The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South
(And Why It Will Rise Again)
by Clint Johnson
Regnery, 288 pp., $19.95
Once I told my uncle that I love the South so much I would die for it. Yes, replied the venerable oldster, but you won't live here. True, but I have every intention of awaiting the final trump under a crepe myrtle in the Mississippi Delta, and so I feel I have the bona fides to take on this latest entry in Regnery's generally enjoyable P.I.G. series.
The South is under an assault today almost as mean-spirited as when Mr. Lincoln let loose the great arsonist upon our ancestors. Northern liberals deride us because we have kissed and made up with the party that ran Reconstruction, helping keep a president despised by the soi-disant enlightened in office. Thomas Schaller's recently published nasty book Whistling Past Dixie opines that the South is racist and that Democrats had better develop a winning strategy that doesn't require our benighted votes. Clearly, it is time to fight back.
Johnson--whose previous credits include a book about one of the two greatest men who ever lived, Robert Edward Lee (Jesus is the other, of course, though it's hard to keep them straight in my mind)--is, alas, not the general to conduct our campaign. He has the decency to want to be a southerner. But he is from Florida, a state that was helpful during the late hostilities, but is by no means culturally southern.
It shows. Who but a Floridian--or a Yankee--would try to explain the South without mentioning by name Quentin Compson, the haunted southerner who ended his life at Harvard (if only he'd gone to Sewanee!), or his sister Caddy, the quintessential southern loose leg, as we call women who can't say no? (I know Faulkner made them up, but they are real to me.) Johnson also fails to note, even in passing, Sir Walter Scott, often credited with starting the Civil War because he puffed us up with notions of chivalry. I've never been in a "nice" southern house that didn't boast a set of Scott's Waverley novels. I had them even when I was living in a bed sit.
While nothing is more painful to a loyal daughter of the South than having the Confederacy compared to Nazi Germany, Johnson's attempt to rescue the CSA's reputation, though well-intended, is misguided. He argues like a Yankee, pursuing a line beloved of paleocon intellectuals from places like Ohio (and Florida?): That the Civil War was caused, not by our peculiar institution, but by tariffs or Lincoln's abrogation of states' rights. Johnson's designated cause of the war seems to be the long-forgotten Morrill Tariff. This kind of argument makes your head hurt, and especially a century-and-a-half after the event at Appomattox, our fealty is a matter of the heart, not arcane arguments.
We're like Lee--or was it Jesus?--who was offered command of the Union Army but refused because he could not go against Virginia. (Just for the record, I'd flat-out admit that it's just as well that we lost, except that to do so would trigger an earthquake on that aforementioned cemetery plot where I plan to rest.)
Johnson is right that the southern colonies "birthed" the New World. It is odd, then, that he deals with Jamestown--where ladies and gentlemen, cavaliers all and stalwarts of the Established Church, had brought civilization a full 13 years before those tacky dissenters ever set foot on Plymouth Rock--only in terms of slavery. I knew Marxist historians thought this way, but a southern apologist? Of course there is a twist: Johnson dwells at length on the saga of one Anthony Johnson, a black man who owned slaves and won a lawsuit that contributed to the legalization of slavery on these shores. (Hey, it's their fault.) Johnson also argues--disingenuously--that the reason the southern states insisted that slaves be counted in the Constitution as three-fifths of a person is evidence of our belief in their humanity!
The real reason southerners wanted to count slaves as partial human beings was that the South wanted to counter the North's larger population. We had no intention of allowing these partial human beings to pool their humanity into votes. On the subject of slavery, Johnson vacillates between apologies and excuses. Let's face it: Slavery is perhaps not the best ground on which to take our stand.
Like Johnson, I am saddened when the Confederate battle flag and other historic artifacts are demeaned. But one of his examples of southerners succumbing to political correctness is bizarre: "The president of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, founded by Confederate Leonidas Polk, is rebranding the university under the Sewanee name."
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.