A VOICE FROM THE SOUTH
by William Styron © 1989
[Reprinted here with permission from the author. June, 1997]
I've always been surprised by my direct link to the Old South--the South of slavery and the Civil War. Many southerners of my vintage, and even some of those who are considerably older, can claim an ancestral connection to that period only through a great grandparent. "I have letters written during the war by my great-aunt," they will say, or "my great-grandfather was with Longstreet at Seven Pines." If they remember their grandparents they usually remember elderly ladies and gentlemen whose own childhood memories are of the days of Reconstruction or afterwards. But it was from my own grandmother, who was in her late eighties when I was a boy of twelve or so, that I heard of her life as a little girl just before the war and of the sometimes remarkable events that took place in her life thereafter.
The Clark plantation, where she was born Marianna at mid-century, was a small-fiefdom of several thousand acres on the lower reaches of the Pungo River in eastern North Carolina. Even now Hyde County is a remote region, low-lying, with the desolate marsh-and-pine- woods beauty of land bordering on the sea. In those days, before highways and cars, before telephones, the remoteness must have been a globe of near-perfect silence, with only the diurnal sounds of plantation business obtruding: cartwheels squeaking, a blacksmith's hammer, the fuss and grumble of livestock--at night an immense quiet. Whenever, in my fantasy of the place, I hear human voices, the voices are almost always that of black people, calling from the cabins or the fields, through an August haze. This was a mercantile enterprise after all, and the black people made up its vital force and were its essential personnel. My grandmother's father, Caleb Clark, was a major entrepreneur; he owned upwards of thirty-three slaves, a large number for the upper South. And it was they who labored to produce the plantation's crops--cotton and cotton meal, shingles and turpentine, much of which was transported by boat up through the inland waterway to Norfolk for shipment north and to Europe.
In the late nineteenth century, and well into the early decades of this century, there were many sentimental novels written by southerners, still infatuated with life in antebellum times, in which the central figures are a child and an older person reminiscing about those bygone years; in these chronicles there was never a world so idyllic as that of the plantation with its celebrations, its pleasant frivolities and domestic commotions, its possum hunts and horse races and sewing bees, its natural disasters that always resolved themselves benignly, the genteel collision of white people and their black servitors in encounters touching or droll but never menacing.
Curiously, I recall myself as a boy being a character in just such a novel, and the older person was none other than my grandmother, then living in the small town of Washington --popularly known as Little Washington--not many miles from that Arcadian domain in Hyde County where her childhood was spent experiencing precisely those joys that the sentimental novelist described. Or at least that is the way she represented her early life to me, and of course she could be excused because of her extreme youth for having failed to be aware of the desperate and sorrowful undercurrents that lay beneath the genial surface of the Clark plantation. In the same way my own extreme youth allowed me to be beguiled by her description of the two little slave girls she owned. Approximately her own age, they had been legally deeded to her by her father, and they had the priceless names of Drusilla and Lucinda. Drusilla and Lucinda--they were names right out of one of those heartrending chronicles where the young heroine nurses her beloved charges through dire illnesses such as scarlet fever, and braids their hair, and knits woolen stockings to protect their skinny little black legs from the winter cold. But the fact is that my grandmother actually performed these good offices. They were no maudlin romantic invention. Much of what she told me had a quality of innocence, even beatitude, and she was telling the truth as she saw it, at least.
But suddenly--and why shrink from the obvious locution?--it was all gone with the wind. From the outset of the war federal troops had occupied eastern North Carolina and in 1862 a small force of General Burnside's men marched onto the Clark plantation and ransacked the place from end to end. They were efficient devastators and destroyed much of the property, but my grandmother recalled that the most terrible result of the Yankees' plunder was hunger. Their chief objective had been food and provisions and they stripped the premises of every edible ounce. The troops were surly, loud and uncouth; they were from Ohio, and that state for her forever had a special stigma among the generally hated northern states, causing her to pronounce the name with a kind of aspirated loathing, 0-high-0. One particularly vivid image she left me with was the maneuver whereby the scores of smoked and cured hams and bags of meal in the cellar were removed from the house: a chain of blue-jacketed soldiers, like a bucket brigade, passing hams and bags one after another out the window and into the wagons below. The monsters waved their flags and brandished their rifles, and they used dreadful cuss words, my grandmother said, language no southerner would use. Then they departed and then the Clark family began to starve; for weeks the family--and the black people, too--subsisted on what they could scrounge from the fields and woods, until finally some meager supplies began to arrive regularly from friends in Tarboro, smuggled through the Union lines. All of us are by now acquainted with human beings who have suffered pain of nearly every description, but aside from a few of the survivors of Auschwitz my grandmother was the only person I've ever known-certainly the only American--who could describe the harrowing pain of continual starvation.
Meanwhile, over in Little Washington, which was in the hands of the federals, my grandmother's husband-to-be--my grandfather Alpheus Whitehurst Styron--had sneaked his way out of town to join the Confederate army. He was a rambunctious kid of fifteen with enough inbred southern chutzpah then to lie about his age in order to sign up with one of the units of General Robert Hoke, who for many months had laid siege to the town in a campaign to drive the Yankees out. He was assigned to a job as courier, and this provided him with many scary and hairbreadth adventures as he moved in and out of the town through the cordon of Union pickets. But his splendid career as boy warrior was brief, and terminated abruptly in 1864 when the Union troops were ordered to abandon their stronghold and leave Washington. Before departing, hundreds of soldiers went on a nasty spree through the streets pillaging stores and warehouses and private homes; then they burned down the pretty little town. One responsible historian has written that, for its size, no southern community was so completely devastated, including those in the path of Sherman's infamous march. The wars of the twentieth century with their hideous massacres of civilians and reprisals against the innocent have made such episodes appear like mere gross misbehavior; a spirit of gallantry, now virtually defunct, prevailed on both sides of the Civil War, and the atrocities to which most of us have become anesthetized were in those days almost never a part of the repertory of violence. There were no Babi Yars, no Lidices, no Oradours, no My Lais. But the invaders were experts in the science of destruction, and it requires no stretch of credulity to speculate that, had the fortunes of war and geography been different, the Confederate troops would have been capable of the same evil mischief. Whatever, as Vann Woodward observed in "The Burden of Southern History," the South in its ruination--of which the destroyed town of Washington was a symbol--became the only region in America to experience the tragic exhaustion and trauma of defeat (along with the bitterness of the vanquished) that has been the common lot of so many millions of Europeans. So it is no wonder that many years later, living serenely in a Washington now restored, my grandmother should still have been affected by the brutality and privation she had suffered as a little girl, and her gentle yet animated face turned aggrieved, pale as ice at the recollection of the barbarians who had abused and starved her. It is not difficult for me, recomposing my own memories, to see in that face the same wintry hauntedness of a Russian woman I knew whose town was overrun by the Germans, both had psychic wounds and both were unforgiving.
When I had these memorable encounters with my grandmother I was living not far north in the Virginia Tidewater, near the small city where I was born. Newport News was indisputably a southern community, but it lacked many of the characteristics we commonly associate with a southern environment. It was a rootless and synthetic town, created from the ground up in the 1890s by the northern railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, who perceived in the lower James River a perfect setting for his shipbuilding enterprise while obviously being enticed by the prospect of cheap, nonunion southern labor, much of it black. My father, a graduate of North Carolina State College, was an engineer at the shipyard. Newport News also became a bustling ocean port and chief terminus for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which was a major transporter of coal from the Appalachian mines, tobacco from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Kentucky, and grain from the Midwest. One of its lesser but continuous exports were the elderly horses saved from the Kansas City dog-food factories but headed for a more dreadful fate by being consigned to Spain, where they became the terrorized and often gored-to-death mounts of picadors in bullfights. As a boy I remember seeing hundreds of these cadaverous old nags huddled in the rain, and only learned of their purpose years later when Hemingway mentioned Newport News in "Death in the Afternoon." I would not go so far as to say that, metaphorically, these wretched beasts represented for me the dreariness of the city, yet it was a strangely soulless community and, despite what I still reckon to have been a relatively happy childhood spent in and around the place, I never discovered its center, its identity. Certainly I could argue with myself that in writing my first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness", I made a stab at plumbing that identity, and even perceiving glints of natural beauty, usually those of river and estuary and bay; but it was difficult to establish a spiritual connection with such a city, basically callow and without a past to supply it with the unaesthetic, those necessities of southern life--myth and tradition.
A connoisseur, H. L. Mencken, once rated the town second in ugliness only to Altoona, Pennsylvania. It is true that those who were the most economically favored might, as is customary, build houses commanding a gorgeous view--in this case the broad James on the wide and spectacular Hampton Roads--but essentially the city was raw, clamorous, industrial, and unsightly, with a big, drab white slum and an even drabber and bigger black slum, a part of which, even in those days before cocaine or crack had been heard of, was prey to such unceasing violence that it bore the lurid name Blood Fields. Aside from all this it was hard to love a place where much of the population was transient, shifting, faceless: swarms of country boys, black and white, seeking railroad or shipyard jobs, an endless invasion of seamen from merchant ships, and a horde of soldiers and sailors from every base in the swollen military encampment which the lower Tidewater was becoming in the years before World War II. As I've implied, the city inflicted on me little actual misery. I had happy times as a kid, and I loved the great murky expanse of the James River, in which, or on which, swimming or sailing, I dwelled with such comfortable abandon that I felt it to be as fundamentally my habitat as a gull or a shad. But I remained an alien in my birthplace, uncharmed and unattached. Would I have so easily fled Richmond, or Mobile, or Jackson, Tennessee, or Cheraw, South Carolina? Numberless factors shape one's needs and longings, and I may have been forced to escape any native environment. At any rate a line I wrote in the diary I kept as a fourteen-year-old became a prophecy: I've got to get the hell away from here.
But throughout my boyhood, whatever my dissatisfactions with the city, I felt an acute consciousness of myself as a southerner. I also acquired, by that osmotic process that most southerners experience, a hyperintense sense of place. Despite its instability and its grimy atmosphere Newport News was in Dixie; you would never really confuse it with Sandusky or Duluth. At a time when most urban areas, both north and south, were still predominately white, Newport News was nearly 40 percent black--or negro, as we were permitted to say in those days--largely owing to the vast numbers of immigrants from the southeastern farms who found jobs in the shipyard. Jim Crow reigned and segregation was as omnipresent as it is today in Johannesburg, though in those years, unlike the restive black South Africans now, the victims of Virginia apartheid were frozen in the weird time warp that had held them captive since the Civil War; they fitted, seemingly uncomplaining and precisely where they belonged-or where white people wanted them to belong--within the matrix of community life, in which the timeless status quo had smothered protest and rendered revolt inconceivable. I didn't get the intimate connection with negroes that I might have had in the country or a small town. To my bemused and attentive eye, as a boy, negroes were participants in a bewildering magic trick, appearing and disappearing at the whim of some prestidicitator, who caused them to throng the stage of the city by the thousands--especially at four o'clock, the shipyard quitting time--but who then made them vanish in a puff, so that at night the same main street would be occupied only by Caucasians, not a single black soul in sight; they had all been whisked away into their baleful ghetto beyond the C&O tracks where they were occupied, according to legend, with cutting each other up in Blood Fields, and where the only white persons present would be the merchant sailors paying visits to the seedy whorehouses along Warwick Avenue.
This vanishing act did indeed baffle me, so much so that any awareness of negroes was honed to an exquisite receptivity not by their presence so much as by their absence. I was still quite young when I began to wonder at this absence. Why weren't they in school with me? Why didn't they belong to the Presbyterian church, like I did? Why weren't they in the movie theaters, at the baseball games? Why were Florence, the cook, whom I was so fond of, and old William, who mowed the lawn and told me funny stories, finally such strangers, disappearing at night into a world of utter mystery? Because they were absent, even though constantly visible and present, negroes exacted a powerful and curiously exotic hold on my boyhood; their lives, their peculiarity, their difference, their frustrating untouchability all fascinated me, and finally comprised a kind of obsession. I wasn't dumb: I knew that they had lives beyond the sweat of hard ill-paid labor and Saturday night mayhem and being whores, and I struggled in my way to get to know them. For one thing I knew they led--many of them at least--a religious life, a life of incandescent faith. The presence in the city of two messianic figures, Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux and his archrival Bishop Grace--known as Daddy Grace--was testimony to that, and their competitive mass baptisms in Hampton Roads, thousands of the faithful being immersed in the briny waters while shouting songs of salvation, were spectacles I was drawn to, agitated and wide-eyed. I had a deep hunger to divine the nature of this spirituality, so alien to my pallid Presbyterianism, with its numbing Sunday school sessions and querulous hymns, its purple sabbath melancboly. There was a wild and forthright gladness in the religion of black people. Its music--the gospel sound and those spirituals, that gave voice to such depths of anguish and highs of almost manic ecstasy--moved me to inexpressible feelings, feelings I'd never had before and wouldn't experience again until, on a different but equally genuine level of response, I began to listen to Mozart and Bach.
Somehow I must have been aware that the key to my preoccupation with negroes and their religion was slavery. Even so I couldn't quite shake off the ambivalence toward them that was a product of my upbringing. Bigotry, foolish and fangless but real nonetheless, was essentially a part of my character, as it was for nearly all my contemporaries, and what little understanding I had of negro history must have been colored by the prevailing platitudes. But at least I was groping for enlightenment. One of my first attempts at literary composition was a high-school theme called "Drusilla and Lucinda, Two Little Slave Girls." I recall almost nothing about this work. I'm sure it was as mawkish and absurd as the official state history texts which the Commonwealth of Virginia had prepared for its youngest citizens and whose rubrics concerning the transcendental sweetness of slave times I innocently accepted. (Consider the historical objectivity of the set of two volumes, one of which, for freshmen, had portrayed on its cover Robert E. Lee, while the other, for sophomores, has a photograph of Lee's horse Traveller, fixed in taxidermy's timeless paralysis and on display at Washington and Lee.) I've often wondered how such prejudice and propaganda didn't desensitize me to the much closer approximations of truth I found in history books when I was later contemplating, my own work on slavery.
I have not overlooked the fact that the suffering my grandmother endured as a child was the grim though perhaps not unnatural consequence of a war that was fought over the very existence of slavery. Within certain sound moral standards she may be regarded as having been the pitiable victim of a struggle in which right prevailed. This idea hadn't really penetrated my consciousness either, as a boy. I recall how in 1937, the year before she died, I looked forward to our trips down to Little Washington. She was now nearly eighty-seven years old and partially paralyzed from a stroke, but her mind was still quick; she was a tiny little lady, so frail and light that my father carried her in his arms like a child. For me the pleasure and the excitement of the trip began when our car--a 1930 Oldsmobile my father won in a raffle--left the sooty urban bloat of Newport News behind, and we passed over the James River bridge into southside Virginia. A short distance beyond the end of the bridge began the fields of peanuts and cotton; they were doubtless the northernmost cotton fields in America and were symbolic to me of the forlornly beautiful, funky rural South into which we were penetrating, the South of pine forests and unpainted farm shacks, Bull Durham signs and coffee-brown sluggish streams winding through swamps, mule teams off in the distance and shabby little negro churches in a stand of ancient oak trees, rattle-trap Fords and tumbledown graveyards and a sense of universal poorness and sadness--the eternal southern countryside. In Washington my grandmother, bedridden now, always greeted us with the look of startled then expanding joy of one who had waited a long and anxious time for our visit.
After the Civil War she had lived a good, satisfying, philoprogenitive (she'd had eight children) life, though one beset by many knocks and adversities. When sbe married my grandfather, some years after his dashing career as a boy courier, he was ambitious for good old American success and in due course built up a thriving little business manufacturing chewing tobacco and snuff. Good old American catastrophe struck one year in the 1880s, however, when those original southern robber barons, the rapacious Dukes pere et fils, founders of the American Tobacco Company--my father always called them “those piratical devils” and was sorely injured when I became a student at the university bearing their name ran my grandfather out of business through some wicked monopolistic maneuver, one which, though perfectly legal in those freebooting days, left the family nearly destitute. My grandfather somehow recovered and made a moderately decent living thereafter as the proprietor and captain of a small steamship first used for hauling farm cargo to Norfolk and later taking passenger tours through Pamlico Sound. But my grandmother had had to live a domestic life of considerable hardship and, now widowed for many years, she could not quite throw off that burden of hardship, which showed in her tired eyes and brittle-looking work-worn hands, though her spirits were unquelled and chipper.
On one of those visits my mother came along, and I recall how her presence complicated matters, for she was a northerner, born in western Pennsylvania. It was not until that trip, perhaps because I was getting a little older and more perceptive, that I realized the strained relations that must have always existed between the two women. My grandmother was a lady of bountiful nature and kindness, and it is difficult to believe that she was intentionally rude to my mother, who herself was amiable and outgoing and possessed a desire to please and who I'm sure, made a strenuous effort to reach out to my grandmother, as if to say I am of a different generation. The war is long over, let us bind up the old wounds. But try as she might to avoid it, and I'm sure she had tried, the remoteness my grandmother displayed, the chilliness, the hostility she felt not toward my mother herself but toward her northerness, had in some way made itself all too evident; on the trip back to Virginia I heard my mother say to my father in a hurt, strained voice: “She has never really liked me, has she?” And despite my father's pained explanations, his denials, I think it may have been then that I understood how truly lacerating to my grandmother’s spirit the war had been and how unexceptional it was that she could not eradicate from memory that appalling visitation with its rampaging footfalls and deafening yells of the Ohio marauders who destroyed in a day nearly all that she knew existed. How perfectly normal and human it had been to hoard up the injustice of those weeks when her belly shriveled into a knot, and when, soon after, she saw the only community she had known burned to cinders. A few others might have had the magnanimity to forget and pardon, but my grandmother apparently did not; it was a failing I always found easy to disregard.
She once told me in those last days, squeezing my hand, “Billy, always remember you’re a southerner.” She would have greatly disapproved, I fear, the choice I made to live in the North. But if I had been able, in recent years, to reach her through the void I may have had to tell her some truths she would have found disappointing. I would have to tell her that the North is not so bad a place to make a home, certainly in the bucolic region in which I dwell, where the people are at least as good-natured and as easygoing as southerners, just as often displaying the generosity southerners are famous for, and where the gently rolling landscape has the harmonious contours of the uplands of north Georgia or Alabama. I would tell her that it is much too cold in the winter where I live, and that the bland native cuisine is such that I long for the sumptuous Tidewater meals I remember; but one can fly away for the winter, and as for the cuisine--you can import almost anything edible from the South now, overnight mail, and gorge on Florida oysters and Carolina quail at home. I would tell her that our back roads have noisy rednecks and the ether teems with country music.
Sometimes I miss the South but often I don't, since, when I view the region from afar, or when I make my frequent visits, it seems to resemble the North at its most shopping mall-ridden and architecturally beserk. Walker Percy, a writer I esteem next to none, once spoke in an interview of the Connecticutization of the South, or parts of it, but this seemed to me an unnecessary disparagement of my adopted state, for if anyone shrinks, as I do, from the high-tech and runaway urban glut of Georgia's capital city, the idea of the Atlantaization of the modestly proportioned cities of Connecticut creates dread. It would seem to me that the dynamism of American society in the past few decades has allowed the development of a homogeniety in which it is very hard to regard either the ills or the excellences of life as being the peculiar property of one region or another. Such are the excellences I’ve seen in the South recently--side by side with certain atrocities, to be sure--that I could live there with the greatest happiness, were my transplantation to the North not so long-lived and complete.
Essentially my grandmother was right, and I have heeded her counsel: I’ve never forgotten that I am a Southerner. A mere decade from now her descendants will celebrate her 150th anniversary--a span of time of such magnitude that I am touched with awe that I was once so intimately bound up with her being. To remember her now as she was, fading and frail, in the realization that those hands I embraced--the skin like tissue, the flesh warm with life yet invaded by a dying chill--were hands that once braided the hair of a little black girl who was her property, were hands that scratched for food in the harsh Carolina earth in a war that separated her and the little black girl forever: the remembrance of those hands is alone enough for me to forge a lasting bond with our unfathomable past, and to prevent me from being anything but a southerner, wherever I live.
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