Willa Cather and the Burden of Southern History

By Matthews, John T. | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Willa Cather and the Burden of Southern History


Matthews, John T., Philological Quarterly


The South ... far from being utterly different, is really the essence of the nation. It is not a mutation born by some accident into the normal, lovely American family; it has simply taken the national genes and done the most with them. It contains, in concentrated and dangerous form, a set of characteristics which mark the country as a whole. It is different because it is a distillation of those traits which are the worst (and a few which are the best) in the national character. Those very qualities long attributed to the South as special possessions are, in truth, American qualities, and the nation reacts emotionally to the South precisely because it subconsciously recognizes itself there. The mystery is that attached to the bastard child, whose father disavows his act. Bur a paternity test, I suspect, would destroy the charge of bastardy and reveal the United States as the true father of the Southern region.

--Howard Zinn, "The South as a Mirror" The Southern Mystique (1964)

**********

EVEN IN POST-APOCALYPTIC AMERICA, memories of plantation slavery will continue to startle and trouble survivors of what was once a nation. Or so Cormac McCarthy suggests in his "post-topian" novel, The Road. A father and son head vaguely southward in the aftermath of an unspecified cataclysm, when, somewhere in the middle of the country, they encounter a place that promises shelter, maybe food to scavenge: it is a "once grand house," "tall and stately with white Doric columns across the front." (1) Given the novel's deliberate refusal to identify what has caused the total devastation enveloping the characters, the historical particularity of this moment appears all the starker. The father understands immediately that they are entering a plantation big house: "Chattel slaves had once trod those boards bearing food and drink on silver trays" (106). The place has fallen into disrepair, the detritus of

very recent occupancy joining the sagging wallpaper and bellying plaster ceilings of long ago. This could be Faulkner's Old Frenchman's Place, another plantation house abandoned to the slow, then quick, eclipse of time. Spooked, the child wants to leave, but the father notices signs of present habitation, signals of valuable supplies locked up. He makes the mistake of forcing his way into the cellar, where he discovers a nightmarish scene: in the dark, and cold, and stench, he sees that "huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands" (110). Worse, a man missing legs, stumps charred, indicates the inconceivable: father and son have stumbled across a place where humans are being held for cannibalistic consumption.

This horrific scene of subjection functions as an historical memory unprepared for. The dimly innocent father and son, exiled from their comfortable twenty-first-century American lifestyle, never having seen the apocalypse coming, hardly expect to run into the forgotten foundation of national well-being. The mansion rests on the hidden reality of plantation violence: the discovered scene evokes a palimpsest of racial chattel slavery--the Middle Passage; plantation economy's cannibalization of laboring slave bodies; post-emancipation lynching; and eerie resonances with what followed: penitentiaries, "deathcamp[s]" (117), post-9/11 torture sites. McCarthy arranges a surreal confrontation with the historical premises of the apocalypse he imagines: central among them the moral monstrosity of slavery, still somehow alive in the present. The father notices that amid the shambles the mansion's "windows were oddly intact" (105), and it is not surprising that he both does and does not want to register a living connection to the resources of so degraded a past: "All these things he saw and did not see" (109).

The aftershocks of colonial plantation society continue to be felt because the frames and panes of the system have remained "oddly intact" in our national, hemispheric, and global activities. …

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