This legacy of sexual passion from hundreds and hundreds of deadly summers, created many situations when men and women fell in love with each other and consummated that love although married to others. Bill Clinton’s odyssey of sexual “sin” and fall from Grace and later redemption, is a classic theme in Southern life and Southern literature, all driven by the unconscious sense that this moment of love and sexual desire will not come again because one, or the object’s of one’s affection, will be dead. It is interesting how the religious right pounded on Clinton for adultery yet never mentioned what so many Southerners observed, which was his admission of wrong, his plea for forgiveness, and his redemption through suffering and repentance. This is one of the reasons he continues to be so popular in the conservative South – his story is familiar to people and is a road many have traveled.
The high mortality, the inevitably of death and its onset from nowhere, anchor this attitude of doom, of elegy, of love and loss going hand in hand. To love was to set oneself up for the terrible emotional blow of losing your beloved and soon. Yellow fever, malaria, and cholera come over you in a flash. Yellow fever for example comes on with a blinding headache and acute sensitivity to light. The pain is unbearable. Body temperature climbs very quickly to 105 degrees. And the pain intensifies until victims feel their bones are cracking. Internal organs fail. Red blood runs from the nose and the eyes and victims vomit black blood. That’s why Yellow fever is known in Spanish as the “vomito negro.” Delirium sets in and the victim dies, the whites of the eyes turn yellow. One could easily awake in the pink of health and be dead by dinner time. Imagine watching loved ones die like this. A very large percentage of Southerners died this way for centuries and it has left an immense impact on the character and “folk memory” of Southerners.
Curiously, and one can almost say a Divine punishment, is that blacks brought as slaves from Africa, had developed a certain immunity to tropical fevers such as Yellow fever and rarely died of it or even contracted the disease. They passed this immunity onto their offspring. A handful of blacks did perish from Yellow fever but only a handful. Whites, on the other hand, were struck down wholesale.
Yellow fever was known in port cities as “Yellow jack.” Having been a naval officer, you will know that most flags used at sea are “jacks.” When a ship came into port with any passengers or crew down with Yellow fever, then the ship flew the international signal flag for “Q”, to signal “quarantine”, which flag is entirely yellow, hence “the Yellow jack.” That ship was forced to stay in quarantine in a distant anchorage in the port. The word comes to us from Venice when it was a city-state and major seaport in the middle ages. To combat the bubonic plague, all ships were forced to anchor in the harbor and not have any contact with the city for thirty days – “trentina” in Italian. That was later raised to forty days – “quarantina” in Italian, the origin of our word, “quarantine.”
This fear and constant witnessing of the sudden death of loved ones, accounts for the deeper grip of hard core religious sentiment in the South than in the rest of the nation. And I don’t mean the elevated religious sentiment of the Unitarians or Episcopalians. I mean the harsh religion of the Baptists. Life is hard. It is cruel. And it is fragile. Death awaits — usually in a tragic way. So the only explanation could be that God is easily angered and it is the wanton sin of the people – especially fornication, drinking, gambling, and thievery – which angers Him so much He sends these terrible fevers to punish the wicked. That the fevers killed the wicked and the good in equal measure put even more responsibility on the wicked to repent. As the Bible says, “the wicked prosper.” Before the advent of Western science, what other explanation could there be? (And the wicked continue to prosper as far as I can see.)
[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]