The late Louis D. Rubin, Jr. was a giant among the men and women who have thought and written about the American South. Among his works, Rubin edited the Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South collection, published in 1953, and the seminal History of Southern Literature, published by LSU Press in 1985. As well, he co-founded Algonquin Books with Shannon Ravenel, whose New Stories from the South series is well-known. But it is Rubin’s essay “Notes on a Rear-Guard Action” in the 1964 collection The Idea of the South that warrants attention in light of the South’s current situation.
In the 1986 blues-themed movie Crossroads, which puts a big-city guitar prodigy (played by Ralph Macchio) in the Mississippi Delta looking for Robert Johnson’s lost song, Willie Brown – as in “my po’ friend Willie Brown,” played by Joe Seneca – reminds the young upstart that it’s wise to listen to advice from a man who has been down the road you’re traveling. And Louis Rubin has been down the road we are all traveling. For most of the mid- to late twentieth century, he immersed himself in the mythic conundrums of the South, particularly in our literature, and came out of the stacks with wisdom to share.
Rubin began his essay with an anecdote about Confederate General Robert Toombs coyly celebrating news of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as evidence of an ongoing post-Civil War schadenfreude that Southerners had toward the recently victorious North, then he bounced rapidly among the seemingly disparate topics of Mississippi’s Balancing Agriculture With Industry (BAWI) programs, the riots that followed James Meredith‘s entry into Ole Miss in 1962, and the death that same year of William Faulkner. Yet, after a few pages of setup, Rubin got to his point and wrote this, alluding to Faulkner:
Suffice to say that when a society undergoes great change, when its attitudes, its values, its patterns are violently disrupted, those of its citizens who have literary talents, which is to say the kind of imagination that seeks to give experience an order and meaning through words and images, may well find it difficult or impossible to discover such order in their daily lives, and so may seek to create the order in stories and poems.
When everything is changing and nothing seems to make sense, asserts Rubin, look to the writers— novelists and poets, in particular.
In continuing to discuss Faulkner’s (and others’) representations of the South and his portrayals of the people, Rubin continued in the next paragraph:
To the generation of Southerners growing up in the early 1900s, the discrepancy between what they were taught to believe and what they saw all around them; between notions of truth, beauty, goodness, caste, class, and conviction as enunciated by one’s elders in home, church, and school, and the actual conditions of experience – the discrepancy between what should be and what was – must have been most puzzling.
Certain, yes, most puzzling . . . to have an elder generation who had lived through and now recalled the days of slavery and Reconstruction, both bygone circumstances, while trying to lead a modern life that had roots in that past but seeking move on from it.
It sounds familiar in the early 21st century, a time when our elder generations grew up in and remember the days of farming and segregation, then lived through the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath, while those of us in Generation X came later. We grew up not in the time of tent revivals a la The Neon Bible, but during the rise of mega-churches. We watched our music on MTV, instead of hearing it from the Grand Ole Opry. We’ve heard of these mythic days, but never saw them, and as our adulthood proceeds forward into middle age, as the tale-tellers fade into history, their myths become less and less relevant to our lives.
Yet, in ways, some of the people of the South still cling to those old ways, a few even demanding outright that the traditional albeit intolerant remnants of racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia not be wiped away. Sadly for them but good for the rest of us: the desire to hold time in one place is always fruitless, regardless of the bawling about righteousness, irrespective of the violence against individuals. And Rubin addresses that, too:
For it is the nature of the Southern experience today that the large and elemental passions are in the news, at the surface of experience. We are assailed, in most dramatic fashion, with human problems the most complex, the most urgent to solve. Caught up in the rending process of transition, we are brought face to face with events that possess instant and inescapable meaning. All our old loyalties, our historical attitudes, our instinctive responses, are up for examination. The compromises we have habitually relied upon to square conflicts between our ideas of the good and our knowledge of the imperfect ordering of our society are one after the other proving unsatisfactory.
[ . . . ]
So we worked out, as all human beings would naturally do, some very elaborate compromises with our integrity, and we persuaded ourselves that these would suffice. So they did, for a long time. But that time began running out on us many decades ago, and what we have been doing for the most part is trying to find new compromises and to beat a kind of grudging and dignified retreat. We have been waging a rear-guard action; we have been trying to keep the process of change from overwhelming us, while we were getting to where we had to go.
That was in 1964, and Rubin was referring to the Civil Rights movement and the collapse of a culture built on Jim Crow and the New Deal. This is 2018, and his words are true again.
The 21st-century South is undergoing another period of change. Even in this region steeped in tradition and mired in the past, the internet and modern media have piped in the outside world, creating a circumstance where our youngest generations don’t know enough about our past and are happily unable to fathom it. Fascinated by streaming and gaming, the youngest Southerners know more about Japanese cartoon characters, swiping left, and flipping water bottles than about their own families, neighbors, and communities. Their notions of “friends” and “likes” have less to do with character and memory than with imagery and clicks. And those of us who grew up without so many screens in our lives are scrambling to “reach” them, to connect them to a Southern past that mass media tells them is hideous, objectionable, and without merit. To outpace this onslaught, to teach our millennials about the best facets of our culture, we must face this challenge head-on, not with an another “rear-guard action” that celebrates lost causes.
Louis Rubin passed away in 2013, and unless they study Southern literature in depth, almost no millenials will ever know his name. (Him, nor Allen Tate, nor Cleanth Brooks, nor Andrew Lytle . . . ) Rubin was among a crowd of intellectuals and writers who found beauty and goodness in Southern culture at a time (the 1950s through ’80s) when national attention was focused on surmounting its ugliest and most malignant features. Truly, the South is better off without those features, but in their stead, this tarnished region’s latter-day “rear-guard action” shifted the weight of its stigma again to those who could bear it least. And here we are. We have to understand history to understand these modern problems— then solve them. Rubin had some words about that, too:
To persist in the face of defeat, to remain defiant to the bitter end, we call this bravery. And it is, of a sort. Yet sometimes I wonder whether it would not require more bravery than that even to act on the basis of one’s reason and wisdom, though one’s emotions and one’s sense of the state of public opinion urge the suppression of what one knows to be true,
In the South, we are perfectly capable of ceasing this “rear-guard action,” this guerrilla warfare against the forces of time and change in hopes of defending the supposed value of inequality and exclusion. The question is not, nor has it ever been, whether we can, but whether we will.
“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige” posts will be published regularly on Tuesday afternoons.
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