Southern Cultures 9.3 (2003) 2-6
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Novelist Elizabeth Spencer writes hauntingly of two divergent experiences from her childhood in Carrollton, Mississippi. One chapter of her memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, tells of Miss Beauregard Somerville, an imposing dowager who lived in a big white house and ruled the leading families with an iron code of propriety. A word from Miss Beaurie could cover the shoulders and extinguish the cigarettes of the most daring young ladies, and even for the youngest child, scratching oneself in her parlor was too horrible to contemplate. Thinking of harrowing visits to that seat of judgment, Spencer remembers "the rustle of taffeta. Long skirts in hot weather or cold. Petticoats. Black shoes. High lace collars. And no one to doubt that she was right about everything." Even after Miss Beaurie's death, her [End Page 2] judgments lived on, governing the lives and consciences of Carrollton's ladies with an iron code of convention. In this environment, Spencer recalls, life for young women was "as rigidly bounded as a high-security prison, guards on the watchtowers, dogs trained for hot pursuit. Manners and behavior, what one wore and did not wear, what talk was allowed and what was never to be mentioned (though everyone knew it). Gossip and confidences," she concludes, held an unbreakable sway.
Somewhat later in her memoir, Elizabeth Spencer describes her first day at school. Unlike the world of Miss Beaurie, she found school "strange to the last degree. I might as well have been in another state or even among Yankees, whom I had heard about but never seen. I could see our house from the edge of the campus, but it seemed to me I was observing it from the moon." The world of school was utterly different from the rest of Carrollton, and Spencer felt wistful about the changes it brought to her. But she leaves no doubt that the new world of learning brought a kind of emancipation she could find nowhere else. "From then on, life changed in a certain way I could not define," she explains. After she started school, "everybody, every single person, was just the same. Yet I was losing them; they were fading before my eyes." Echoing the famous sentiment of Thomas Wolfe, she remembers that school set her on a path that took her away from the Mississippi of her childhood, never truly to return, no matter what Miss Beauregard might say. "You can go somewhere, anywhere you want," she declares, "but you can't ever quite come back. Having gone up a road and entered a building at an appointed hour, I could find no way to come back out of it and feel the same way about my grandfather, ginger cakes, or a new book satchel. This was the big surprise, and I had no power over it."
It's probably safe to say that for many southerners, the grip of Miss Beauregard's rules still have a great deal of power. There are dos and don'ts and whole encyclopedias of order and control that have to be obeyed. These rules gain power from their reputation for permanence and antiquity. As Spencer remembers about Miss Beauregard's manners, "She couldn't have invented them herself, so she must have got them from those before her who knew best." Manners can cover everything. Clothing, liquor, and cigarettes. Church and family. Weddings, funerals, and politics. Race, class, and sex. Especially sex. Even in Carrollton, one suspects, the rules have relaxed a bit since Miss Beaurie held sway, but they have not disappeared. And for many of us, even the most liberated, the existence of these rules is sometimes a blessed relief. They allow us to go on autopilot in a time of stress, and transfer the burden of decision-making from fallible individuals to the time-tested wisdom of the folk. Let's face it, the world would be pretty chaotic with no rules at all.
But the imprisoning nature of tradition is modernism's oldest cliché. Almost universally, the southerners who can step back and describe traditional...