Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2004 / 17 Kislev5765
"My mother's people, the people who captured my imagination when I was growing up, were of the Deep South - emotional, changeable, touched with charisma and given to histrionic flourishes. They were courageous under tension and unexpectedly tough beneath their wild eccentricities, for they had an unusually close working agreement with God. They also had an unusually high quota of bullshit." - Willie Morris
OXFORD, Miss. I'm sitting here early on a misty morn in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Ole Miss, site of a conference on "The American South, Then and Now."
The setting is perfect. For the South is a kind of performing art itself, and one with a wide range - from burlesque to Greek tragedy, Al Jolson to Bill Faulkner. Hey, what a country, region, realm of the spirit or just state of mind. Whatever we mean by The South, it's more than a mere geographical designation, and we're here to celebrate it.
The occasion is the 35th anniversary of the L.Q.C. Lamar Society, which was formed in a burst of New South enthusiasm back in the bell-bottom '70s. The Lamar Society was responsible for producing "You Can't Eat Magnolias," a kind of modern riposte to the agrarian school of Southern intellectuals who produced "I'll Take My Stand" in the 1930s, an eloquent manifesto that turned out to be more eloquent than realistic. Which is usually the problem with Southern rhetoric. ("Next to fried food, the South has suffered most from oratory." - Walter Hines Page.)
Whence the name of the Lamar Society? Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar was just about everything in his distinguished 19th century career, from light colonel, C.S.A., to an associate justice of the Supreme Court, U.S.A. But my favorite line in his biographical entry notes that he taught "metaphysics, social science and law" at Ole Miss. The borders between the three have always been a little foggy in American jurisprudence, and have probably grown even foggier since the colonel's day. (See almost any opinion by Her Honor Sandra Day O'Connor.)
Prof./Col./Sen./Secretary (of the Interior in Grover Cleveland's Cabinet), and finally Justice Lamar was probably best known for his post-war efforts to reconcile North and South, black and white, past and future, which is what earned him a chapter in John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." And the Lamar Society is dedicated to continuing that noble tradition.
But to judge by the stemwinders at this academic conference, the Society named for him never developed much interest in conciliating conservatives and liberals. Correction: There are no more liberals; they're progressives now. It's all in the best tradition of modern marketing: If a product doesn't sell, change only the name.
I intend to keep a running score of the political asides, digs and general bloviations at this morning's session. I want to see how many reflect a liberal/Democratic bias, and how many a conservative/Republican slant.
I soon give up. Because the contest proves as one-sided as the Arkansas-Ole Miss score this year: 35-3. Except the conservatives don't score as much as a field goal during this first session of the morning.
Is there any sector of American life that talks more of diversity than academia, and shows less of it when it comes to ideas?
But before the end of the day, there are a number of astute observations, usually by John Shelton Reed. He's the de Tocqueville of Dixie who's been studying the South from his eyrie at Chapel Hill for approximately a lifetime. He's just back from a stint at Oxford (the one in England), and is now putting in a semester at Ole Miss. His latest collection of essays - "Minding the South" - puts into words what many of us may have known or felt about the South but were never able to articulate.
The professor long ago grew bored debating whether there is still a South, the perennial question every generation of Southerners asks. But he does venture that, if there's still a South another 35 years down the road, it'll be as different from today's as today's is from the Souths of the past.
John Reed won't venture a guess about what the Southern culture of the future might be like, but he does offer two words of advice to those interested in how it might develop: !Estudien Espanol!
Think Don Quixote in jeans. Sure enough, when we make the pilgrimage to Rowan Oak, Faulkner's manse, there is a striking bust of Don Quixote in the living room; he'd acquired it on a trip to Mexico. One suspects the South will have the same softening effect on the Spanish language as it has had on the English. Whatever the result, it'll be interesting. The South always is.
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