Books: The Curse & The Hope

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Tell about the South. What's it like

there. What do they do there. Why do

they live there. Why do they live at all?

You can't understand it. You would

have to be born there.

—Absalom, Absalom!

The myths, mysteries, and hard realities of the South are the preoccupation of Presidents, the puzzlement of foreigners, the daily grist of newsmen, and the astonishment of the entire nation. Is the South a war camp of church bombings and station-wagon burnings, or is it a region earnestly attempting peaceful compliance with a hated civil rights law? Does it ask for "understanding" merely to delay the inevitable? Or is there a wound so deep that it will not heal for generations to come? Is poverty too prevalent? Is sex too obsessive?

What sets Southerners apart —what lies at the root of their beliefs and behavior?

One man who knew was William Faulkner. He was born there, in Mississippi, heir to and prisoner of the crinoline-and-lace tradition; he died there in 1962. In writing 19 novels and 80 short stories, almost all about the South, he won through to an understanding that in its richness, scope and completeness, tragic vision and comic invention, will not soon be equaled. At his best he penetrated the magnolia curtain of Southern illusions to the secret springs of motive and action. He said, in effect, "This is the way it feels to be Southern"—something the North needs to know and the South may even need to be reminded of.

Faulkner's vision has little to do with sit-ins and registration drives. His is a vision of history and the heart. It begins with the land in its original wildness and its taming and spoliation by the first settlers and their slaves. For him the crime of the South was chattel slavery, and the white man's denial of the Negro's equal humanity was an ineradicable curse on the land and its people. Ever since, Faulkner argues, the white Southerner has been burdened by a crippling, unacknowledged guilt, as intimate and inescapable as if taken in with the milk of his mother—or of his Negro wet nurse.

Slavery brought the disaster of the Civil War, which united the South, gave it legends, but impoverished it. Reconstruction, by attempting to impose revolutionary change, created the South's implacable resistance to change, and thus put off for a century any real hope of racial equality and the working-out of the Southerners' guilt on their own initiative—which is the only way guilt can be worked out.

The defeated whites clung to the past when Mississippi had been one of the richest states in the Union and Jefferson Davis the rebel President. They were scared because they felt that they were few and the Negroes myriad; they were stubborn because only by convincing themselves that the Negro was somehow inferior, like a pet or a horse, could they justify their long crime of refusing to recognize him as an equal human being; they were violent, partly from the strain of sustaining this myth, partly from fear that if the myth was once cracked, at any point or in any context, the whole perilously maintained social structure would collapse.

Gropings & Costs. Thus Faulkner's stories know the moment when a Southern child first hates, and what happens to men who use other men as tools.

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