Southern Books To Read and Give

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Southerners
are not much on the modern fad of self-help, or as I have seen it
recently labeled in a bookstore: self-discovery/improvement. I hadn't
thought a great deal about it until after I was in line at a chain
bookstore right before the Christmas rush three or four years back.
The woman in front of me was buying a whole stack of how-to or
why-to garbage that was certain to enrich your life: more
money earning potential than you ever dreamed possible, weight loss,
plastic surgery, body-building, New Age spirituality (which is about
as new as the pseudo-philosophy of Jewish gnosticism that was afoot
before Christ), healing the inner child of sexual fulfillment, and
other such tripe.

I
hope the woman was buying to feed her own rotted mind and not doing
what I was: purchasing Christmas gifts. I long ago decided that
people need no more junk, in fact, that junk buying is immoral.
So I go to book and music stores and buy what people need.
That most of them don't know they need it is not the issue; nor
is it that many are as hostile to what they receive as a child who
is given only clothes. The issue is that it is needed. Taste is
not relevant here. No one, certainly not impressionable young people,
needs any more BeeGees, Michael-Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, or
rap cds. Everyone
should own the Kinks' Village
Green Preservation Society
, the Bothy Band’s 1975:
The First Album
, and at least one cd by the Stanley
Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys
, and while I’m at it,
Hot
Burritos! The Flying Burrito Bros. Anthology 1969-1972
."

I am opposed to your being forced to listen to them, but it seems
only decent to give you an easy opportunity to do so and perhaps
improve more than just your tastes.

And
if you think that giving people possessed of no musical discernment
a Vivaldi or Mozart cd can cause a ruckus of amused glances concerning
the out-of-touch innocent who bought so terribly inappropriately,
then try giving today's militantly uncultured (or rather, MTV postmodernist-multicultured)
a book worth reading.

Before
this winding path straightens, I think you might like to know that
this tendency of mine to buy gifts u2018good for you' is not original
with me. Two of my grandfather's sisters could be counted on to
dampen our childish holidays with what one cousin dubbed u2018endless
church and Jesus junk.'

That's
a great thing about Southern culture (and its Celtic forebear):
you can blame whatever somebody doesn't like in your actions or
attitudes on some ancestor, on some persistent gene, and virtually
never need so much as stretch the truth. The bad is symbiotic to
that: if you are honest, you can claim nothing good as completely
originally yours.

The
woman at the register smiled broadly as she unstacked the books
I'd lugged up to her. "It surely is good to see a man who loves
to read,' she said in an accent halfway between western Carolina
hill and the Deep South u2018shuh-guh' one routinely abused by Hollywood.
"That's a heap of books."

"Well,"
I said somewhat embarrassed, "they're mostly gifts. Only The
Crossing
is for me." I didn't tell her I planned to
read Nashville
1864: The Dying of the Light
before wrapping it. It's the
kind of thing you learn to do while an old fashioned poor graduate
student. "Anyway, that woman before me had more than I do."

The
checker laughed as she swiped a book across the scanner. "I
reckon so," she said leaning toward me, "but those things
aint much good to read, now are they?"

"Folks
sure buy them though."

"Around
here," she said, "the only ones that do are Yankees and
recent graduates of the college taught by Yankees and people who
watch tv all day."

That
was funny at the time, and only later did I ponder it and decide
the woman had been correct in the main. Self-improvement books are
not what Southerners write (though I have been told that a couple
of big selling self-help writers are natives of the South who live
elsewhere and have successfully replaced their accents), nor are
they what Southerners purchase in any significant numbers. And if
you observe Southerners in a library in the South reading one, you
likely will see furtiveness from shame at being caught that is little
different from that of the Southerner caught reading the latest
sex-crazed New York Times #1 fiction bestseller. He knows
he is experiencing trash and retains enough character to be ashamed
of himself for succumbing to the temptation.

I
know this is not universally true and that it is less true today
than it was 20 years ago. In addition to the Government-backed successes
of Yankee education, the power of American Mammon has seduced and
made increasing numbers of natives of the South, especially younger
ones, far more crass than their great-grandparents could have imagined
possible, Being allowed to share the wealth of Empire always corrupts
because man, though different culturally, remains weak, fallen man.
But the distinction noted above regarding self-help and the South
remains generally true.

If
you care to know why, read Walker Percy's Lost
in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
. The standard self-help
book being a quintessentially secularized Anglo-Saxon Puritan craft
(think first of early to bed and countless other ways to get rich
and look like a winner) and Percy being uniquely Southern Christian,
Lost in the Cosmos is the very antithesis of the type, for
its concern is with the essential intangibles.

I
am not going to analyze the work in its entirety; a few references
are all I can manage. Those who find Carl Sagan an unintentionally
humorous High Modernist prototype of the errors of recent education
will enjoy Percy's admission that his pleasure in reading Cosmos
"was not diminished (perhaps was even increased) by Sagan's
unmalicious, even innocent, scientism, the likes of which I have
not encountered since the standard bull sessions of high school
and college — up to but not past the sophomore year" (201).
Do not miss Percy's point, especially if you are laughing while
repeating Sagan's salacious phrasing of u2018billions': the sincere
foolishness of bright, empirically inclined undergraduates at Chapel
Hill (who presumably largely grew out of it) before the second World
War became the defining dogma of the Ivy League by the 1960s and
from there helped ruin whatever it touched.

Those
who wish to bash or laud Percy for outrageousness will want to take
note of his concluding scenario on The Envious Self. He describes
a pair of native Southern writers: "For years, even though
you both live in Massachusetts you have both attacked the crass,
materialistic, money-grubbing society of the North and defended
the traditional, agrarian, Christian values of the South, with its
strong sense of place, family, and roots" (68).

None
of that is outrageous: those distinctions have been true from at
least the settling of Boston by men who found proof of election
as clearly in earthly favor as in anything else. The general description
of expatriate Southerners, if Massachusetts is altered to a generic
north, could fit a few prominent writers, including those who were
numbered among the Agrarians. And it is foolish to make more of
that than the obvious: some writers find it easier to write away
from home, particularly if they are using the home as setting while
fashioning creative literature to highlight, comprehend, and teach
the eternal verities. William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery
O'Conner could stay at home while so writing, but William Styron
could not (I'm not certain if it is significant that Styron is the
weakest of that quartet).

The
outrageousness lies in what Percy says next: one of those Southern
writers with decidedly anti-Modernistic and pro-conservative values
wins the Nobel Prize.

Now
that is utterly outrageous. Such a writer today would find it a
difficult task to be hired and tenured by a Southern Baptist institution
located in the South; a Nobel, even a Pulitzer, is beyond question.

Cleanth
Brooks best expressed it when I first met him briefly at the 50th
anniversary symposium on the publication of I'll
Take My Stand
. Being young and therefore stupid as well
as impatient, I took the opportunity to squeeze myself into a group
discussion following a panel. When a lull occurred, I asked Mr.
Brooks why he thought Robert Penn Warren, who was standing in another
and larger circle, had not won the Nobel and if he — Mr. Brooks
— believed that he — Mr. Warren — would be so honored.

He
hasn't won the Nobel and won't win it, replied Mr. Brooks, because
of his Agrarian writings.

How
so, I asked. In case anyone is wondering, I was naïve well
beyond that date.

Mr.
Brooks gave me a quick lesson that I needed to learn in order to
apply to the Leftists then finalizing their taking over English
departments. I doubt that the knowledge would have helped much,
but at least I wouldn't have been blindsided so easily.

Mr.
Brooks said the Swedish academy was decidedly socialist, decidedly
pro-urban, and as long as it remained such could not allow a Nobel
to go to a Southerner, certainly to one who had been Agrarian and
whose life's work presented the values of the conservative South
without parody, without hatred. Someone (and I think it was M.E.
Bradford but can't be certain because my attention was focused on
Mr. Brooks and Andrew Lytle) added that he agreed and that was the
reason Miss Welty would never win the Nobel and strongly Christian
writers would no longer win and before long we would see winners
more undeserving than Pearl Buck (Toni Morrison may be the PC apex
there, though William Golding being awarded ahead of Graham Greene
— it seems the committee had decided it had to give the Nobel to
an Englishman whose surname begins with the lucky seventh letter
of the alphabet and could not stomach the thought of a Nobel laureate
in these advanced times who writes from the vantage of morally conservative
Christianity – is equally ludicrous).

But
Percy's use of an impossible scenario in today's world is also not
my subject. The most important section in a self-help book, and
perhaps the most important in any work of Southern non-fiction,
is my subject.

u2018The
Last Donahue Show' concludes Percy on The Promiscuous Self. As he
had begun to make absolutely clear in his third novel Love
in the Ruins
and had stressed in his fourth novel Lancelot,
and would sum up beautifully in his sixth and final novel The
Thanatos Syndrome
, Percy was certain that modern sexual
liberation-libertinism is a sign of a culture wishing its own demise
and that the horrors it inevitably spawns provide a masterful excuse
for government centralizers to expand their tyrannical powers —
to do good, to provide services to the needy, to save.

As
is appropriate, the last Donahue show is about sex. The guests are
a promiscuous San Francisco homosexual, the kind whose indiscriminate,
random couplings spread AIDS like wildfire; a married businessman
described as "a connoisseur of the lunch-hour liaison;"
and a pregnant 14 year old. What likens them is their utter selfishness;
they have no concern that their actions can and do harm others;
each believes that good is defined by personal pleasure and desire.
Also onboard is Dr. Joyce Friday, "well-known talk-show sex
therapist" (45-46). Her best line is: "Studies have shown
that open marriages can be growth experiences for both partners"
(48).

Some
readers may be saying: I thought he called this Percy thing u2018Southern
non-fiction,' and that shrink is surely a fictional treatment of
Joyce Brothers and her imitators. The confusion is understandable
but easily explained. Southerners, like the ancient Greeks and the
Irish, are incessant talkers, not talkers of statistics or Donahue-Oprah
feelings, but of stories. The empirically addicted will tend
to see that as frivolous at best, but the Southerner kens that stories
are the best way to get at the truth in its fullest, its richest.
Do we learn more about adultery from the 7th commandment
or from the story of David and Bathsheba? Sometimes the Southerner
can tell a u2018true story' and make his point (even if he must delete
names to avoid lawsuits in this Sophist brave new world); at other
times he must create a little fiction based closely on what everyone
knows to be actual truth.

Percy's
capturing of a typical Donahue sex show is perfect. Those who recall
the forefather of Jerry Springer may well wonder if Percy could
have been sued for stealing a transcript of a Donahue show. Except
that this is the last Donahue show. The tolerance promoting,
educational event is interrupted by a trio of visitors who appear
mysteriously at the back of the studio. One visitor is dressed and
sounds like John Calvin. Another "looks for all the world like
Colonel John Pelham, Jeb Stuart's legendary artillerist" (50).
The third visitor is dressed like someone mixing mid-20th
century fashions; the genial host sees him as like Harry Truman.

I
do not intend to spoil the section for those of you who have not
yet read it by relating its ending. I will provide Calvin's best
lines: "What I have heard is licentious talk about deeds which
are an abomination before God, meriting eternal damnation unless
they repent and throw themselves on God's mercy. Which they are
predestined to do or nor do, so why bother to discuss it?"
(52).

More
important than Calvin's assessments of modern American decadence
are Pelham's. "That's not the way people should talk or act,"
the honorable Confederate says (53).

Pelham
asserts that gentlemen do not so act because they know their duty
and discharge it. "But after all," he adds, "you
won the war, so if that's the way you want to act, that's your affair.
At least, we can be sure of one thing."

Ever
ready to learn and relate, and as curious as the National Enquirer
readers who made up so large a portion of his devoted audience,
Donahue asks.

I
confess to having thought about such in church.

"We're
not sorry we fought," the Confederate answers.

In
this article I am not focused on Percy's views of Calvin's theological
inadequacies and errors; nor am I focused on Percy's views of the
even more inadequate errors of Pelham's essentially a Christian
and Stoic warrior philosophical stance. I am focused on the Confederate's
response. He has now seen the full cultural fruits of the Unionist
victory achieved in no small part by war against civilians and their
family histories, which means war against their traditional values.
And being a man of honor both to right causes and to the code of
hospitality in which a guest avoids insulting his host, he can do
no more than say, "We're not sorry we fought."

Questions:
Are you sorry the Confederates fought? Are you happy they lost?
Are you so blinded culturally that you cannot see what Percy saw:
that Donahue and worse morally and ever tightening government centralization
are inevitable fruits of the Unionist victory allowed to percolate?

You
can bet that not merely Leftist Statists but also their unwitting
allies, the socialist-penned Pledge of Allegiance sacramentalizing
neoconservatives, answer Yes to the second question and We
certainly hope so to the third

June
18, 2001

Jimmy
Cantrell [send him mail]
holds a PhD in English with a specialty in Southern fiction. In
an attempt to be found fit to teach in the tolerant and diverse
world of educratdom, he soon may label himself an albino African-American
considering sex change surgery and working to bring socialist justice
to all.

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