Dirty Boots: Backwardness versus Progress

In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller’s sprawling rumination on returning to America from Europe in 1939 to avoid Hitler’s brutal charge, he wrote, “The South is full of eccentric characters; it still fosters individuality. And the most individualistic are of course from the land, from the out-of-the-way places.” Despite a gracious plenty of questionable statements in the book, Miller, whose fun-loving opportunism and wild obfuscation I admired as a twenty-something, praises the South as being among the last places that haven’t been made stale by faux-puritanical consumerism.

The Deep South especially is still home to a host of wild characters that the rest of the nation seems to find at least troublesome, at most infuriating. Though first television and now the internet have homogenized America more than I like to consider, the Deep South still produces an array of colorful and often controversial characters who, for the last two or three decades, have taunted and bewildered the American psyche: Newt Gingrich from Georgia and Roy Moore from Alabama, not to mention Bill Clinton From Arkansas and Al Gore from Tennessee. And though he’s not an officeholder, I can’t leave out James Carville.

Later in the book, Miller also wrote,

If [Southerners] represent the ‘backward’ people of America then we need more backward people. In the subway in New York you can see the other type, the newspaper addict, who revels in social and political theories and lives the life of a drudge, foolishly flattering himself that because he is not working with his hands (nor with his brain either, for that matter) he is better off than the poor white trash of the South.

This was in the early 1940s, before “news junkie” was a thing— or was it? For decades in America, since the shift from rural to urban life began during the Depression, people sought to remove themselves from natural processes while still enjoying the end products: food we don’t have to grow or kill, clothes we don’t have to scrub or hang, friends we don’t have to see or talk to. And that trend has been called “progress.”

Since reading Lyle Lanier’s essay “A Critique on the Philosophy of Progress” in I’ll Take My Stand, I’ve wondered a good deal about these ideas of backwardness versus progress. By moving away from nature and toward technology, by seeking the kind of “progress” that involves constant upgrades and encourages vicarious experiences over real ones, we’ve lost something vital to a meaningful human life: we’ve become accustomed to avoiding personal contact with each other and with nature.

The screen-saturated life runs contrary to everything that Southern culture entails. Our way of life is rooted in talking with each other, in talking about each other, in getting outdoors together, in worshipping God together. Does that make our culture perfect? No, not at all. But the aspects that I just listed are what makes it good.

Alongside his willing to praise Southerners, Henry Miller also had this say, and I’ll let it be the last word for this week:

By some canny instinct of self-preservation I turned south first, to explore the so-called ‘backward’ states of the Union. If I was bored for the most part I at least knew peace. Did I not see suffering and misery in the South too? Of course I did. There is suffering and misery everywhere throughout this broad land. But there are kinds and degrees of suffering; the worst, in my opinion, is the sort one encounters in the very heart of progress.

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