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  • Harry Watson

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Figure 1.

Anthropologist Melissa Schrift is our guide to the Angola Prison Rodeo and Inmates Arts Festival in "The Wildest Show in the South." Photograph courtesy of Melissa Schrift.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." William Faulkner's most famous line comes up a lot whenever people discuss the American South. The way some people interpret it, the idea seems to be that the future never happens down South; the region is so changeless that life just keeps repeating itself. Old times there are not forgotten, as the song says. You could also read Faulkner's proverb to mean that no one and no country ever gets a blank page to write on; we never completely escape what came before us. We historians like that idea. It's good for business. [End Page 1]

But there's another broad swath of southern culture organized around the idea that the region has changed too much. Gone with the Wind and all the other plantation romances speak for themselves, but southern nostalgia isn't limited to the pining of belles and beaux. Country music is drenched with homesickness for that cabin in the hills, just as the blues keeps us aching for the love that got away.

It's not hard to see how nostalgia could become a southern theme song. Certainly the bitterness of defeat, followed by a century or so of poverty, gave many southerners something to sigh about. Even more, the displacement and migration of the twentieth century have given different generations many reasons to look back to a time when family ties, moral values, and life in general seemed more stable and secure. It's safe to assume that precious few of us today would really give up air conditioning and indoor plumbing for the simple, natural joys of sharecropping and poll taxes, but nostalgia is not about making real choices to relive the whole past. Sometimes it's just a fondness for old-time ways that recalls the joys of childhood, the incomparable love of Grandma, or a people's brave resistance to adversity. That kind of nostalgia flavors this issue's mouth-watering "Beyond Grits and Gravy" by Frederick Douglass Opie, who tells us all about molasses, the Old South's favorite sweetener, and a food of slaves that charmed its way into the big house.

There's also a politics of nostalgia, when longing for the past announces that the present is out of joint, that something needs fixing if we only knew how. This kind of nostalgia can be harnessed to reform. It reminds us that whatever we don't like about the present has not been around forever, so it should not have to endure. But political nostalgia is tricky and doesn't solve problems on its own. Restoring the past—or some part of it—may be a positive step or the very opposite, as innumerable southern demagogues could demonstrate. Without a strategy for the future, nostalgia can easily curdle from hope into despair.

In one way or another, most of the contributors to this issue of Southern Cultures have something to say about the seductive pull of lost worlds. Benjamin E. Wise's essay on William Alexander Percy is most explicitly concerned with hopeless longing, both for an irrecoverable past and a seemingly impossible present. Percy came from a family of Mississippi planters who also nurtured a long line of writers, most notably William A. Percy himself and his young cousin Walker Percy. As Wise tells us, many readers find the senior Percy's memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, to be a perfect expression of the family pride, gracious living, noblesse oblige, and paternalism that they identify with the best of plantation aristocracy, so it's been a classic of southern letters ever since its publication in 1941.

You might think that "Mr. Will," as his Greenville neighbors called him, would be a fountain of nostalgia for the world Before the War, but Wise tells us that Percy had no use for that variety of escapism. Instead, Percy's poetry expressed an unquenchable [End Page 2...


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