Me, I hover between Southern and Northern. Maybe I have a yen to prolong the transition, like the old boy who bought his wife five yards of material for her to make a new nightgown.
"This is going to make an awful long nightgown," said the storekeeper.
"Yep," said the old boy.
"I mean," said the storekeeper, "real long."
"Well," the old boy confided, "I just so enjoy pulling it up."
At any rate, I have sought to turn my regional ambivalence into a philosophical position (or dance). Trying to get Aunt Dixie and Uncle Sam on speaking terms.
When I was in high school, back in Decatur, Georgia, in the fifties, a select group of the girls would take a field trip every year to New York City. And the issue arose: If a boy tried to talk to a girl in that foreign city whose standards of decency were heaven knew how warped and minimal, how could a girl decide whether she should talk to him? How, in short, could she tell that he was nice?
This field trip was always chaperoned by the teacher of home economics. She was demure, elderly (as she seemed to me then), diminutive: a little old lady. Mrs. Clive Folger. And the rule for the girls was, when you meet a boy, tell him you want him to meet Miz Folger.
If he doesn't want to meet Miz Folger, he is not a nice boy.
One day my girlfriend told me, casually, about this rule. And . . . I don't want to overdramatize this—let's just say my blood ran cold. Because I was young, full of beans, and planning to become a rather worldly writer. And yet . . . the rule rang true.
It would have been different, had Mrs. Folger been like you may be thinking she was. No. She wasn't. Mrs. Folger looked at you straight. And she had a twinkle in her eye. She was, in fact, in a duly insulated sort of way, a live wire. I liked Mrs. Folger. I respected Mrs. Folger's opinion.
William Faulkner, on the other hand, once said, "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies."
A little old lady once asked Faulkner, "Mr. Faulkner, I understand that authors always write themselves into their books. In Sanctuary, which character are you?"
"Madam," said Faulkner, "I was the corncob."
He wouldn't have said that to Mrs. Folger. Then, too, she wouldn't have asked such a question. Mrs. Folger was a little old lady with sense.
Faulkner, when his daughter begged him to sober up so he could attend her graduation, responded to her as follows: "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's child."
Faulkner never knew Miz Folger, so he felt entitled not to be nice. He stayed home, and created Yoknapatawpha County, where hell broke loose in all directions. I had to find a milieu in which I could be nice and think at the same time.
My tenth-grade teacher, a remarkable young lady named Ann Lewis, lent me a stack of New Yorker magazines. It was a revelation. As far as I could tell, there had never been a damn Civil War in there. Or a Crucifixion. Nobody even seemed to go to church. People drank a lot and made cutting remarks, but they were civilized, funny, even high-minded in a cerebral sort of way. My teetotal, faith-based mother wouldn't have liked them, but you could imagine them passing muster with Miz Folger.
In those old New Yorkers I smelled a secular heaven. Well, no, there was scant emphasis on smells, except when Joseph Mitchell, a Southerner, was writing about the fish market, so let's say I glimpsed it. First chance I got, I went off up to New York. In 1968 I became a resident. Fatherhood, divorce, joint custody, and going freelance brought me further north to semirural Massachusetts, which looks a lot like north Georgia, and I like it (except in February and March), but I'll never entirely settle in.
Here's what happened when I moved to New York. I hadn't unpacked my bag before people started telling me, "You're not from around here." Didn't I know that? "I see you haven't lost the accent," they would say severely, as if I were willfully convicting myself of narrow-mindedness with every syllable I uttered.
That was awkward but interesting. As a white Southerner, I had come to terms, on my own recognizance, with being a heartily recovering Mr. Charlie. It kind of tickled me, as we say back home, to suddenly be an object of prejudice. Since I couldn't see that it would keep me from doing anything I really wanted to do, it even gave me a kind of edge. Years ago at a New York cocktail party, I was chatting with George "Jerry" Goodman, who wrote and spoke trenchantly about money matters under the name of Adam Smith. Nice guy. Evidently I said something that struck him as halfway cogent (so it couldn't have been about money), because he gave me a sincerely startled look and said, "You're not so dumb." I have to admit, I was surprised. Not so much by his surprise, as by how unselfconsciously he expressed it. He seemed to have been caught more off-guard than I was, so I was able to think to myself, "You're not so broad-minded."
It wasn't a matter of getting the last laugh. I think, in fact, both of us found the exchange amusing, in one way or another, but neither of us laughed. One reason it doesn't take much to get me back down South is that Southerners enjoy laughing more. Sometimes we will get to whooping when we laugh. We will build on each other's hilarity back and forth. On my way to a writer's conference in Oxford, Mississippi, not long ago, I stopped off south of Memphis to eat some fried things for lunch. Those fried things were good, and so were the simmered-with-a-little-fatback things, and the cornbread was crunchy and savory, not sweet. But the best thing was the noise coming from the next table. Eight people, about equally male and female and black and white, were laughing together so hard I thought they were going to fall out on the floor.
"I told him, 'Well get down off the windshield, at least, 'cause I can't see to drive,' " one of them said, and the whole group got so uproarious they were crying.
Southerners vote crazy too. Conservatism, it is called.
By the way, if I do sound dumb, it's not on purpose. Alice Furlaud wrote in The Atlantic early in the George W. Bush administration that if Bush wanted to be well received on visits to England, he should "exaggerate his Texas-cowboy civility and talk like a character out of Hee Haw. (I admit that I act like Mammy Yokum, from Dogpatch, when in England, and it always goes down well.)"
To me, that is going down too easy. Or seeming to. If it weren't so disingenuous, we might call it the Stockdale syndrome—the invincible affability of the character Will Stockdale, an army draftee from backwoods Georgia in the fifties novel and movie, No Time For Sergeants. Andy Griffith played him in the movie, but Will is younger and goofier than Sheriff Andy in Mayberry. An army psychiatrist says to Will, "I don't think I would ever want to live in your rotten state. How about that?"
Stockdale replies, "Well, I guess you know where you want to live. Besides that, things is getting right crowded around home anyhow. Some folks moved in not long ago about two miles down the road from us and land ain't cheap as it once was. So it really don't make no difference to me whether you live there or not, not that we wouldn't be mighty glad to have you." When the psychiatrist can't understand why he won't rise in defense of Georgia, Will says, "I don't live all over it, I just live in this one little place in it."
That is Will's way, and it drives the psychiatrist nuts. When Will's only buddy demands to know why he doesn't get mad at the Northern GIs who rag on him nastily, Will says, "They don't mean nothin' by it," which is a nice piece of de-signifying.
But I went to college, and a little graduate school. I studied the arts and sciences, which are what I believe in today, every damn one of them. Even, say, dance, which I don't know or care anything about—I believe in it anyway. Physics, who knows what's going on there, but I figure those who do are keeping each other honest. There may even be people who can be helpful with regard to string theory in something like the same way that Baptist man may be as regards glossolalia. Different fundamentalisms for different folks. Let go and let science.
The Enlightenment is essentially what I left home looking for, and I found it. I'm pro-choice, happy for people of the same sex to get married (as P. J. O'Rourke once pointed out, it's not gay marriage that should be outlawed, it's first marriages), and against the teaching of creationism and the waging of preemptive war. But I can see how people might be opposed to the preempting of possible little babies, how people might be unable to feature two hairy men walking down the aisle, how people might feel better believing that God made us, and how people will be damned if they'll admit that so many of their young folks have died in a bad cause.
I spent a little over a third of my life, including the presumably most formative years, living in the South. Mathematically, that makes me just about exactly as Southern as the American people, 34 percent of whom are residents of the South. Both sides of my family have been Southern for generations, I sound Southern, and when my local paper in Massachusetts announces a festival to "celebrate the spirit of differently-abled dogs," I react as a Southerner:
I believe I care as much about dogs' feelings as anybody. I can't imagine that a dog with three legs minds being called, with all due respect, a three-legged dog.
And a one-legged dog would be too well grounded to rally behind either George Bush of Texas or John Kerry of Massachusetts. I voted for the latter all right, but the only people who derived any juice out of his candidacy were his wife and the Bush campaign, both of whom got off on his rigidity. And yet the Democratic Party still has its head up the Northeast. Which looks toward Europe.* In the circles I find myself in, people say things like, "Every European country has a national ID card, why can't we?" How can you realize that you're part of imperialism if you've never entirely gotten over being a colony?
The South is so not Europe. You get down South, you know you're not in old Vienna. These days, however, you may doubt that you are anywhere in particular. I just wish the South would let me decide what it should change and what it shouldn't. Without my guidance, country music and country comedians have gone smarmy and unfibrous. A Southern magazine is telling people that y'all is singular. A man at the University of Georgia has produced reconstituted chicken meat—all white, because that is supposedly what the market calls for today. Even when contemporary chicken retains some resemblance to the animal, it's as globby-breasted as a porn star. My mother said no chicken should weigh more than three pounds, so that none of the pieces is too thick—when you flour them lightly and fry them through, they come out crisp and chewy, browned down toward the bone. Her fried chicken had integrity. You could imagine it strutting around.
* I don't know that the Enlightenment manifests itself in European politics. It does on European highways. In the passing lane, you go as fast as you want to, and if somebody comes up behind you going faster, you move over to the other lane. It's a simple principle, and people follow it. In America, some drivers believe in going exactly at the speed limit in the fast lane and not giving over for anybody, and others are most comfortable hovering right behind somebody else or even in his blind spot. Still others live to swerve from lane to lane.
Excerpted from Long Time Leaving by Roy Blount Jr. Copyright © 2007 by Roy Blount Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.