Late in August 1965, a young boy not yet eight-years-old stood with his father on the field at Gettysburg near the spot where Pickett’s men formed in the woods. The boy’s father was not a learned man and had an uncertain grasp of the events that took place on that ground more than a century before. “Which side were we on?” the boy asked, interrupting his father’s halting explanation of Pickett’s charge. “We weren’t on either side,” his father replied, knowing that his son’s question was meant to discover what part his ancestors had played in the war. “No one from our family was here yet. Your grandfather didn’t come over from the old country until 1907. He wasn’t born until 1898. The Civil War was over a long time by then.” Sensing the boy’s disappointment at not being able to name an ancestor who had fought on either side in the war, the father added that the war was part of history and that anybody with sense could learn history whether his ancestors had been part of it or not.
As you no doubt have guessed, I am what remains of that young boy. He may not have sense—indeed, his father has told him countless times that he has none. But he has struggled mightily all his life to learn the history of the nation in which his ancestors made their new home. Looking back on it now, almost thirty years later, he can see that his quest began as he gazed out from the edge of that wood, past those monuments and toward the stone wall over a mile away.
I have long found comfort in the words of Robert Penn Warren. In The Legacy of the Civil War, Warren wrote that “the grandfather, or great-grandfather, of a high proportion of our population was not even in this country when the War was being fought. Not that this disqualifies the grandson from experiencing to the full the imaginative appeal of the Civil War. To experience this appeal may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American.”
My ancestors came primarily from a tiny, rural village in Southern Italy near Calabria. If I am an American only by chance and circumstance—I might just as easily have been an Italian peasant plowing fields, harvesting grapes or blowing up magistrates and prosecutors—my connections with the South are even more tenuous. I am an Ohio native who has lived all but four of his thirty-six years in the North. I was educated at Northern schools, colleges and universities. I read William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and other Southern writers while an undergraduate at Hiram College, but I never studied Southern history until I became a graduate student of Eugene Genovese at the University of Rochester. Although late to settle my heart in Dixie. I have nonetheless developed a deep and abiding love for the South, its culture, its history and its people.
There are, of course, a great many reasons for my devotion to the South. Among the most important is my growing recognition that the people of the South, young and old, male and female, black and white, are the most generous, gracious, courteous, decent, and civilized of any people it has been my privilege to get to know. I suppose that I am open to the charge leveled against all converts of being too zealous and too uncritical of my new faith. But so what?
On further reflection, however, I have come increasingly to wonder whether I have experienced any conversion at all—indeed, whether any was necessary. Perhaps in certain fundamental ways, I have never been anything but Southern.
I grew up in a family and a community that resembled pre-modern culture as closely as was possible in the most advanced, industrialized, capitalist nation on earth. My father taught me that devotion to family and community is paramount. He also taught me to respect tradition on principle. He has within him a reverence for vanished traditions, especially for the deference and obligations that exist—or that ought to exist—between different classes of people. For my father, these social relations are almost divinely ordained. To trifle with them is to trifle with the handiwork of God. For those who still fear His wrath, such is a dangerous proposition.
The family and community that shaped and nurtured me was, like the South through much of its history, grounded in patriarchy and hierarchy. Husbands exercised authority over their wives. Parents exercised authority over their children. Youth in every circumstance deferred to age. Growing up, I had no concept of equality, and, had I thought about it, would have considered Mr. Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal” to be utter nonsense. Such grand pronouncements about human nature had nothing to do with my life.
My childhood also afforded me only a partial and imperfect concept of “cruel and unusual punishment.” My father reminded me on more than one occasion that since he had brought me into this world, he could take me out of it. He once gave my younger brother a choice, which may sound like an ultimatum, but, take my word for it, my father intended to present my brother with a set of possible options. My father promised to put my brother through college, or, alternately, to put him through a wall. Incidentally, in May, my brother learned that he passed the bar exam. Given his range of options, he chose wisely.
The attitudes and treatment that I’ve described may sound unduly harsh, even cruel and abusive in this overly sensitive age. I assure you that they were not. In most ways, I had an idyllic childhood. I wanted for nothing. Every day was full of adventure and discovery. I was never bored and did not even know that children could be bored. My father and mother provided a safe and stable home for my brother and sister and me to grow up in and loved their children as well as any parents ever have or can. But they also believed in discipline and order.
My parents, like most of their neighbors, took seriously the responsibility to raise their children themselves. They knew that they, and no one else, would determine the kind of persons that we would one day become. That was as it should be. The duties of parenthood belonged not to the school, to the street, or to the state, but to mothers and fathers. We sought to sustain social order and institutionalize social discipline within the confines of family and community. Nothing could be more Southern than this powerful commitment to family and community and the fierce independence that accompanied and sustained it.
The allegiance to family and community, the dual foundations of order in our little portion of the earth, did not only demand a theoretical defense of abstract principle. There were occasions when such allegiances demanded more. A few anecdotes should suffice to clarify the particulars.
Nick Paloucci married my Aunt Nanna, my father’s sister, in 1957. They moved into his mother’s house, as did many newly married couples in those days. Trouble was not long in coming. My father visited his sister shortly after the wedding, only to find her on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. She was, as he later told the story, thin, pale, and sick.
My father is not a feminist. He believes that women have their proper sphere and their proper work. Cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and scrubbing kitchen floors fall well within their province. My father also believes that no one has the right to interfere in the private affairs of a husband and his wife.
But there are limits. Husbands do not have the right to abuse their wives, especially when the women are members of my father’s family. Women may well be subordinate to men in my father’s world view, but they are not slaves subject to a master’s will. When my father discovered that my uncle Nick and his mother compelled my aunt Nanna to do all the housework, he was enraged. He knew what he had to do. That afternoon, before my uncle got home from work, my father packed Nanna’s clothes and moved her and all she owned back to my grandmother’s house. Then he went to see my Uncle Nick.
Their conversation was brief. My father assured my uncle that there were two types of women in his family: those who were happily married and those who were widowed. Uncle Nick, doubtless impressed by the gentle logic of my father’s argument, brought his young wife home the next day. There was never a report of future distress from that quarter.
But difficulties persisted elsewhere. There was a family named Miller who moved into the house next to ours. We welcomed them into the neighborhood even though they were not Italian or Roman Catholic. People could, after all, be forgiven for deficiencies over which they had little or no control. But Mr. Miller, as my father characterized him, was an “immoderate man.” He drank. And when he drank, he beat his wife. Every man on the block agreed that this was no way to treat a woman. God had not created women for men to torment and beat, they maintained, but to cherish, nurture, protect and love. The situation quickly became intolerable.
From our backyard, my sister and I and the other neighborhood children could hear Mrs. Miller imploring her husband to stop hitting her. We could hear her sobbing after the beatings ended. We could see her two children sitting silently on the front porch steps, distant and brooding. They refused to join or to acknowledge us, although we called repeatedly to them. Eventually, when it had been quiet in the house for a long time, they stood up, went inside and shut the door.
Everyone noticed the bruises that covered Mrs. Miller’s face and arms—or, rather, noticed the effort that she made to conceal them beneath heavy make-up, or behind sunglasses on cloudy days, or scarves on sunny, windless days, or long-sleeved blouses and overcoats on hot days. Something had to be done. The men in the neighborhood resolved to do it, for they knew, again much like Southern men, that the responsibility fell to them to create the kind of community in which they wanted to live and raise their children.
My father’s understanding of complex political issues is rather facile. Perhaps that is because he is a man of deed and not, like me, a man of words. But my father is wise in the ways of the world. He knows that no political arrangements can be better than the man who makes them. He knows, as Southerners too have long known, that human nature is unfathomable, stubborn, volatile, fallible and evil. Yet those limitations do not in his mind excuse human beings from devising some instrument of government that will enable them to live together in peace, despite their inclinations to the contrary.
In keeping with his whole approach to politics, my father’s political credo is simple. Stating it, he sounds like any good Southerner, and indeed, exactly like the Founding Fathers. “If we follow the wise, old ways of our ancestors and take care of our own people,” he declares, “then everything will be all right with us. Others may do as they please.” The more ably and responsibly men govern themselves, the less interference they require from external authorities whom they can neither trust nor control. Negligence and imprudence in government invites tyranny.
So far as I know, my father never read John C. Calhoun or any of the host of other Southern political thinkers who made the attack on Leviathan central to the Southern political tradition. Yet, instinctively he shares their misgivings about the growing power of a bloated, reckless, and for all that, ineffective, federal bureaucracy that probes deeper into all aspects of our lives.
This attitude reflects precisely that of Southerners long wary of outside interference with their way of life, whether it came from abolitionists, Freedom Riders, Justice Department bureaucrats, or the armies of Mr. Sherman, Mr. Grant and Mr. Lincoln, which stood at Armageddon and professed to battle for the Lord. My father repeated to me often the words that his father had spoken to him, words that no doubt will warm the hearts of many Southerners: “Scappa, che arriva la patria,” which translates into English approximately as “Run away, the fatherland is coming.”
With some temperate persuasion, the men in the neighborhood brought the saga of the unfortunate Mrs. Miller more or less to a happy conclusion. The men met to decide on a course of action. They called on Mr. Miller one evening just after dark and warned him to stop beating his wife. Not only were his actions detrimental to her and to his children, they said, but they disrupted the peaceful order of community life. Mr. Miller did not take this visit seriously.
The next time he hit his wife, the men in the neighborhood again called on him. But this time they had not come to talk. They hurried him into a waiting car, drove him to a nearby park, and, while two or three of their number held him, they gave him a taste of his own medicine. The message was clear: “Don’t beat your wife.”
Unfortunately, I’m afraid that Mr. Miller was not a quick study. The next time he hit his wife, the men in the neighborhood took him for a pleasant drive in the country and broke one of his arms. Before taking him home, they stopped by the emergency room at the local hospital and, because they felt an obligation to attend the needs of all members of the community, saw to it that he received the very best medical care available. But the message was clear: “Don’t beat your wife.”
Meanwhile, my mother and the other women in the neighborhood helped Mrs. Miller with her housework and her cooking and saw to it that her children had rides to and from school or anywhere else they needed to go. My father and the other men in the neighborhood mowed the Millers’ grass, trimmed their hedges and even planted their garden. At last, Mr. Miller resolved, with the overwhelming support of his neighbors, to become a better husband and father, thus acknowledging the moral authority of the community to discipline and restrain the destructive aspects of his character.
The rough therapy accorded Mr. Miller may offend our modern sensibilities. Indeed, we may at times with justice resent the constraints that communities impose upon us, the retribution that they enact. But in reflecting on the actions of my father and our neighbors, I understand that they saw clearly their duty once more to set the world in its proper orbit, to restore to the community stability and sanity. Theirs was an act of piety. They sensed that no one is anyone by themselves. To become fully human, everyone must belong to a community, and obedience, discipline and submission are the price of belonging, the price of being human. Any society that, like the South, took seriously the importance of family and community, that acknowledged the necessity of personal vengeance and private justice, would have understood and approved their conduct.
To accept what the Southern poet and essayist Donald Davidson called the “submissive imagination” may be an impossible task among a people who now unabashedly celebrate the autonomy of the individual apparently liberated from the bonds of community and the burdens of the past. My father’s way, like the traditional Southern way, requires humility, modesty, restraint, and deference to ancestral authority.
Southern thinkers have long condemned not individualism, but an individualism torn loose from family, community, civic responsibility, history, and tradition—an individualism run wild, which in our day has degenerated into nothing more than private ego-centrism and personal indulgence. In essence, Southern thinkers proposed an older Christian ideal of the God-given dignity of the individual in place of the modern notion that the individual stands at the center of the universe and is the measure of all things. For Southern thinkers, the dignity, indeed, the very stability, of the personality requires deep roots in family, community, and history.
James Johnston Pettigrew of South Carolina long ago recognized this spiritual affinity between Southerners and Italians. During his sojourn in Italy in 1851, Pettigrew wrote:
In proportion as we approached Italy, my feeling of satisfaction arose; I felt as I used to do on leaving Yankee land on the way to the South. At almost every railway station, one could perceive an increase in the beauty of the women, in the sociability of the men, and in the smiling genial aspect of the country.
According to Clyde Wilson, who has written an elegant biography of Pettigrew, Pettigrew was enchanted by every aspect of Italian life: the food and wine taverns and hotels, the theaters and art galleries, the cities, the countryside and the most especially the women. Pettigrew in his travel diary that as he crossed into Italy he “was once more home, for the first time since leaving home.”
Like Pettigrew and countless other ante-bellum Southerners, a part of me believed that the world in which I grew up was immortal. It was not. I would have saved it if I could have, even at the expense of the rest of the world. For my world, so I thought, had nothing to do with the rest of the world; it functioned on its own, and I believed it would last forever. Now I am left with almost nothing but a memory, for that world has all but disappeared. I shall have trouble explaining to my children what it was like. A memory is personal, and when you communicate it to someone else it stops being a memory and becomes mere words that melt into air. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
I shall grow old an immigrant to a very different kind of world than the world from which I came. I fear that in this new world the restraints of piety, custom, tradition, and history shall have been loosened and unbridled individualism and unrestrained selfishness shall prevail. Like our earthly parents, I have discovered my own tree of knowledge and have been exiled from my own private Eden, forced to endure, as Robert Penn Warren wrote, “the awful responsibilities of time.”
Yet, even this sense of loss and tragedy binds me more closely to the Southern thinkers and writers whom I study. As a scholar, I strive to maintain an intellectual distance from my subject. But I make no pretense to historical objectivity. I cannot pretend that I don’t identify and sympathize with men and women who risked all to defend their way of life and saw everything that they cherished ruined and denigrated.
Is my vision of history partisan? Is it romantic? Undoubtedly, it is. But it is also moral. We have already paid a high price for our spiritual liberation from the past, and we will continue to pay it until we subject ourselves to the civilized coercion of culture, morality and faith. Our ceaseless modern quest for liberation is the great delusion of our time. When we at last attain the freedom that we covet, we do not even want it. Indeed, we find that freedom intolerable, as our bondage to alcohol, drugs, and sex should demonstrate.
Today, many reject original sin and instead embrace the vision that human nature is innately good—or at least a “blank slate” upon which social scientists and behavioral therapists can inscribe an appropriate personality. They assume that violence and crime originate not from human depravity but from social deprivation—poverty, a bad neighborhood, a broken home.
But as Southern thinkers have long maintained, society is not the criminal. Instead, it is the force that keeps the criminal at bay. When social authority falters, the innate evil of human nature bursts forth with a vengeance. The Southern poet and essayist Allen Tate recognized more than forty years ago:
that man will never be completely and permanently enslaved. He will rebel, as he is rebelling now, in a shocking variety of ‘existential’ disorders, all over the world. If his human nature as such cannot participate in the action of society, he will not capitulate to it, if that action is inhuman; he will turn it upon himself… Man may destroy himself but he will not at last tolerate anything less than his full human condition.
Tate also discerned the fragility of civilization and understood how feeble a barrier it was against the demonic aspects of human nature. Civilization, he once wrote, rested on “a pedestal above an abyss.” But he knew, whatever the perils and weaknesses of civilization, that the triumph of absolute freedom and individualism would bring in its wake the will-to-power.
Our exaltation of untrammelled and individualism will not lead in the end to the enhanced dignity of every person, but to “the war of all against all” in which brute force is the law and the survival of the fittest the result. The assertion of unfettered autonomy has always ended in decadence, for it has everywhere unleashed the anarchy of the soul. The French Revolution, to cite a favorite example of Southern thinkers, did not result in a political and social Utopia of free citizens, but lost itself in the bloody ecstasy of the “Reign of Terror.” In our own day, the no-fault, guiltless sexual revolution has not engendered a healthier appreciation of human sexuality or bred non-exploitative human relationships, but has given rise to sadomasochism, which, I argue, is not the perversion but the culmination of our unbounded nature.
If we understand history as tragedy and not as melodrama, the past will invite our compassion and piety as well as our scrutiny and judgment. The modern repudiation of history and tradition thus weakens our appreciation of all that is worth caring about in the past. It encourages us to sever our connections with old ideas and values that we might still wish to venerate and to preserve.
Once we cut ourselves off from our past and our traditions, there is no going back. We will become not provincials in space, but, as Allen Tate suggested, provincials in time, living each day as if there were no yesterday and as if there will be no tomorrow. As a consequence, we shall spurn the compromises upon which civilization rests. We shall reject, as we are doing, all limits to human activity, all discipline, all authority. We shall become, in the trenchant words of another Southern essayist, Richard M. Weaver, “moral idiots.”
We weary of the past. We are disillusioned by, and even hostile to, the ideals, values and aspirations that molded us into a nation and a people. We are, for these reasons, also pessimistic about the future. Three decades ago James Burnham wrote of the “suicide of the West.” I see no reason today to revise his essential conclusion that the heirs to Western Civilization are openly defending the enemies that would see us annihilated. We are, I fear, a decadent race, poised for extinction, awaiting the arrival of our executioners.
Southerners seem to be the only consistent exception to these developments and these attitudes in the United States. Southern ways are held up to ridicule, and Southern virtues are out of fashion. But because Southerners think, believe, live and act within an inheritance, they enjoy a sense of confidence, faith and stability that may prove an invaluable asset as the foundations of our society begin to collapse.
In 1958, Donald Davidson identified the cause of the South, writing:
For brevity, I might call it the cause of civilized society, as we have known it in the Western world, against the new barbarism of science and technology controlled and directed by the modern power state. In this sense, the cause of the South was and is the cause of Western Civilization itself.
As the infirmity and treason of our political, cultural and religious elites become more conspicuous, excessive, and devastating, the nation may rally to the intransigent patriotism of the South that shines as a solitary beacon of hope through this long night of decadence and barbarism. Should that day arrive, we may once more understand the spirit of the men who stormed out of the woods with Pickett and charged the stone wall. Theirs was one of the last great flowerings of chivalry in the West. Those men did not forget, as their leader exhorted them, that they were from old Virginia. As absurd as it surely seems to us, those men knew the meaning of duty and sacrifice. They did not have to be told of their obligations, but only reminded of who they were and where they came from. They knew how to die and preferred death to defeat. But to die well, those men also had to know how to live, and what was worth living—and—dying for.
Republished with gracious permission from The Abbeville Review (September 2016).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.