Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South

Article excerpt

O magnet-South! O glistening perfumed South! my South!

O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me!

-Walt Whitman

I. The New South

A few years ago I was interviewed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution-a newspaper whose slogan used to be "Covering Dixie Like the Dew"-and later, when the article appeared, the headline read, "Poet Digs at secrets in Her South." Not long after that, I received several e-mail and phone messages from a marketing representative who wanted to get a few lines from me about "my South." In the messages, he said it wouldn't take long and that his firm couldn't pay me for my comments. Well, I was busy, and besides that, I figured he didn't want to hear what I really think about the South. Most likely, he probably wanted some sound-bite clichés about how I like my grits, sweet tea, or barbecue, about how we southerners like sitting on porches and after-church visiting.

Some time after that, I started seeing advertisements for Turner South Network on the sides of buses all around Atlanta. Usually the ads featured a photograph of a man or woman next to a quote about his or her South. The text suggested the kinds of things I suspect that marketing representative was looking for when he tried to contact me; and though I don't know whether it had been the network calling me or not, I couldn't help thinking that there might be some connection. Not only were these images of the New South appearing on buses, they were showing up in some clever and entertaining television commercials too.

In one commercial, a long-haired teenager is driving fast down a dusty road-until he gets pulled over by a police officer. The officer appears menacing behind his metallic aviator sunglasses, and he has the kind of belly and demeanor that are reminiscent of some country sheriff straight out of Hazzard County. Approaching the car, the police officer stands-almost threateninglyfor a moment, then says, lifting his shades, "Son, don't forget to pick your sister up from ballet." This is the new South-a riff on the stereotypes of the notso-new South-and the message is certainly one of change. It's a comforting thought-if not completely true. Watching it, I thought of Walt Whitman and his South: how even his love for this place is underscored by something we'll never see in these commercials or on buses rolling through Atlanta.

The South of Whitman's time was not without its stunning beauty or its stunning cruelty. Writing "O Magnet South" in 1860, Whitman praised the landscape-its rivers, lakes, trees, the native flora and fauna:

O the cotton plant! The growing fields of rice, sugar, hemp!

The cactus guarded with thorns, the laurel tree with large white flowers . . .

His love for the South, however, was complex, and in the poem he acknowledges, too, the darker side of it-"the piney odor and the gloom, the awful natural stillness." When he goes further to mention "the fugitive" and his "conceal'd hut," it is hard not to think of fugitive slaves. Whitman's take on the South is much like my own; it is a love/hate relationship. Later, he would write: "I would be the last one to confuse moral values-to imagine the South impeccable. I don't condone the South where it has gone wrong-its Negro slavery, I don't condone that-far from it-I hate it." Because of his openarmed enthusiasm, his inclusiveness and celebration of everyone, even the lowliest prostitute or degraded slave, Whitman's work has come to represent a poetics of democracy, a humane tradition of antiracism. Even now, there is much more to be learned from him, and from his conflicted relationship to his subject matter-especially as Americans near and far are still fighting, ideologically, the Civil War.

II. The Lost War

E. O. Wilson has written, "Homo Sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile." I've been thinking about that a lot lately, particularly in relation to all the panels I have been on at conferences on contemporary southern literature and culture. …

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