Report from Louisiana: The Beauty of a Thing

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Report from Louisiana: The Beauty of a Thing

[cap­tion id=“attachment_101233” align=“alignnone” width=“640”] (Photo credit: C.Pipes)[/caption]

A friend of mine has a night –bloom­ing cereus that she named Eudora, in honor of course of the famous South­ern author Eudora Welty who had one in her own gar­den and was known for cel­e­brat­ing its buds with all night par­ties. When my friend’s cereus pro­duced buds last week, rather than throw an all night party she sent a group text with a photo. Her mes­sage was filled with as much glee as Miss Eudora must have felt at her own blooms. The flower finally burst into bloom last night and my friend stayed up all night long tak­ing pho­tos of it. My text stream was filled with the evo­lu­tion of a cereus this morn­ing. By dawn the bloom was gone, closed up.

Miss Eudora has been much on my mind in past weeks as I picked up a vol­ume of her col­lected sto­ries recently. I have not read any of them in quite some time — since col­lege, per­haps. One excep­tion would be “A Worn Path” which I use when I teach a cre­ative writ­ing class; other than that, the trea­sures of “The Wide Net” and “Clytie” have been long for­got­ten. I spent sev­eral weeks this sum­mer sit­ting out­side under the shade of my mag­no­lia redis­cov­er­ing Miss Welty’s lovely south­ern prose and rel­ish­ing the rich atmos­phere she cre­ates with her words.

There’s noth­ing more reward­ing to me than pick­ing up a book and redis­cov­er­ing an old, favorite author. While I read widely, both fic­tion and non-​fiction, my pref­er­ences tend to South­ern writ­ers. Give me a Rick Bragg mem­oir, Flan­nery O’Connor, or even Faulkner and I am con­sumed with the words.

In the course of writ­ing my soon-​to-​be-​released biog­ra­phy of Cam­mie Henry I dis­cov­ered the short sto­ries of Ada Jack Carver, a bright light in the 1920s but who never pro­duced any­thing of note after that. Carver’s sto­ries are rich in atmos­phere and many have mem­o­rable char­ac­ters such as old Bap­tiste in “Red­bone” who ini­tially seems to be cel­e­brat­ing the birth of a son by going into town to get drunk but there is more to the story…

What is it that makes South­ern writ­ers so dis­tinc­tive? Some crit­ics con­tend that the South­ern lit­er­ary renais­sance that began in the 1920s is still ongo­ing and I tend to agree with that. When H. L. Mencken declared the south “The Land of the Bozart” and insisted that south­ern writ­ers had pro­duced noth­ing of sub­stance, he fired up the pens and type­writ­ers of every warm-​blooded south­erner who had a desire to prove him wrong.

The lit­er­a­ture of the South is as unique and beau­ti­ful as its cli­mate and its people.

I know that’s a mat­ter of opin­ion — but it’s my opinion.

How long before this lit­er­a­ture is tar­geted for crit­i­cism and ban­ning as the Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments are? Is that too much of a stretch? Look at it this way: crit­ics of the Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments say that the South lost the war, that the war was trea­so­nous, that the Con­fed­er­acy held slaves (as if the Union did not), and that the mon­u­ments were erected in the Jim Crow period; appar­ently their point with that last one is that these mon­u­ments are intended as some sort of sub­lim­i­nal white supremacy symbol.

This is all fal­la­cious rea­son­ing it seems to me. These mon­u­ments were com­mis­sioned to honor the fam­ily that fought to pro­tect their homes and their way of life. And no, “way of life” is not code for slav­ery. The way they lived was agrar­ian, it was slow and peace­ful, it was with a work ethic and inde­pen­dent spirit. Of course there were bad peo­ple who did bad things, but that has been the case through­out his­tory. Never has an entire cul­ture been tar­geted because of that as is the case now.

One of our most beloved South­ern writ­ers was Harper Lee whose To Kill a Mock­ing­bird is noth­ing if not a mes­sage on equal­ity, tol­er­ance, and dig­nity. In Scout Finch we see the inno­cence of a child who has never been taught to see color in a per­son and who has never learned hatred or prej­u­dice. Those things are learned from adults and Atti­cus Finch’s les­son to his chil­dren was “put your­self in their skin and walk around in it.” What are we teach­ing our kids now?

How many of us are liv­ing that way now? How much of our hatred is learned and passed along to oth­ers? How much of this mon­u­ment mess and national anthem protest is just mob mentality?

And where does it end? Peo­ple ask that ques­tion often, but think about it. For years overly sen­si­tive lem­mings have tried to ban books often cit­ing The Adven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn, Ani­mal Farm, and of course To Kill a Mock­ing­bird among many, many oth­ers as offen­sive in one way or another.

How is that dif­fer­ent than mon­u­ments? These books are in pub­lic libraries just as mon­u­ments are in pub­lic places. What’s the difference?

To me, both books and the mon­u­ments are works of art and should not be sub­ject to cen­sor­ship. I dis­agreed when the Ten Com­mand­ments were removed from cour­t­houses and schools but at least I under­stood the rea­son­ing behind it (“sep­a­ra­tion of church and state”). You could point me to a legal posi­tion that made that clear.

Per­haps I’m over­sim­pli­fy­ing things because of course books don’t equate to mon­u­ments in lit­eral sense but cen­sor­ship is cen­sor­ship wher­ever it lies.

If our soci­ety does not stop with this over sen­si­tive offended cul­ture we are per­pet­u­at­ing there is lit­er­ally no end to it. Every­thing is a tar­get. If you are trau­ma­tized by a mon­u­ment how could you pos­si­bly read Delta Wed­ding? When will the book burn­ing start?

Miss Welty abhorred the Civil War: she had one par­ent from the North and one from the South and she saw what the war did to Mis­sis­sippi where she grew up (long after the war, of course). “Rav­aged” was the word she used. But she also knew that there are two sides to every­thing; her par­ents taught her that.

As we con­sider the mod­ern debate of mon­u­ments, we need to remem­ber that there are two sides to every­thing and that the men we see carved in these gran­ite and bronze mon­u­ments were men — they were not with­out flaw and they were not per­fect but they were human, just like we are, and we can learn from them still and we can admire their ded­i­ca­tion to home and fam­ily. My fear is that we want to remove them now but in another decade or two we will regret this choice and it will be too late.

The night-​blooming cereus blooms only one night of the year. Their blooms are frag­ile and tem­po­rary and draw peo­ple to it in admi­ra­tion and awe, but then it is gone until next year. Welty called them “a naked, lumi­nous, com­pli­cated flower,” and maybe that’s what our mon­u­ments are. Per­haps we all just need to spend more time look­ing at the beauty of a thing.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

(Photo credit: C.Pipes)

A friend of mine has a night -blooming cereus that she named Eudora, in honor of course of the famous Southern author Eudora Welty who had one in her own garden and was known for celebrating its buds with all night parties. When my friend’s cereus produced buds last week, rather than throw an all night party she sent a group text with a photo. Her message was filled with as much glee as Miss Eudora must have felt at her own blooms.  The flower finally burst into bloom last night and my friend stayed up all night long taking photos of it.  My text stream was filled with the evolution of a cereus this morning. By dawn the bloom was gone, closed up.

Miss Eudora has been much on my mind in past weeks as I picked up a volume of her collected stories recently. I have not read any of them in quite some time – since college, perhaps.  One exception would be “A Worn Path” which I use when I teach a creative writing class; other than that, the treasures of “The Wide Net” and “Clytie” have been long forgotten.  I spent several weeks this summer sitting outside under the shade of my magnolia rediscovering Miss Welty’s lovely southern prose and relishing the rich atmosphere she creates with her words.

There’s nothing more rewarding to me than picking up a book and rediscovering an old, favorite author.  While I read widely, both fiction and non-fiction, my preferences tend to Southern writers. Give me a Rick Bragg memoir, Flannery O’Connor, or even Faulkner and I am consumed with the words.

In the course of writing my soon-to-be-released biography of Cammie Henry I discovered the short stories of Ada Jack Carver, a bright light in the 1920s but who never produced anything of note after that.  Carver’s stories are rich in atmosphere and many have memorable characters such as old Baptiste in “Redbone” who initially seems to be celebrating the birth of a son by going into town to get drunk but there is more to the story…

What is it that makes Southern writers so distinctive?  Some critics contend that the Southern literary renaissance that began in the 1920s is still ongoing and I tend to agree with that.  When H. L. Mencken declared the south “The Land of the Bozart” and insisted that southern writers had produced nothing of substance, he fired up the pens and typewriters of every warm-blooded southerner who had a desire to prove him wrong.

The literature of the South is as unique and beautiful as its climate and its people.

I know that’s a matter of opinion — but it’s my opinion.

How long before this literature is targeted for criticism and banning as the Confederate monuments are?  Is that too much of a stretch?  Look at it this way: critics of the Confederate monuments say that the South lost the war, that the war was treasonous, that the Confederacy held slaves (as if the Union did not), and that the monuments were erected in the Jim Crow period; apparently their point with that last one is that these monuments are intended as some sort of subliminal white supremacy symbol.

This is all fallacious reasoning it seems to me.  These monuments were commissioned to honor the family that fought to protect their homes and their way of life.  And no, “way of life” is not code for slavery.  The way they lived was agrarian, it was slow and peaceful, it was with a work ethic and independent spirit.  Of course there were bad people who did bad things, but that has been the case throughout history.  Never has an entire culture been targeted because of that as is the case now.

One of our most beloved Southern writers was Harper Lee whose To Kill a Mockingbird is nothing if not a message on equality, tolerance, and dignity.  In Scout Finch we see the innocence of a child who has never been taught to see color in a person and who has never learned hatred or prejudice.  Those things are learned from adults and Atticus Finch’s lesson to his children was “put yourself in their skin and walk around in it.”  What are we teaching our kids now?

How many of us are living that way now?  How much of our hatred is learned and passed along to others?  How much of this monument mess and national anthem protest is just mob mentality?

And where does it end?  People ask that question often, but think about it.  For years overly sensitive lemmings have tried to ban books often citing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, and of course To Kill a Mockingbird among many, many others as offensive in one way or another.

How is that different than monuments?  These books are in public libraries just as monuments are in public places.  What’s the difference?

To me, both books and the monuments are works of art and should not be subject to censorship.  I disagreed when the Ten Commandments were removed from courthouses and schools but at least I understood the reasoning behind it (“separation of church and state”).  You could point me to a legal position that made that clear.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying things because of course books don’t equate to monuments in literal sense but censorship is censorship wherever it lies.

If our society does not stop with this over sensitive offended culture we are perpetuating there is literally no end to it.  Everything is a target.  If you are traumatized by a monument how could you possibly read Delta Wedding?  When will the book burning start?

Miss Welty abhorred the Civil War: she had one parent from the North and one from the South and she saw what the war did to Mississippi where she grew up (long after the war, of course).  “Ravaged” was the word she used. But she also knew that there are two sides to everything; her parents taught her that.

As we consider the modern debate of monuments, we need to remember that there are two sides to everything and that the men we see carved in these granite and bronze monuments were men – they were not without flaw and they were not perfect but they were human, just like we are, and we can learn from them still and we can admire their dedication to home and family.  My fear is that we want to remove them now but in another decade or two we will regret this choice and it will be too late.

The night-blooming cereus blooms only one night of the year. Their blooms are fragile and temporary and draw people to it in admiration and awe, but then it is gone until next year. Welty called them “a naked, luminous, complicated flower,” and maybe that’s what our monuments are. Perhaps we all just need to spend more time looking at the beauty of a thing.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.