Sunday, November 16, 2008

Explaining the South

Down There on a Visit

By Charles Simic
New York Review of Books - Volume 51, Number 13 · August 12, 2004

For years now I've been looking at a photograph Walker Evans took in the summer of 1936 in the South. I thought of it again while getting ready to travel to the South a few weeks ago. At the intersection of two dusty, unpaved roads stands a dilapidated building with a small porch and a single gas pump. There's no human being in sight. The intense heat and the bright sunlight must have made the locals, a few of whom can be seen standing on the very same porch on another occasion, seek shade. The shutters of the two upstairs windows are closed except for small openings where the slats are broken or have been removed. The postmaster and his wife, who run the pump and the store, are most likely napping, their heads covered with newspapers to protect them against the flies.

Downstairs, in the small side room with a scale and rows of bins for the mail, there are a few letters whose recipients live too far or receive mail too rarely to bother making the trip. With so little to see and so much to imagine, a photograph like this is an invitation to endless conjecture. There's nothing more ordinary, nothing more American than what it depicts: a small town one passes with barely a glance on the way to someplace else.

This June, driving around Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, I decided to pay a visit to Sprott and Hale County, where Walker Evans and James Agee collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their photographic and verbal record of the lives of three dirt-poor tenant farmer families in the region. I wanted to, as it were, poke around the photograph on my wall. I drove from Mobile past a series of tiny little towns with names like Sunflower, Wagarville, Sunny South, Catherine, and Marion. It was early Sunday morning so my daughter and I were a bit dressed up, hoping to find a church along the way and attend a service. We saw plenty of houses of worship, but oddly, not much activity around them yet. Driving through one of the bigger towns, we were surprised to find a huge Wal-Mart open at 9:20 with dozens of cars parked outside.

The other puzzle was a number of abandoned churches both in towns and in the countryside. I recall a small, unobtrusive, white wooden church sunk in the earth, the grass and weeds grown tall around it. It had a thick, squat steeple, a single door, two windows on each side covered up with boards. The sky over it was cloudless, the quiet so deep we could hear the crows flap their wings as they flew over our heads in alarm. The people who came to pray there must have died or moved away years ago, but the spirit they sought after lingered on. I wondered if there was anything left inside the church, a hard bench, a hymnal, a suspended oil lamp, a skeleton of a dead bird.

The landscape of central Alabama alternates between patches of woods and rolling fields of cultivated land that open onto long vistas before closing up again. We found the crossroads Evans photographed and a small shut-down country store where the old one most probably stood. It did not appear that much had changed in sixty-eight years. There was a large sign announcing a rodeo in nearby Marion, two half-collapsed barns across the road, and a cat that came out of the bushes hungry and lonely, but ran away every time my daughter tried to make friends with it. The population of Sprott today is reputed to be ten people and that sounds about right. Hale County has 17,185 inhabitants and the county seat, Greensboro, only 2,731. I have no idea how many people lived there in the 1930s, when the cotton plantations were in full operation, but there must have been more. The impression one gets is that there's not much work to be had on the farms that remain. Most of these are large and require a small number of people to work the machinery. Whoever can pick up and leave the county does so, or if they decide to stay, they commute great distances to their jobs. On weekdays, the traffic to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Montgomery tends to be heavy. Most of these commuters are heading to low-paying retail and service jobs in numerous shopping malls at the outskirts of these cities.

We headed south to Selma. What we found there surprised us. Its spacious downtown, where some 30,000 people once gathered with Martin Luther King to make a march to Montgomery, is badly rundown. It's a shell of the town it once was. Many of its beauti-ful turn-of-the-century buildings and storefronts appear in part vacated while others are completely closed. This I found almost everywhere to be the case. The heart of Montgomery has broad avenues, a restored Greek Revival state capitol atop a hill where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office on February 18, 1861, as the president of the Confederate States, and the famous civil rights landmarks, like the Baptist church where the bus boycott was organized in 1956, but there are few people there even on a Monday morning.

The capital of Mississippi, Jackson, is deserted on Friday afternoon. No one walks its streets. There are no restaurants or bars and no hint of where people who work in its many offices get fed. Old photographs of all these places show streets teeming with pedestrians, stores big and small, signs and marquees advertising cafés, drug stores, tobacco shops, and five-and-dime emporiums. The centers of many of the most interesting Southern cities, the neighborhoods that make them most distinct and attractive, have been forsaken for fast-food places, gas stations, and shopping centers at the outskirts, which resemble any other place in the United States.

The middle classes and the rich reside in well-maintained old and new suburbs and vote Republican, while their impoverished neighbors, who tend to be mostly African-American and who outnumber them in many counties, live in rural slums. While there's no official segregation between the races, there is a caste system with clear class distinctions and accompanying inequality that is apparent wherever one goes. There are towns like Jonestown, Mississippi, that in their shocking poverty make one gasp. Weathered, sagging, and unpainted houses, boarded-up windows, others covered with plastic, yards full of dismantled rusty cars, their parts scattered about amid all kinds of other junk and trash, are everywhere. Idle people of all ages lounge on collapsing porches or stand on street corners waiting for something to do. In the countryside with its fertile dark soil, soybeans have become the chief crop, poultry farms are a major business, and there are nine gambling casinos in the next county. All that has increased per capita income in the region, but there was no evidence of it among the blacks I saw.

In Clarksdale, the former capital of the cotton kingdom, which President Clinton visited during his 1999 tour focusing on the nation's poorest communities, I saw in a parking lot of a closed supermarket two ancient cars parked side by side with their four doors wide open. Over their hoods, roofs, and doors, spread out and draped, someone's once-pretty dresses and worn children's clothes were covering every available space. Two black women sat on low stools, one on each side, waiting for a customer. This is the town, they say, where the blues began. One of its legends, Robert Johnson, was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads nearby. There's a blues museum in town and an excel-lent restaurant and juke joint called Ground Zero owned in part by the actor Morgan Freeman, a part-time local resident. The downtown buildings of what was once clearly a flourishing city reminded me of towns in the Midwest and New England after their industries went broke in the late 1960s and their factories were shut down. Clarksdale has the despoiled look of a conquered and sacked city. Ranking conditions of poverty is a risky business, but what I encountered in Mississippi surpasses anything I've seen in a long time in this country. That the people here vote Democratic and have a liberal black Democratic congressman has not been of visible help to them.

When one enters the small store that also serves as a post office in nearby Belen, one first comes upon shelves cluttered with ancient TV parts. On one side, in the half-dark, an old black man sits poking his screwdriver into the back of a black-and-white set that must be at least forty years old. Beyond the TV repair section, there's a grocery store selling a few absolute necessities like canned beans and white bread, and finally in the back, the post office itself with its single oval and barred window where one can purchase a stamp. The old white storekeeper who shows me and my friend around could have walked out of one of Eudora Welty's Depression-era photographs. He is so pale; he probably rarely leaves the premises. In the meantime, he is happy to chat. It's not a cliché that people are courteous in the South. Many of them tell memorable stories, love words, and can make something unexpected out of the simplest verbal ingredients. No wonder so many great writers have come from Mississippi.

My first acquaintance with the South was in 1961, when I spent four months at Fort Gordon, Georgia, being trained by the US Army to be a military policeman. On my weekly passes, I went into Augusta, where there was little to do beyond getting drunk in dives frequented by soldiers. With the news of men and women who protested segregation being beaten and occasionally murdered all over the South, it was not the most comfortable place for a Northerner to be. Without even trying, one inevitably got into arguments with the locals. The place seethed with hatred, I thought then. All that changed, of course, over the years, and so did my own understanding of the complexities. There were plenty of racists to be sure, but there were also people of conscience who did their best to alleviate the wrongs in their midst.

Fifty miles from Jonestown, Mississippi, is William Faulkner's Oxford. It has a pretty courthouse square, a bookstore that could match any in New York City or Boston, fine cafés and restaurants, most of which have second-story porches with tables and chairs overlooking the square. People laze there for hours sipping a drink and gabbing. One could live here— one thinks—in a kind of timeless present. Bank, church, a few elegant stores, a barbershop, and a hotel—what more does one need? In the afternoons, when the shadows lengthen and the heat subsides a bit, one has the overwhelming sense of well-being as if everything were just dandy everywhere and one really had no cause to make oneself a nuisance to strangers with whom one happened to strike a casual conversation.

Unfortunately, the local newspapers brought me out of my reverie. The Clarksdale Press Register, which I'd bought earlier that day, had the following letter:

Dear Editor:

I am a Jesus freak.

Jesus said that you can't serve two fathers. Either you serve God the Heavenly Father or you are damned and serve Satan. All true conservatives will be against homosexuality. It's not acceptable in God's house. I believe they can be saved and change this lifestyle. Anyone that says it is OK to kill babies is damned. God made human life in His own likeness. We as Christians expect Americans to be against us. They were against Jesus. God has blessed us, but for how long? For America's weakness is turning its back on God. We better not think that God won't put his wrath on America soon. America better thank God for Christians who are praying for this country. The rest of the people are not getting what they can get in riches. May God heal the churches and people. It's time Christians take a stand in voices and elections. Get these liberals out of government, and get conservative Christian leadership in government.[1]
During my trip, I was asked several times point-blank whether I was a Christian. The first time it happened, I was so surprised I didn't know what to reply. Finally, I mumbled that I was brought up in the Eastern Orthodox Church and to further buttress my credentials, I mentioned that I had priests in my family going back a couple of centuries. As far as I could tell, that didn't seem to make much impression. What people were eager to find out was whether I had accepted Jesus as my Savior. For the writer of this letter, and for others I met, Christians are to be distinguished from the rest of Americans, who are something else— liberals, secular humanists, Catholics, atheists, abortionists, etc. They all share one thing in common, however: they are all going to hell.

The absolute certainty of that outcome, I found, is a source of deep satisfaction to the believers. They enjoy hearing about the torments that await the damned. That must be the explanation for the great success of Glorious Appearing by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the twelfth and final book in a series that recounts the story of those left behind when the Apocalypse arrives and the Rapture gathers the elect into heaven. The first eleven novels have sold 40 million copies and the new one is also a best seller.[2] The blood and gore of the final battle of the ages between Jesus and the legions of the Antichrist are described at great length and in loving detail:

Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.

"For My sword shall be bathed in heaven; indeed it shall come down on Edom, and on the people of My curse, for judgment.

"The sword of the Lord is filled with blood. It is made overflowing with fatness. For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom.

"Their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust saturated with fatness."[3]

It was reported that President Bush tried to enlist the Vatican for help in his reelection when he paid a visit to the Pope last month. He has no need to make a similar appeal to the churches in the South. During the many hours of listening to Christian radio, I was assured again and again that the Bible is the best source of information on contemporary events and the only guide anybody needs on how to vote. When I watched religious talk shows on TV at night, I heard that the many wars that the President has promised us have happily been foretold in the Bible. "Let us restore to God the thunder," the poet John Crowe Ransom wrote in 1930,[4] and the people who called in would have readily agreed. Peace on earth went unmentioned. What excited the people I heard was the force of deadly weapons. I got the impression that it was a greater offense to believe in evolution than to bomb a city into rubble. As a letter to the Mobile Register signed "Addison DeBoi" put it,
What the left has not come to realize is that most of today's suffering is the result of the left's continued efforts to remove horror and pain from war.... The point is, war is hell, and it should be. The more respectable we make war, the more we make it less horrific, the more we seek to not harm civilians, then the greater the risk and frequency of war.[5]
Skepticism, empirical evidence, and book learning are in low esteem among the Protestant evangelicals. To ask about the laws of cause and effect would be a sin. They reject modern science and dream of a theocratic state where such blasphemous subject matter would be left out from the school curriculum. Their ideal, as a shrewd young fellow told me in Tuscaloosa, is unquestioning obedience and complete conformity in matters of religion and politics. The complaint about so-called secular humanism is that it permits teachers and students too much freedom of thought and opinion. If evangelicals haven't gone around smashing TV sets and computers, it is because they recognize their power to spread their message. Aside from that, they would like to secede intellectually from the rest of the world.

As if to alert me of the danger of such sweeping statements, I stumbled on a magnificent exhibition of Baroque art at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion in Jackson. It came from the State Arts Collections in Dresden and included porcelain, costumes, sculpture, armor, and paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Mantegna, Velázquez, Van Dyck, Lucas Cranach, Vermeer, and a few other Old Masters. It was fairly well attended. There were even families with kids. I've no idea what they thought of the sensual teenage Madonna holding a mischievous-looking two-year-old. The museum guides and attendants appeared to be volunteers. They stood at various points of the huge exhibition and kept asking each visitor if he or she were enjoying the show and were exceedingly pleased to hear that we did. It sounded as if there had been complaints and that they needed confirmation that they were, indeed, taking part in something worthy.

At the Mississippi Museum of Art there was another imported show— "Paris Moderne," art deco works from the 1920s and 1930s. Almost next door, Confederate flags were flying over the state buildings, often in close proximity to landmarks commemorating the civil rights struggle. A few well-known participants in the most gruesome events of its bloody history are still alive in nearby towns and remain unconvicted, as columns in newspapers on the anniversary of their crimes reminded their readers.

On another cloudless day, I drove south toward Hattiesburg and Mobile. The roadside fruit stands were overflowing with baskets of ripe peaches, tomatoes, and watermelons. There was also something called "boiled peanuts" which I was wary to try. On the radio, the burning issue was the new policy just passed by the Mississippi legislature that will drop from Medicaid eligibility 65,000 of its neediest elderly citizens and chronically ill patients with severe disabilities, leaving them to rely solely on the federally funded Medicare for their drugs. The governor, Haley Barbour, the brains behind the rollback, is the former chairman of the national Republican Party. In his view, taxpayers ought not to have to pay for free health care for people who can work and take care of themselves and just choose not to.

Most callers to the show sounded scared. The host of the program maintained that their fears were exaggerated, that Medicare would help out; but they were not buying it. They griped about the difficulties they already had signing up for the federal government's new prescription drug discount cards. The host of the show blamed the fiscal crises in the state on a teachers' pay raise and so did some of the other callers. He was willing to admit that there may be some inconvenience to the elderly, but he wanted them to realize that in the end nothing could be done. What came through were the inability and the reluctance of more than a few people to grasp the kind of hardship that faced their fellow citizens. The familiar Republican Party line—less government, no new taxes —eventually silenced the most stubborn of the complaining voices.

The lack of compassion for the less fortunate is also to be found in New Hampshire, where I live. Our politicians are as heartless as the ones in Mississippi and see themselves, despite their assurances otherwise, as being elected primarily to serve the well-to-do. Let the fittest survive is their attitude. However, they don't invoke God as they go about ensuring that the poor stay poor. As for the losers, both in the South and in the North, their outrage is not directed against the politicians. This is one of the great puzzles of recent American politics: voters who enthusiastically cast their vote against their self-interest, who care more about "family values," school prayer, guns, abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution than about having decent health care insurance and being paid a living wage. They squabble, as they did in Alabama recently, over whether the Ten Commandments ought to be posted in a courthouse while the education of their children continues to be underfunded and their overcrowded public schools are violent and dangerous places.

The result of these dogmatic inconsistencies of belief—which I found wherever I went—is fragmentation: "the growing social, physical, economic, and cultural separation of Americans from each other," as Sheldon Hackney points out in a fine new collection of essays by thirteen different authors, Where We Stand, Voices of the Southern Dissent.[6] Even Pentecostals don't see eye to eye when it comes to theology. A town with no more than five hundred inhabitants has a dozen churches lining the highway. They stand barely fifty yards apart, all belonging to different schisms and factions. One of them is just a large trailer with a hand-painted name of the church tacked to its side. The door is open. Three old-model cars are parked in front.

A dozen miles down the highway is Mobile with its modern skyscrapers, and not too far beyond, the pretty little town of Fairhope on the eastern shore of the bay with its elegant boutiques, art galleries, and good restaurants. Fairhope was founded in 1884 as a model community inspired by a belief in land as common inheritance and as a cooperative commonwealth free from all forms of private monopoly and opportunities to prey upon one another. In his bittersweet reminiscence of growing up in Fairhope, included in Where We Stand, Paul M. Gaston, whose grandfather was one of the founders and guiding forces of the community, laments its transformation into what it is today, an upscale resort town where one of the shops for the well-heeled women is called Utopia without any irony. He writes of the morally benumbed citizenry unconcerned about disparities of wealth and the social apartheid such towns as Fairhope seem to serve.

It's easy to put all that out of one's mind as one cruises past the sandy beaches of Mobile Bay. The end of a long pier with a gazebo at Point Clear seems a good place for an afternoon siesta on a bench with the blue sky and sea birds for company. It's hot, but there's a breeze from the water. After a while, I hear the sound of chamber music. It's live, coming from the spacious lawn of the resort hotel next door where a wedding, it appears, is about to take place. There are some fifty chairs lined up in rows with a pulpit in front but no guests yet, only a string quartet playing Mozart. Eventually, as the guests begin to emerge from the hotel, I draw closer. They are a distinguished bunch, the men in tuxedos and the women in stylish, well-cut summer dresses. They come alone or in pairs strolling across the rich lawn to take their seats. With the quartet playing a lovely minuet the four bridesmaids, all wearing dark red dresses, come out one by one trailed by the groom and his parents. The bride, on the arm of her father, is the last to appear. She's a very pretty blonde.

I'm too far away to hear the minister, but I can see them exchange rings. On a platform by the edge of the water, I see people setting up tables, decorating them with flowers for what I assume will be the wedding feast. It's all very proper, very charming, and very inviting. The servers are mostly black and I realize that they are the first people of color I've seen since I drove into the Fairhope region. By now the wedding is over, the sun is setting over Mobile Bay, and the photographer is in a hurry to have the newlyweds pose against it. He wants them smooching and they oblige again and again, each kiss more lusty than the last one, to the joy of the younger members of the wedding party and the disapproving glances of the old. After that's over, they all file by me on the way to dinner, smiling and nodding in a most friendly way.

Yes, people told me on my trip, the American dream has been going wrong somewhere. I saw TV evangelists bring thousands of ecstatic believers to their feet. These programs were a mixture of old camp meetings, revivalist tents, rock concerts, and sales pitches on how to make millions in real estate "without spending a dime of your own money." The huge crowds were made up of well-dressed, middle- class people of all ages and races. Their piety was touching. Their eyes grew moist when Jesus was mentioned. God frets about them individually and they count on his guidance in practical matters. So many of the sermons I heard were about turning around one's life, overcoming financial worries, achieving worldly success. The men doing the preaching had made millions saving souls and had no qualms offering themselves as a model to emulate. Their lack of humility was astonishing. I'm flying high, the faces said, because God has time for me.

"There is going to be trouble in this country," a lawyer warned me. He wouldn't tell me from what direction. Like others I had met in the South, he kept a gun in his car; he had, he said, several more at home and worried that the government may take away his arsenal. What are they for? In one of his books, the Mississippi novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah suggests an answer:
The gun lobby, oh my peaceful friends, you may hate, but first you had better understand that it is a religion, only secondarily connected to the Bill of Rights. The thick-headed, sometimes even close to tearful, gaze you get when chatting with one of its partisans emanates from the view that they're holding a piece of God. There is no persuading them otherwise, even by a genius, because a life without guns implies the end of the known world to them. Any connection they make to our "pioneer past" is also a fraud, a wistful apology. Folks love a gun for what it can do. A murderer always thinks it was an accident, he says, as if a religious episode had passed over him.[7]
There are fireworks for sale in almost every town in Alabama. Small rockets wrapped in red, white, and blue paper. People are all set, I was told, to celebrate George W. Bush's reelection in November. He is liked a lot in the South, especially when he speaks about American moral supremacy and our right to kick someone else's ass in the world. I did not encounter many people able to entertain the thought that we could ever be at fault as a nation or that our president could be a fool leading us into a mess. When I asked what Kerry's chances were, even friends looked at me as if I had three heads. Near Flatwood, Alabama, I almost ran off the road after seeing a small "Elect Kerry" sign. It's the only one I came across. In fact, I didn't see any Bush signs either—there's no need for them since he's following God's plan, as everybody there knows. We have always had professional true believers, but in the past their apocalyptic views were marginal and never had such strong support in Congress and the White House, where they are now regularly invited and consulted on matters of national interest. Nor did they ever before have fans even among Catholic and Jewish intellectuals on the right, who find them to be model citizens even with their fanaticism and their love of violence.

"The grungier the town, the better the music and the ribs are liable to be." So I heard. Unfortunately, as I discovered, this is not really true. Most poor people eat mostly poorly prepared food and the better musicians tend to gravitate to cities where customers have cash to spend. The best ribs I had on my trip were not in any of the smaller towns, but in Atlanta. Fat Matt's Rib Joint is a small, unassuming place that promises little from the outside. It serves slabs of pork ribs on paper plates with slices of white bread. There are also bags of potato chips, bowls of rum-soaked beans, and plenty of paper napkins to wipe one's fingers and lips. The crowd is socially and racially mixed. Sitting side by side at long communal tables, eating and drinking pitchers of beer, are well-dressed men and women who could be doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, gas station attendants, and undertakers. The ribs are delicious and cheap, and there's live music. A terrific band is playing a little blues, a little country.

The four white musicians look as if they have day jobs. Three of them are grizzled men in their early sixties who could have come out of an R. Crumb drawing and all of whom one would guess have had plenty of ups and downs in their lives. The songs they play are bawdy, funny, and have a tough realism about them that any serious writer would envy. "A woman gets tired of one man all the time," an old blues song says. Cheating wives and husbands, bad luck, and trouble are the themes. The musicians are enjoying themselves and so is everybody else. That's what our protectors of virtue find so scandalous about the cities. The way diverse classes of people and races get together, drink beer, dance, and make whoopee. But as one of my tablemates, a woman from south Georgia, told me, "Atlanta is not the South."

Notes

[1] The Clarksdale Press Register, June 3, 2004.

[2] See Joan Didion's essay on the Left Behind series in these pages, "Mr. Bush & the Divine," November 6, 2003.

[3] Glorious Appearing: The End of Days (Tyndale House, 2004), p. 226.

[4] Religion in the American South (University of Carolina Press, 2004), p. 167.

[5] From the Mobile Register, Sunday, June 6, 2004.

[6] NewSouth Books, 2004, p. 189. The title recalls that of I'll Take My Stand, the collection issued in 1930 by the Southern Agrarian writers, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Randall Jarrell.

[7] Bats out of Hell (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), p. 83.

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