South is the sin and grace that Warren referenced. Some have said that the fabric that weaves the South together is the fact that we were the first in the country to lose a war. That may be true, but more remains. The fabric is stained, and any honest discussion of the South cannot avoid its sin, the memory of which still resides quietly in many places. Most southerners recognize slavery’s evil, the social and civil effects of which still linger. But the recognition even of that one sin opens our eyes to other errors of much less magnitude.
After college my home became a small, storied Southern town: Dayton, Tennessee. Going into the why would occupy too much time here (I have lightly addressed that thought here), but for now, suffice it to say that Dayton is a town that had a moment in the international limelight — almost ninety years ago with the Scopes Trial — and still hasn’t recovered. Some there have tried to forget, while others have novelized the trial, but one of the lessons of the South is that the place itself won’t forget or trivialize its own history. During my time in Dayton, I sometimes went out for jogs at night. Mostly I ran up and down the small downtown, just a few blocks long, centered around one street: Market Street. At the north end of the downtown drag stood the 120-year-old Rhea County Courthouse, claiming a block all its own. The rust-red brick building was the site of the Scopes Trial. I covered murder trials and county commission meetings in the same courtroom where Clarence Darrow set out to sully Christianity, especially fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan. Though Bryan put up a fight, Christianity’s battered public image has followed it for nearly a century. Images of chimpanzees dressed in suits and trousers along the streets of Dayton didn’t haven’t done the town any favors, either. The play Inherit the Wind and its jaundiced view of the community only worsened conditions a few decades later. Because of the economic turmoil that inspired town leaders to conjure the trial in the first place (which surpassed even their expectations in garnering publicity), once the cameras and journalists left, the town continued its cultural and economic decline.
I enjoyed running in downtown at night because that’s when the city woke up and stared back at you. During the day the hustle of an active small town crowded out the southern hamlet’s hidden character. The hum of traffic headed to little storefronts, eateries, and municipal offices created a persona all its own. But at night all that remained were the glow of streetlights and echoes down the empty side streets. The courthouse stands tall and wide amongst its oak trees and green lawn, reminding me of the stories and images of so many years ago. A block from the courthouse, the railroad runs parallel to Market Street — the railroad that once was the lifeblood of Dayton. Short spurs ran from the main line to the nearby Tennessee River, carting off freshly processed iron that had been dug from below the nearby ridge. Once the iron works folded, the railroad’s most important service was carrying the county’s fresh strawberries to regional markets. But as the iron works left, so did the agricultural conditions that provided the financial fruit of the berries; the soil had been abused and overworked.
The empty streets, the bypassing trains, and the imposing courthouse spoke loudest in the pastel dusk of the evening, amidst the silence of them all. And though that scene could be set anywhere in the United States — I’m sure dozens of small towns across the country have somewhat similar histories — in the South the pump has been primed for such settings to speak louder. We southerners do remember our history, and we have had to face our sins, which extend far past wasting good fabric on monkeys.
When I grew mature enough to understand my own need for repentance, somewhere born in me was an insecure nostalgia — the realization that if I am capable of error in the present, I was capable of it in the past. And that forced me to reexamine my past, scouring it for my mistakes. The meaning of the past escalates once we realize that we are capable of both good and evil, grace and sin. Having realized the consequences of our sin unlike any other pocket of the country, we’re mindful of the hidden sins in our history and how grace may work itself out in the present. The South’s history always shadows us. It’s the hot, sticky breath on the back of our neck, or the landmark standing in the middle of town, or the vine inching into the field.