The Magazine

Sense of Place

Thinking globally, while writing locally, in the South.

Apr 10, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 28 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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On Matters Southern

Essays About Literature and Culture, 1964-2000

by Marion Montgomery

Edited by Michael M. Jordan

McFarland, 214 pp., $35

CLEANTH BROOKS ONCE DESCRIBED Marion Montgomery as "one of the most acute and profound critics of present-day American culture." This volume contains 26 essays in testimony to the truth of that statement.

On Matters Southern is timely, coming as it does on the 75th anniversary of the publication of I'll Take My Stand. Like those Agrarian writers, Montgomery, a native of Georgia, advocates a regionalism rooted in time and place as opposed to the provincialism pandemic in modern man. Flannery O'Connor noted modernity's radical instability in both time and place, observing: "You know what's the matter with all that kind of folks? They ain't from anywhere." For modern man is a new nomad--one of speed, living everywhere and nowhere.

Being rooted in a place is a hallmark of civilization that enables the development of the person and family. Appreciation of place is not something peculiar or restricted to the American South; it is more of a cultural delineation than a geographic one. Yeats prayed his daughter would be "rooted in one dear perpetual place." In this regard, Yeats is a kind of "Southerner." Says Montgomery:

The "Southerner" of whom I speak, the person to whom some place separate from his own mind is of importance, discovers in his acknowledgment of a place other than his own mind that he thereby becomes a member of a community of creatures, a community larger than his private moment and wider than his mailing address, though his participation in that community will very likely show itself at the local level.

Let me offer an example. Only a male and a female joined together in marriage are naturally creative with the gift of procreating and fostering children. This makes all community possible. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Court recently attacked this most basic component of civilization in proclaiming gay marriage. Ignoring natural law, and the experiences of history and civilization, Marshall said that the family is really an "evolving paradigm." She fits Montgomery's definition of a provincial without roots in time or place--unless it be the island of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels, where residents seek to extract sunshine from cucumbers and build houses top first without any foundations.

Montgomery, a writer and poet, essays that the breakup of family is the primary factor in the great disorder of Western civilization: "For we are in an age which is at once decaying as Athens decayed before the frustrated eyes of Euripides." Montgomery believes "we are giving birth to a new paganism such as the world has never before imagined." He is concerned about the order of civilization because it leads us toward the cause of all order. He knows from his vast study of history and literature that man is a creature living in time, yet possessing an eternal destiny. He knows man is on a journey, though as "we travel from local to local [we] sometimes gain brief visions of the transcendent and the timeless--through the local."

In these essays, Montgomery explores the breakup of our civilization and also how it impinges upon the art of the writer. "When a particular writer succumbs to the provincialism which is everywhere rampant in our 'national spirit,'" he says, "he will cease to be regionalist and increasingly become a provincial writer with all the weaknesses that provincialism intrudes upon art." Flannery O'Connor called this provincialism "secular Manichaean." Eric Voegelin's more encompassing term was "secular Gnosticism." Both "superimpose distortions upon the reality of being that is the prime source of art's life."

As a Southern writer, Montgomery occupies an advantageous position because he still knows what a man or woman is. He knows human beings have an essential nature. The perspective allowed by place enables a clearer vision of the distortions and grotesques of reality so prevalent among us from those who are busy trying to recreate man's nature and the nature of created reality. Montgomery believes in "the person, an intellectual soul incarnate, who by the gift of being is required to address history and nature, and the accidents of time and place, as steward to the inherent goodness of creation itself."