The Magazine

Y'all's History

Or, defending the South, Yankee style.

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By CHARLOTTE HAYS
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I don't know how that venerable institution has been affected by developments in the Episcopal Church, but I do know that no place on earth is less interested in "rebranding" than Sewanee. It was called Sewanee when my ancient uncles were there, and I'll lay you 5 to 10 that Leonidas Polk, the key figure in the university's founding, called it Sewanee. A real southerner would never level such an accusation at Sewanee.

Leonidas Polk, incidentally, was a bishop of the Episcopal Church and a general in the Confederate army. Johnson describes him as a "terrible" general. It doesn't matter. If you want to know what southerners love about the South, you have only to look at the famous picture of Polk in the puffed sleeves of a bishop with his sword and Confederate uniform on a chair beside him. By golly, even southern bishops were fighting men! The image says something about the dignity of taking up arms that other parts of the country need to relearn.

There are some nice touches in the book. He offers a guide to the characters of Gone with the Wind, a book my mother read during her pregnancies in the same spirit that Yankee mothers play Mozart for an unborn child. Rhett Butler is evidence that southern men are "dangerous in the moonlight." There are also sidebars with quotes from southern authors and others that really do tell you a lot about being southern. They include Faulkner's wonderful evocation of a southern boy's feeling that George Pickett's charge hasn't yet happened and the world is full of possibilities.

But mostly this is a Yankeefied defense of the South. Does Johnson even know which way the statue of the Confederate soldier on the courthouse lawn faces? He seems to believe that the honey-toned Civil War historian/novelist Shelby Foote made the famous observation that the South was the one part of the country that had lost a war. This is no longer true, and Shelby Foote didn't say it. The comment is actually from another southern historian, C. Vann Woodward.

I do not venture to set the record straight because Shelby Foote's bad dog Beau tore up my mother's flower beds when Foote was a curmudgeonly (and not yet famous) neighbor across Washington Avenue in Greenville, Mississippi, but in the high name of historical accuracy.

Charlotte Hays is coauthor of the forthcoming Somebody is Going to Die if Lilly Beth Doesn't Catch That Bouquet: The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Hosting the Perfect Wedding.