I have studied with depth, breadth, and passion not only the literature, but also the history–both political and intellectual–of the American South. During the most impressionable years of my intellectual formation, I was reading Wilbur J. Cash on The Mind of the South and Ulrich B. Phillips on “The Central Theme of Southern History”–and H. L. Mencken on “The Sahara of the Bozart.” And I can still experience a frisson of recognition when I read anew the exchange between Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon in Absalom, Absalom:
“Tell me about the South. What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they live at all? . . . Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?”
“I don’t hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I don’t hate it,” he said. “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
Pat Conroy’s opening sentence in The Prince of Tides thus exposed layer upon layer of significance for this student of the South: “My wound is geography.” The South–specifically, South Carolina’s Lowcountry–was not just the setting, but a main character, in Conroy’s thinly veiled version of the Southern gothic. I understood the wound, but, to be fair, I also understood the refuge described in the following line: “It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” Because I have studied, written about, and lived vicariously in the South–and because I have for forty years lived actually in the South (but never called it home)–it is easy for me to understand how mere geography could have such evocative power.
However, despite my penchant for introspection, I have seldom spent much thought on the formative geography of my own beginnings. Continue reading . . .