Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2003 / 7 Kislev 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Fellow feeling | PROVIDENCE, R.I. A distinguished panel is discussing New England, but I'm sitting here thinking of the South. In particular, a sultry night in June years ago at Wildwood, the annual summer arts festival in Little Rock.

It was the night I attended an outdoor forum on the semi-serious question: Is there still a South?

As I stood there in the gazebo, glazed in sweat, swatting away at mosquitoes the size of Razorback hogs before a crowd armed with funeral-home fans, I realized it was clearly a rhetorical question.

Certainly to the audience. Who would come out for such a debate - half Chatauqua lecture, half picnic on the grounds - except those who, as an article of faith, believed there was, is and always would be a South?

John Shelton Reed, the sociologist of the South from Chapel Hill, the veritable de Tocqueville of Dixie, was there to argue the case for the everlasting South. Hodding Carter of the Greenville, Miss., Carters was there, too. Then known as Young Hod to distinguish him from his father, the legendary editor, he was the best sport on the panel; he'd agreed to risk life and limb by taking the negative, and having to argue that there was no longer a capital-S South in these homogenized, Americanized and generally globalized times.

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But even Young Hod, at the end of the evening's festivities, fell to his feet, tent-meeting style, and repented, confessing that Oh, Yes, There Is Still a South! He was forgiven all his sins on the spot. The prodigal had returned!

The region under discussion this morning couldn't be more different from the South, yet the topic has a familiar resonance for a Southerner: Does New England still matter?

The South and New England remain the most distinctive of American regions, although they have little in common except their distinctiveness. Each is an exception to the bland American rule. Each is always disappearing and always there. And each shaped, and still shapes, the American ethos.

Each is the other side of a coin that's always about to go out of circulation yet keeps showing up in American transactions.

Both regions still matter, but not in the way they once did. Each changes every generation while holding on to the firm faith that they haven't changed at all. In both, paradoxes abound.

I ask Judson Hale, the editor of Yankee magazine, if there is still a New England. He replies, in both Southern and New England fashion, with a story. He tells of the New England Yankee who still has his great-grandfather's ax. But, he pointed out, the handle has been replaced four times and the ax-blade twice. And he poses the philosophical question: Is it the same ax?

Editor Hale's answer: Yes. Because it's the concept that matters, like the concept and therefore the reality that is New England.

Just as there is the idea and therefore the reality of the South. (Just trade in the ax in Judson Hale's story for great-grandfather's sword.)

It's not an easy trick to pull off, keeping an idea real while it's changing all around you. To quote David Shribman of The Boston Globe on how New England pulls it off:

"The United States is increasingly a nation of ambiguities painted in a dull wash. New England, in contrast, is vivid and distinct, a region of sharp lines. . . . Defying the demographics, and the odds, New England hangs on to a strong regional identity and performs a magic act, becoming more like itself even as it changes utterly."

Which may be the only way New England resembles the South. How do both carry off that magic act? Through will, imagination and habit. What the South does through literature, laconic New England does with the fewest words possible.

What old New England does with homespun simplicity, the old South achieves by courtly gesture. Both Boston and Charleston have worked their way into the national character - each very differently.

And just what is this New England cast of mind? It can be described but scarcely defined. It's frugal, proud, individualistic, hard-working, wry . . . all the traits it takes to survive a New England winter. When it comes to shaping a culture, climate is still all.

The mix of individual eccentricity and community feeling that is the New England town meeting is the essence of democracy, yet it defies the great god Demos. The notion of The Masses is as alien to New England as it is to America itself. In that way, too, New England has shaped the American ethos as the South was never able to.

Yes, there is still a New England under all the change. Because, like the South, it is not only a geographical designation but a state of mind. It's a matter not only of latitude but attitude.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Today's column is based on an essay in his book "Entirely Personal." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments by clicking here.

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