Can Southern Culture Survive?
By Franklin Sanders
In the early fall, a member of our vast editorial staff took a vacation on South Carolina’s coast, on one of the sea islands near Beaufort. Travelling to gracious Savannah, then surveying the ruins of Sheldon Church in South Carolina that was burned first by the British and then by the Yankees, walking down Meeting Street surrounded by sumptuous, elegant Charleston’s magnificent churches and mansions, hiking the battlefields at Kings Mountain and Cowpens where Southern men (mostly Tennesseans) won the Revolution, passing through the Museum of Early Southern Design Art at Old Salem, North Carolina, and driving through the countryside of Virginia, the astonishing grace and accomplishment of Southern culture surrounded him, but left a hushed question behind.
Is it clean gone forever? Has Southern culture, even the unique folkways and customs of Southerners high and low, disappeared? Or does Southern culture yet live?
Much of it has been replaced with bogus government culture. In every hamlet and county, the Yankee empire has planted “Arts Councils,” which have as much to do with cultivating art as those high-school condom giveaways have to do with cultivating chastity. Government money always decapitalizes the recipient; government help always achieves a result opposite to the one claimed. Government “help” for agriculture has driven farmers off the land, decimated rural culture, and is even now driving the last of the tobacco farmers off the land. In the same way, government art subsidies do not build but destroy Southern culture, replacing our native culture with something shallow and alien. They work exactly as their purveyors intend them to work.
Southerners tend to think of their culture as distinguished primarily by manners, the gracious way we (are supposed to) behave toward each other. But history shows that Southerners have from the very beginning been a people who did all things well, even elegantly.
For the South, the word “culture” brings first to mind Southern literature, from William Gilmore Simms to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Next music springs to mind. Yet an automobile trip through the South will not be long stretched out before the eyes discover astonishing architectural treasures, and I don’t mean those hideous metastasized warehouse-churches foisted by crazed architects on tasteless church deacons. Dig further and you will find Southern painters, silversmiths, cabinetmakers, quiltmakers, and artisans of every breed and calling. For instance, how many silversmiths were in Tennessee before the War? Dozens, several in every large city. How many are there today? I don’t know of one, but that’s all right. Silversmiths alone don’t make a culture – an appreciative audience is necessary first. Build the audience, and the silversmiths will come.
That’s my great concern: is the cultural audience still in the South? Does Southern culture yet live? Have we given up treading water, fighting to keep Southern culture alive, and resigned ourselves to drowning in the tide of American mediocrity?
Ahh, I can’t speak for the whole South, but I can speak for my little plot in Tennessee. Where these Southerners stand, the South lives and will live, and Southern culture will survive.
Southern culture doesn’t live in the jails of museums, opera halls, ballet stages, or art galleries. It’s too delicate for that. It can only survive in the hearts and minds and daily acts of the Southern people. To imprison it in those alien places would kill it forever.
Maybe your artistry only shows up with a dog and a gun in a canebrake, or maybe it blossoms in your holy kitchen. Maybe it appears in the infinitesimal stitches of the quilts you made for your grandchildren. Or in the hoof rasps you hammered into tomahawks over a smoking forge. Maybe Southern culture still lives in the perfect jar of pickles, or in a ham the likes of which this world has never thrown a tongue over, or in a garden where the rows are so straight that a weed wouldn’t have the nerve to take root, or in the mysterious dance of pointer and quail and Tennessee walker.
Maybe Southern art is in that magical run on banjo, guitar, or piano, in a child’s first crayon drawings, in the stories that pour out of old men like springs out of caves.
Living well is not only the best revenge, it also mothers the best art. When our everyday and necessary tasks arise deliberately from praise and thanksgiving, we offer back to God a dance of joy that not even angels can share.
And that is culture indeed.
The Free Magnolia: The Voice of Southern Life and Culture
A publication of:
League of the South
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Killen, Alabama 35645