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ESSAY Acknowledgments by Steven Stowe outherners I meet usually get around to asking me how I came by my interest in the South's history. If I were from the South, I think, the question probably would not come up. And if it did (or so I imagine) it would be a different sort of question altogether—something between insiders, more nuanced, more advanced. But because I keep getting asked, subdy but pretty clearly, where my interest in the South comes from, I have come to ask it ofmyself. It isn't a simple question, as I think many nonsoutherners who study the South would agree. I don't have an answer so much as a set of acknowledgments, a kind ofpreface to recognition, which I hope others will share. Of course, like most historians of the South, I have learned to be interested in the region for large-scale reasons, canon reasons, such as the South's centrality to the founding and foundering ofthe Union. The distinctiveness ofsouthern society and culture has been long debated, too, and is a wonderful source of conversation and research. But these are established, disciplinary reasons for doing southern history. They don't answer the question put to me and other nonsoutherners —"How did you get into southern history anyway?"—because they don't go back to origins. There is an assumption about "outsiders" and "insiders" in the question. It makes sense for a southerner to be interested in southern history. It is not difficult to see how a person's own past in a place so haunted by history could develop into a historical interest in the place itself. In one way or another, southerners doing southern history are studying their own backyards and can find great company doing it. This isn't to say that belonging to the South simplifies doing its history ; some fearsome personal briar patches can get in the way. But, compared to whatever is behind an outsider's curiosity, being southern makes it possible to locate one's interest in the South in some way. It's an anchor, a base camp. A nonsoutherner 's interest, on the other hand, seems to float free. How boundless is it? How misguided? It might be awkward, maybe dangerous. Just why wouldany outsider spend time and resources traveling through the southern countryside, going 72 through the southern archives, and asking questions about a place where he or she has no kin, no deep memories, noThe whole native-born conundrums or delights?f L +U Behind this is another assumption, about the fit be-J ~s tween biography and historical curiosity, and how risky itSouth interests me might be to acknowledge it. How much do we want to¡ 7 7 . , ? u + .uUU uf i-.u would be simpler know about the ways in which each or our lives — south--* ern or nonsouthern—has either stayed South or led ifIhailedfrom South? It is even a question about whether we can know ?-? , ? how biography gets tied to historical inquiry, and about-S-* how that knot wraps around all the things that get dis- really <(Other." covered about the South. I think these things matter, and although the question "How did you get interested in the South?" is put to me by southerners, I have made it my question, too. These things matter because they are behind the kinds ofquestions we ask of southern history, shaping the answers we come up with. They matter because outsiders and insiders have always mattered in the South. Some years ago I met a woman, let's call her Mrs. Cooper, who lived in one of the grandly porched frame houses off the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina. A woman then in her seventies, she had kindly agreed to let me see some of her family's letters from the antebellum years. "Ah, Mr. Stowe," she said upon taking my hand, eyes alight with mischief and generosity, the packet of letters on the table beside her. "Mr. Stowe. At least your name isn't Sherman." She drew the line so that it included me, but she drew it anyway. And she drew it so quickly that I was left a litde breathless by the way it foreshortened history, bringing Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Tecumseh Sherman to stand for a moment with the two of us in the parlor. In a way, I was grateful that she had moved so swifdy to the answer she needed. Let us get on with it, let us be clear. Later I got to thinking about how our curiosity was mutual, but asymmetrical. I suppose she was wondering what this young Yankee really wanted with her family's letters. Her words came with the weightiness of a certain southern past that not only announced her decision, but justified it; "Stowe" was a worrisome name, but she could think ofworse Yankees. Giving me the irony of my name, she put me and my curiosity squarely into her world, which, after all, is where I had come knocking. But it is this kind of mismatch that I think many nonsoutherners feel when they study the South. Nothing was amiss in what Mrs. Cooper said; she was as kind as she was sharp. But in the clearest way, she was in her home place; these were her letters and the important questions were hers. I was the outsider, and she took the initiative with a few words ofconsent and watchfulness that sealed our meeting with her appreciation of how the wheel of the southern past always comes around in surprising ways. Acknowledgments ?3 Sometimes I think the whole matter of why the South interests me would be simpler if I hailed from Tokyo or Milan, someplace really Other. "Let me study you!" I could then say with real abandon. "Everyone in my country wishes to know about the South! So different, so foreign!" But I am from southern California , a strange enough place in its own way, but one that is no less American. And, anyway, imagining that the reasons behind my curiosity would be clearer if I were not an American is just wishful evasion. I have to acknowledge how my interest in the South and my experience ofsouthern culture came to me in homegrown fragments, first making the South seem an alien place, then a place explaining an essential America, and, finally, a place having some kind ofdeeper resonance with what I think it is important to know. The first images were refracted by a California childhood of the 1 95os. Word ofthe South seemed to come to me ofits own accord, and although I now doubt that anything happens so simply, it is hard to say why certain early images remain. There was my eighth-grade math teacher, for instance, a man named Fanning, whose error was to tell us kids that he had just come into town from Kentucky and he was happy to be here. I hated math, but this cannot explain why I helped torture Mr. Fanning in word and deed for his "hillbilly" accent, his wispy, plastered hair, and his decrepit neckties from another time. Though southern California was filled with descendants of dust bowl southerners—maybe because of this—Mr. Fanning found himselfon the other side ofsome terrible line drawn by our préadolescent fears. I still cannot say what it was—it was something combustible between us. Mr. Fanning's hill-country southernness made us afraid, and we jumped over a whole nest of dangerous things to get to this conclusion: he was a hick, and hicks were the butt of jokes. We were merciless in showing him how sophisticated junior high school mockery could be. At first he didn't comprehend the depths to which our disrespect would go, but when he did he sometimes tried to meet our jokes head-on; at other times he was alarmingly sly. He was not punitive, and he never tried to air things out. Around the same time, in 1957, my younger sister, who was eight, surprised me by showing me a letter she was sending to Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas. She had drawn a picture of a black schoolgirl and added a note, speaking in the girl's voice, in which she implored the governor to let her attend school with the white children. I was surprised (and my parents must have been, too) that my sister would take the trouble. It seemed a solemnly public and possibly risky thing to do, and maybe I was uneasy that I had not thought of doing it. I knew what she was talking about—President Eisenhower sending troops to guard small girls, Negroes in the South being "kept down," people screaming at other people (which we never did in my neighborhood), great passion andwrong. And I also knew that this was happening in an "other" place, "down" South. Maybe I was worried that my sister's letter would tempt it to come closer. 74 STEVEN STOWE Just as there were many southerners in Long Beach besides Mr. Fanning, therewere racially segregated neigh- History more borhoods, too, and certain mosdy black schools. I did not . / , , 7 . c u- -il uu-uuu'u than mattered to tocus on this until later, which might have been what these intrusions of "the South" let me get away with. SOUthem authors,' What these fragments of the South in my boyhood con- . , , ? , ? ? , , .UJ- c it had them by sciousness seemed to share was their distance from mys identity. There was safety in that remoteness, although the throat. these fragments also spoke of an amazing danger that attached to southerners as being from a place with tangled inadequacies exposed to the world, deformities that they could neither shake off nor accept with grace. Like Mr. Fanning and Governor Faubus, in my groping but not completely careless mind, southerners were marked, and to be so marked was both fascinating and alien. It was not history, but fate that appealed—someone else's fate. Interest in the South's past came later, in the last year of high school, then in college, when I first decided to try thinking things through. Here the South came to me first from reading southern fiction, which I did not set out to read because it was southern, but southerners crowded forward nonetheless. Thomas Wolfe, the perfect author for a late-ripening youth, was both an intellectual and emotional pleasure; in a different way, so was Faulkner. Curiosity about the South soaked into me through channels cut by their wonderful words. Now the South seemed less alien because it was at the heart of something desirable, an articulation of yearning and loss that my friends and I were experiencing only on the borders. It seemed to us that Wolfe and Faulkner, later O'Connor and Williams and Percy, were native to an emotional realm ofunspeakable contradiction thatwe inhabited only after a struggle. We did not envy them for their genius. We envied them for their congenital savvy, for the accident that had made them southerners with a wealth ofsilent, heavy repressions, spectacular fatal flaws, and sometimes soaring escapes. Some instinctual force lay beneath their art that drove them to tell about things we plodders discovered much more slowly, if at all: the Xanadu of dread and desire hidden inside common sense. Now the South was anything but remote. A sense of the South from fiction hooked right into emotional identity, and thus into our sense of southern California , too, because where the reader reads the story makes the story. Southern loss seemed as fathomless as southern scenes were inexhaustible. My neighborhood , though, seemed as bereft of colorful characters and grotesque reversals as a place could be. If the South had a thrilling weight and pressure, it was because beach-town life made us woozy with drifting from one stucco day to the next. If the masks ofsouthern characters suddenly filled all vision like some crazy, homegrown Kabuki, then it was because suburban Californians had a way of being Acknowledgments ? 5 always askance, cornering around the sun-stunned sidewalks of neighborhoods that seemed designed to fade away. We "So-CaI" boys came from a place where modernity was one long exhale, and here were these southern writers, dressed to the nines in period dress, with more to say than we ever could. I think they seemed so bloodied by history because I doubted that my scars had ever felt a wound. I was pulled in most of all by the way this fiction grew from the grip of the southern past, because history began to matter to me. Knowing history made loss less deadly and hope more sensible. History more than mattered to southern authors ; it had them by the throat. Southerners had dealt themselves into history in a way that made the South seem the code-breaker for the troubling signals radiating from the United States in the early 1960s, a country running amok in racial violence and Asian war. The South's history seemed near the center of these things. Itwas a place ofpassionate absolutes, "unrepentant," "everlasting," a conflicted place, a place ofwords and silences, a place "ninety degrees in the shade." I read W J. Cash, and I came the closest I would ever come to thinking that history had a lesson to teach: it was to show us that there are places like the South that hold the key to a people's character. There are places with histories that tie the local to the universal, the stray mischance to the essence ofbelief. The South was not alien at all—it was America squared. Understanding the South, I thought in the early sixties, would let me discover the original course of things I was beginning to feel I should know something about—racial struggle and deferred justice, the courage of ordinary people. Much about the South was still frightening, too, for here seemed to be the worst of paranoid patriots mishandling ideals, generations of vipers, the shills of hidden persuaders at a carnival , the sublime and the ridiculous. And so I "got history" like some people get religion. I read Woodward onJim Crow and Franklin on slavery. But it was Lillian Smith who bowled me over with the story from her Georgia summer school, in Killers oftheDream, where the well-to-do white students (or "campers," as she calls them) devise a play in which they, like Antoine de Saint Exupéry's Litde Prince, are Every Child on a new planet. They must choose guides with whom to explore this realm, and so they select such figures as Conscience, Religion, and Science, each personified by a group ofstudents and each a source ofadvice to the Prince. It is not long before someone wonders why their new planet doesn't include "all the earth's children," and so the young women find themselves talking, heatedly and reluctandy, about race. Smith had nerve to try such psychodrama with these girls and young women in the 1930s and 1940s, and, in the instance she relates, it must have been electric when the students' growing emotional disarray over race was snapped into shape by the figure of Southern Tradition. When the Prince asks Conscience about playing with colored children, Conscience quickly defers to the group playing 76 STEVEN STOWE Southern Tradition, who say, "Ifyou try it, we will hurt you." I was equally struck by the fact that there was no figure of History at all. Science might have done something, Smith implies, to give Conscience a backbone. But Science remains remote, cool, and not at all up to countering Southern Tradition, whose intensity comes from being the only history the students can conceive. In Smith's tale, the past is something invested, closed to inquiry and immovable, and yet also seductive , larger than life because it conceals how deeply inside personal life it is. I think I was responding to the power behind this story, as I understood it, when I became so sure in college that the history of the South held a key to the interlocking ofviolence and justice bound up in the American Character. More, the South held a key to the power of self-delusion—to the fascinating bond between stories, the tellers of stories, and "what happened" in the past. Going to graduate school in history in the early 1970s, I went with the idea that southern struggles were more than southerners' own native tradition. Once in graduate school, history at first became for me pretty much straight irony. I mean this in a good way. Some imagined things aboutwhatwe would possess once we knew about the past gave way to the pleasure oflearning by letting go. The way things didnot add up to a neat American Character turned out to be more exciting than finding the A.C. Lots ofthings might be said about a place like graduate school, where neither passion nor focus is enough; it's as hard as the eighth grade in many ways. But I will keep to how my curiosity about the South spilled over into discoveries that were new and yet still caught up in the question of how close the South was to my nonsouthern life. And ifit was close, then in what way and to what? For the first time I began traveling through the South for weeks at a stretch. Some of the initial, sharp impressions were familiar, or seemed that way—the brick-red earth of Georgia, the cityscape cemeteries of New Orleans, the war monuments in the squares of small towns, the shell-pocked state capítol building in Columbia, South Carolina, the shotgun shacks in northern Mississippi. Other things were less expected: the easy but pointed courtesy of interracial etiquette, the genuine respect for the history-minded, how easily I stood out as a Yankee. I experienced certain things that either showed the South to me, or else showed me up as an outsider. Or both, which is more to the point. Driving through Louisiana, on a hot day with a high sky, I stopped on impulse at a cotton field to pick a souvenir boll or two (who would miss them?). As I was pulling boll from branch, I looked up to see a woman in a long dress come out on the shady porch ofher small house, maybe two hundred yards distant, and stare at me. She was carrying a rifle or shotgun. I think I saluted her in a helpless sort of way; I know I drove off in a hurry. Later, I thought she might have been holding a broom. Most of my time was spent in libraries and archives working with the personal Acknowledgments 77 papers of antebellum southern families of the planter One reason I class. I read letters never intended to be read by anyone ,,7 7 . , . 7 like me, diaries that had been either secret or shared only ask the historical , , . T , , ^ . , ^ , . c ... by choice. 1 read about parenting and courtship, families ÜUestíonS I ash IS and other relations, selfand culture. I was trying to figure ,? , t out how antebellum planters made what they came to ex- •Jpect from their lives. My days were spent reading people With change.who couldn't talk back, and being curious, too, about the mental and other limits that defined doing history the way I wanted to do it. Doing history is for minimalists, for people happy with shards. It is about inventing clarity in the midst of normal confusion. And I came to see that it is work that goes best when you ask not only what your sources—these texts—are about, but also why you are so interested in them. Being too wedded to "objectivity" in the pursuit of history is a wish to evade this latter question. I began to understand that all ofthe energy, issues, evidence, and words of history that matter arise out of subjectivities fairly seen and claimed. These discoveries grew and deepened as I began to practice history in other ways, too, teaching and writing. The South became more personal as it attached to friends (southern and nonsouthern) who were also exploring the southern past, and I got a glimpse of another layer of identity between myself and the South. Many ofmy historian friends were studying people whom they admired or to whom they felt related in a political or social way. In choosing to study wealthy slave owners, I had chosen to be curious about a group of people I did not want to be like, or even to like. Slave-owning planters desired things I did not and told themselves lies I saw through, and yet this is what held my interest. I began to see that the planters' experience, because it was at such a sharp tangent to mine in obvious ways, unexpectedly circled back to certain likenesses between us that neither ofus would have seen face-to-face. The precise angle ofdifference between us put me at just the right pitch to my own life so that historical curiosity was freed and I felt I had something to discover and to say. Just why this should be so is still a mystery. I'll probably never know. But I have to acknowledge that learning about the Old South is, for me, learning about both a place that was and a vantage point that is. It is both whathas happened and how certain things happen that matters. And at the heart ofthis is how past experience is a predicament before it is a story. History happens the moment we find words for our predicaments. The words antebellum southerners poured onto the pages of their letters washed up against a fix at the center of their lives. It was a plight shaped by all the southern realities, by race and slavery and by the lay ofthe land; by song and tale and love and violence, and all the rest ofit, but shaped most of all by how people either spoke or turned away from words. My curiosity—my 78 STEVEN STOWE own "southern" identity, in a way—is about how people live within their predicaments , seizing possibilities and missing them, through what they are able to say. I think there is something else to this, too. The sheer power ofthe slave-owning elite is not incidental here. Their predicament took shape in part from the power they had to deny the consequences oftheir own desires. Cherishing their predicament led them to fashion self-awareness into stories told to deflect change and self-awareness, even as they plummeted into a future where there would be more change than they ever could have imagined. This is something you don't have to be an antebellum slave owner to experience, but seeing them backing into momentous change is to witness something special—a loss, a revelation, a failure, and a chance to start over, all rolled into one. I realized that because I had my own ways of backing into things, of being blind, I was able to say something about their ways. I realized, too, that one reason I ask the historical questions I ask is that I am uneasy with change—it always seems like something that is "good for me." But it is just as certain that I am drawn to the study of the South because change will come {nolens volens, as one man I studied always said), and meanings will be shattered and remade. We had best know what's up with change. So, as I have come to acknowledge how such things tie me and my work to the southern past, I have come to see my outsider's story as being "about" the South in its own way. It's a tenuous way; the air is a litde thinner. But it's a radical way, too, depending on recollected images, screens of memory, and the satisfactions ofwords that aren't wholly native-born. These are things a lot ofsoutherners understand . I am not sure about Mr. Fanning, but I think if I talked to her about it, Mrs. Cooper would see what I mean. Acknowledgments 79 ...

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ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 72-79
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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