The Charlotte News



Why We'uns Didn't Write Books


Site ed. note: This editorial was the study for a more polished version of several pages of the finished Mind of the South, (pp.).

One of the most interesting fields for speculation concerning the old South that I know of is that of the cause of its singular literary unproductiveness.

That it was singularly unproductive in this regard is a statement which will not be seriously disputed nowadays. There are still a few sentimental apologists of the old school, such as Ravenal Sass, of Charleston, who maintain some half-hearted attempt to soften the judgment. But the record is clear and overwhelming. The land produced in all its years not a single novelist of a caliber to set beside the Northern galaxy headed by Hawthorne and Melville, and, indeed, no even half-competent novelist save only William Gilmore Simms; no poet worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with old Walt or even the lesser lights of Lowell, Bryant, Longfellow, and the no-longer read John Greenleaf Whittier, with the single exception of Poe, who was at best only half a Southerner, and no essayist to be compared, however remotely, with Emerson and Thoreau.

The Pioneer Stage

And that this should have been so can only be described as singular. It was not singular, certainly, so far as the greater part of the South was concerned, for that South dated only from the invention of the cotton gin, was at best no more than seventy years of age at the beginning of the civil war, and societies which are only seventy years removed from the pioneer stage do not, and cannot be expected to make any considerable literary showing. But there was another South--the South of the rice plantation country about Charleston--of the tobacco plantation country of Virginia--of Hispanic-Gallic New Orleans--which was fully as old (and as rich) as New England and New York. And in view of its possession of a greater portion of the pre-eminently imaginative Celtic blood and an indubutably greater leasure, it might rationally have been expected to make not only a comparable but a superior record.

As to why it didn't--well, certain reasons seem fairly clear.

Thus, it is apparently a universal proposition that literature proceeds only from a comparatively complex and variegated environment--one which is developed, indeed, to the point where men's energies can no longer escape satisfactorily on a purely primitive and physical plane, for literatuire is in some sense a sublimation and an unnatural activity. As a matter of fact, it has flourished only in great towns--at the crossroads of the world, where men of every stamp and widely-conflicting views were thrown into daily contact with one another.

A Country Civilization

But the old South remained always essentially a country civilization, and one which was remarkably homogeneous and simple: one all of a piece. It had few towns and those it had were less true towns--even as Boston was a true town--than mere depots on the road to Europe, and summering or wintering quarters for men whose interests were always centered in the plantation. Moreover, the plantation system early cut off the South from immigration. So far as the older parts with which we are especially concerned go, the addition of newcomers almost totally ceased after the period of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Variety and involved social bonds were almost entirely lacking. So was social conflict. Men were all cut to a single pattern. And energies could and did escape on the purely physical level. Horses and dogs and guns, not books and the writing of books, were the normal and engrossing interests.

And if that was not enough, there was politics--always of great importance in the land, and growing into an absorbing passion after the beginning of the conflict over slavery.

Mirrors for Squires

Again, it is to be observed that the planters of this oldest South were mightily swayed by the ideal of making themselves as nearly like the English squires as was possible. All Americans more or less aped the standards of Europe in those days. But none perhaps waited so eagerly on the cue as to what to admire as did these Southerners. The native artist got no recognition at all unless he could first command admiration abroad. Thus poor Simms was unmercifully ignored and even brutally snubbed in Charleston until the whim of London fashion caught him up and began to praise him far beyond his just merit, and so ultimately won him some grudging notice at home. And Poe--why, Poe's bones were whitening in Westminster churchyard and his name was glorious in France before ever his countrymen began to get around to paying him proper respect.

There are several other considerations I'd like to set down here, but space forbids: so I pass on at once to the final one: to one that sums up all the others--that the whole body of Southern conditions operated to the end that the Southerner felt rather than analyzed.

Magnolia and Patriotism

In other words, set down in this world of simple and uniform conditions, a world in which nothing or practically nothing acted to stimulate question in him; steeped in the languid warmth of its flooding yellow sun, lulled by such sweet and inexorable opiates as the rich odors of the hot earth and pinewood, of the magnolia and the honeysuckle in bloom--by the vision of its woods and field forever suspended in a blaze of light and blue-haze; and above all, perhaps, spurred to the most intense and rigid patriotism to his country by the conflict (beginning, you will observe at the time when, on an analogy of New England, he should have begun to produce a literature) with the Yankee over the Negro, his approach to the world remained always completely emotional. He continued always to be directly and fully enagaged with the pattern of his time and place, could never get on to detachment, to standing apart and cooly examining his environment and its meaning.

And without that detachment, without that analysis, no considerable literature has ever been produced anywhere at any time.

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