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[End Page 1]
I once listened attentively as a native New Yorker explained the South to some newcomers more recent than he. "What made this place possible was the invention of air conditioning," he pronounced. "Before that, nobody could live here."
Now I love that sweet cold blast as much as anybody. Whatever the environmental consequences, I'm not hot to give it up. But I also remembered that my family did not get central air until after I went to college, and we certainly weren't the last to take that delicious plunge. And before we came on the scene, black and white southerners had been waiting about four centuries for air conditioning, without even knowing they were doing it. And Lord only knows how long the Indians did without it.
Of course the incident reminded me of just how much you can trust some experts and what certain people mean by the word "nobody." No need to plow that ground again. But it also got me thinking about the role of memory in shaping our awareness. It was easy for the new neighbors to turn their predecessors into "nobody" because they could not remember them. No one had ever told them stories about working tobacco, or paying bills with sacks of sweet potatoes, or moving from out in the county into town, all when it was 90°F in the shade. And of course nothing about the War under any weather conditions. Without memory, those past things had never happened, and the space where they happened was empty until they got there.
Do a thought experiment. What if the entire southeastern quarter of the United States were suddenly and exclusively populated by people like my new neighbors? (Fine people, by the way, once you get to know them.) Or what if all the native southerners suddenly forgot all their old habits, and everything and everybody who came before them? The South as a distinct place would immediately vanish. No more southern accent, southern foods, southern music, southern race relations, southern history. There would be nothing left except the land and the weather—and Mr. Carrier's marvelous invention has indeed done much to neutralize the latter. There would also be some artifacts for archaeologists to ponder—collapsing cabins by weed-grown fields, crumbling memorials facing north, too many houses with silly white columns. But for good or ill, the life would be gone from these things because no one could remember a connection to them. The same would be true for any place or culture. All our distinctive identities rest on memory.
Memory studies are popular on campus these days. Scholars scrutinize old monuments to decode their messages, or ask why some things go to museums and others to landfills. A couple of essays in this issue come from that school, and teach us a lot about memory's sources. But memory also comes from less formal circumstances. Some of the most important come from family and friends retelling stories and reenacting habits from the past. We have some pieces in that vein [End Page 2] too. They're all good illustration of how memories have created our notions of the South.
The question of southern memory almost inevitably leads to the Lost Cause and white southerners' efforts to commemorate the Confederacy. Surely no aspect of the southern past has generated even half as many statues, obelisks, essay contests, and genealogical searches. The linked figures at the heart of this prodigious industry are of course General Robert E. Lee, the white South's Christian Knight, and the Confederate common soldier, the vigilant Everyman who peers from all those courthouse squares. Even while the Civil War still raged, the bond between Marse Robert and Johnny Reb was legendary, and the bond between leader and led only strengthened with every ensuing eulogy and memorial pageant. Memory of Lee gave white boys a model of sacrificial and redemptive courage while his nameless followers practiced that ideal in a way that ordinary men could...