Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 3-7
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There once was a time when every southerner had a Confederate childhood. This was a circular truism in part, because white folks were inclined to think of themselves as the only real southerners and they usually dismissed non-Confederates as too trifling or disgraceful to think about. Generations of white children grew up on legends of the Confederacy, perhaps imparted in Faulknerian tradition by implacable relatives who could neither forgive nor forget, even if the War had been over and done with before they were born.
But Confederate childhood runs even deeper than that, for the late unpleasantness and its consequences had such a profound impact on the regional identity that you might as well call it a birthing experience. The South certainly existed as a social and political entity Before the War, but the South's obsession with its own distinctiveness really grew out of the experience of defeat. Nurtured by Confederate memorial associations and endless family recollections, Dixie grew up [End Page 3] self-consciously by rehearsing the memory of the Civil War experience, long before NASCAR or soul food came forward as alternative tokens for regional identity. This was as true for blacks and anti-Confederates as it was for the UDC, it seems to me, for in the absence of widespread immigration before the 1970s, the memory of war, emancipation, and Reconstruction penetrated broadly and gave just about everybody something epochal to pass on to grandchildren. Even when this was not true, the culture of regional identity had deep and obvious roots in the war experience that gave southern self-consciousness a kind of Confederate childhood, whatever one's actual ancestry.
My own upbringing certainly had its Confederate echoes, even though its basic structure was thoroughly suburban, with faux Williamsburg ranch houses the closest I ever got on most days to anything resembling Tara. I remember the fearsome urgency in my mother's voice when she told me once that "in this part of the country, when people say 'the War' they still mean the Civil War." Mother had no use for historical euphemisms, but my father always said "the Confederate War." He was also older than most of my friends' fathers were, so I must have been one of the last children on earth to be chided for tardiness with the awful example of General Longstreet's alleged failure to arrive on time at Gettysburg. I'm afraid Dad's admonitions did little good, because I still run late today, but I clearly remember the last time he brought it up. "So what if Longstreet had been on time?" I retorted, full of superior opinions from my Yankee college. "The whole bloody mess would have just dragged on six months longer!" Instead of replying in kind, my father just looked back through several layers of pained surprise. "I expect you're right," he finally said, as we both rounded a milestone in growing up and growing older.
The articles in this issue of Southern Cultures all deal with recollection, or thoughts about recollection, in which the South's Confederate childhood figures prominently. Doris Betts goes first, with reflections on what drew her to the West as a setting for some of her fiction, a distant setting from her Piedmont North Carolina origins. Superficially, her West has little to do with the boys in gray and much more to do with the delicious excitement of her father's "blood and thunder books," written by authors like Zane Grey and Owen Wister. For Betts, the West of childhood was limitless power and possibility, qualities that the real Iredell County somehow seemed to lack. That's what the West must also have meant to fugitive Confederate Samuel L. Clemens and defeated desperado Jesse James, to name only two southerners who sought their fortunes in the West. But Betts links us most directly to the South's childhood through the act of remembering itself, not only the memory of her first exposure to the West but the western experiences of southerners who passed before her through the Cumberland Gap...