The Writing Life: What Makes Me A Southern Writer (Part 4 of 5)

The Old Testament says:

Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. (Job 14: 1 & 20)

This verse from Job describes the Southern attitude toward life and death prior to the appearance of scientific medicine in the 20th century. And I think the sentiments in this passage from Job infuse both Southern culture and Southern writers. And the South has suffered. Beginning with the deadly climate, the parasites present in the water, the curse of slavery, and the personal violence of everyday life. With Southern males sensitive to the slightest or even imagined insult, the per capita level of violence against persons in the South has always been, and continues to be, the highest in the nation.

I believe the elaborate code of Southern manners developed as a way to contain the violence of everyday life by creating a uniform set of standards which were deemed polite. Therefore, if one followed those standards, then one could be relieved of the fear that a phrase might be misinterpreted, resulting in a duel. The Code Duello, of which I have a copy, was written and printed in New Orleans. With some notable exceptions, the formal duel was confined to the South.

This constant violence was not just among the honor obsessed men of the upper class but also of the Scotch-Irish, from whom your servant is descended, who settled much of the backwoods and mountain regions of the South. (Eligible young women advertised their availability for marriage by slicking themselves from head to foot in bear grease and walking demurely naked through the settlement.) The Scotch and the Irish have always been known to drink and to fight. Combining them wasn’t a great idea but was an unintended consequence of the deportation of Scottish Highlanders to Northern Ireland after the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

It will not surprise you that the Scotch-Irish of the South comprised the backbone of the Confederate Armies but also a good part of the Continental Army and subsequent armies raised for service in God forsaken places. Two-thirds of the battles of the Revolutionary War took place in South Carolina. After being harangued for hours by their Presbyterian ministers, South Carolina soldiery fell with great savagery upon the English troops.

Add human slavery to the layers of violence and sorrow already mentioned. No institution can possibly be more violent than slavery. Human slavery in the South was held together by both threats of extreme violence and acts of extreme violence. And one of the few ways slaves could protest and not be identified and killed was to set the plantation house afire. Fire destroyed a lot of buildings anyway – it didn’t arouse suspicion. It’s quite extraordinary how often plantation homes burned down during the time of slavery. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the system of Jim Crow segregation was only made possible by the willingness of Southern whites to perpetrate vicious acts of violence on Southern blacks. Lynching, beating, extra-judicial punishments including murder, along with denial of due process, the voting franchise, the chain gang – all of these were things Southern whites did to keep their “Southern way of life” intact.

There has never been a time until recent years, when life in the South wasn’t tinged with sorrow and violence. While I have mentioned many of the foundations of this way of thinking, I must now mention the cornerstone: the War Between the States, the Civil War, the War of Northern Aggression. You may laugh at this last one but when I was a lad I was talking to my great uncle about “the war” and I described it as the Civil War and he gently rapped me across the knees with his cane. “Son, it was the War of Northern Aggression and don’t you forget that. I had two uncles killed fighting for Bobby Lee.” And this was a man who lived with a sense of elegy his entire life. The doctors told him when he was 24 that he had only a year to live. Surprise. He long outlived the doctors, only dying when he was 93. Yet he buried his two sons, his only children, long before he died. When I was around him did I have a sense of melancholy, of life and death side by side, of burdens to bear, of parting? Yes.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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