Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The South's Thirsty Muse

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The South's Thirsty Muse

Article excerpt

Long before William Faulkner declared that civilization began with distillation, southerners knew it had achieved a genial and ruddy perfection in the South with the creation of that velvety smooth distillate of sour mash and sparkling limestone water known as bourbon. I refer not to the rot-gut, wildcat corn that every child of calamity ever raised to his lips in countless southwestern tales, nor to the old "white mule," or "baldface" John Barleycorn, or even the smooth-sippin' Tennessee Black Jack that Faulkner kept within reach while he wrote, but to good "old bourbon," the Kentucky thoroughbred, the crown prince of whiskeys, and the eponymous spirit of "Old Bourbon" County, Kentucky. The distinction is not a matter of mere connoisseurship, but of tradition. It is by now a cliche that any writer who may be regarded as being connected in any way with the South--by birth or by temperament or by earnest affectation--that is, any writer whom we may without hesitation call "southern," must have, at the very least, a general acquaintance with, if not a genuine affection for, the peculiar charms of John Barleycorn's genteel cousin. That is, if he have not the said spirits pocketed away--presumably in Grandfather's antique hinge-topped hip flask--some-where on his very person right now.

So goes the myth, but what of the literature? What have southern writers themselves had to say about bourbon--its history, its merits, and its restorative and aesthetic influence on the writer and his work? And whence its enduring reputation as the South's thirsty muse?

Between the bear hunters and bootleggers, the Johnny Rebs and dissipated gentlemen, there is whiskey enough to be found in the pages of southern fiction. But of bourbon proper, one finds mostly isolated anecdotes. Walker Percy's preference for Early Times. Twain's recollection of sharing his grandfather's whiskey toddy (at the age of six weeks, no less), his delight at being presented six cases of bourbon during his stay at London's Savage Club, and his dismay at having to leave the last two cases behind when called back home on business. These anecdotes aside, however, there are few revelations beyond what one might himself discover at the bottom of a shot glass, julep cup, or snub-nosed bottle. Bourbon, after all, if we are to cite again the common myth, is what the southern writer turns to when the book is finished or the words no longer come. We do find a few exceptions, however, like "Colonel" Irvin Cobb, the Kentucky humorist, whose novel Red Likker stands to this day as the only American novel to chronicle the rise and fall of Kentucky's "bourbon aristocracy," and William Alexander Percy, whose Mississippi memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, includes a recipe for mint juleps guaranteed, he says, to bring about "half an hour of sedate cumulative bliss." They, like Will's nephew Walker Percy, who conducted his own personal survey on the aesthetics of bourbon drinking in the South, are among those rare southern writers who managed to set habit aside long enough to decipher the message in the bottle.(1)

In 1929, a year before the Nashville Agrarians published their manifesto, Irvin Cobb took his own stand against the New South by writing an agrarian novel that found in bourbon's rich history the spiritual sustenance lacking in an age of doubt. Written during the era of bath-tub gin and bootleg liquor, Cobb's novel is both a celebration of good honest bourbon and an elegy for the culture that produced it. Red Likker traces the fortunes of Colonel Attila Bird, a fictional patriarch of the bourbon belt and descendant, says Cobb, of that "big-boned, fair-skinned, contentious, individualistic breed" who first sprang from the cradle of civilization deep in the heart of Ken-rocky. The first settlers, we are told, were the first distillers, that "hardy breed of early American argonauts" who first discovered that a bushel of corn could make three gallons of whiskey and that those three gallons were worth more than a man could ever expect to make from corn alone. …

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