The rise of Jimmy Carter - life-long citizen of Sumter County, Georgia, son of Carters who have worked that clay since 1851 - has stirred a moil of interest in all things Southern. But the things are only two - the land and the people.
The land constitutes a bull-shaped mass larger than Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia combined. Little more than a hundred years ago - within the memory of a few living people - that mass tried to stand as a separate nation, in defense of the will to possess human chattel, the only means it saw of continuing its life. The people, white and black, are those whose kin fought in or endured that ghastly war (180,000 Southern soldiers died, almost all on home ground); those who have lived on in the same stricken place through a century of hostile occupation, the oppression of defeat, the taunts of victors; then a long contemptuous neglect in which to pick at wounds, compound old errors, and digest hard lessons. They are also - and not at all incidentally - the people whose kin fought the last and bloodiest battles of the American Revolution, again on their ground.
Now the curious lovely land and people, though still despised by much of the nation as benighted or country-simple at best (in spite of their producing by far the better part of the first-rate original American fiction, verse, and music of the past 50 years and with no sign of flagging) - that land and people find themselves courted by numerous suitors, eager but fish-eyed.
Diplomats and managers with world-sized ambitions fly for job-interviews to a south-Georgia village with no hotel or restaurant but a way of life as rich in complexity of manners, language, depth of realism and human comprehension as any Greek city built on rock, any Middle-Eastern village built on man's oldest middens - not to mention America's gorgon-faced cities. Flocks of reporters from world magazines flat-foot through the crossroads and countryside - and are so disarmed by the welcome they receive (the food and robust speech, the courtly self-confidence, the self-aimed wit) that they snap up the locals' own fabulated version of what it all means and head north to write one more total-miss about Good Ole Boys, Chittlin' Suppers, Racial Chasms.Political cartoonists and television simpletons indulge in a round of Southern jokes as ignorant and offensive as Earl Butz' blue minstrel-prank on blacks - and a good deal older (anti-Southern humor predates the Revolution; and some of the dumbest of the recent wave comes from decamped Southerners who've fouled their antennae and lost the homing signal.) Critical organs which have long since blown Taps over "exhausted" Southern writers are imploring those same writers now for guidance through the ticking underbrush of dark Dixie - as though we were nimble scouts, not the sad sclerotics we so recently seemed.
I can say We, being among the new scouts - born in the village South, formed in its culture, and resident in the town South for all but four of my forty-four years. In fifteen generally gratifying years of publishing the fiction made from my life - therefore "Southern fiction" - I've heard a few stanzas of Taps myself, pumped out by various Northeastern journalists who'd understandably stultified themselves on a diet of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor (writers whom some thoughtful Southerners see as sports to the region - homeless rhapsodists, fantasts, mesmerized haters); and I've felt the occasional chill breath of urban condescension or bafflement which still awaits all educated Southerners who choose to live south of, say, Falls Church, Virginia. Yet within recent weeks I've been asked by a national newsmagazine to visit Plains; interview as many Carters as would hear me out; and write a brief essay on their family (I did so with pleasure and was met with real kindness by people like the people I've known since birth - tough, witty, broadly gifted, and mellow with the wisdom of bend-and-yield and the open-eyed abandon gained from centuries with blacks).And now this paper with old Southern ties, in a city still largely Southern in tone, sets me this tidy theme for variation on Inauguration Day - The South Comes Into Her Inheritance.
I happen to think that it is such a day of accession to-rights, that today a vast region and many million people sense their hard-won return to a seat of trust at the height of power; and I'm proud to be asked to perform on its morning. But I also think it's a far more complicated day than that, so complicated in meaning and promise as to require the up-ending of my theme.
First, though, to linger on the sweetness of the day.
Admitted that the South has a crucial share - through Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and a list of worthies - in the making of the nation; that it held the White House for ten of the first seventeen presidencies, till it forewent the right. Admitted, Jimmy Carter is the first Southern-born, trained, and sponsored president since Andrew Johnson, 1865-69 (Wilson was trained in the North and elected from there; Lyndon Johnson was Texan, not quite the same thing, and rose to the office on a Washington record). Admitted that, while Carter carried all the Confederate states but Virginia, he won the white vote in only Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Admitted that a number of Southerners who did not support Carter are taking to the idea of a Southern president - and a Southern First Family - like the perishing to water; and that those of us who did so - who had stayed here and seen it through - exult this morning in an air of vindication and fragile hope. Admitted, that exultation has been earned - by a stream of great art, a work of racial union in advance of the country, by a care for wilderness and wildlife; by a hundred other quiet unadvertised victories.
In the face of all that, still I up-end my theme and state it thus - Today the Nation Enters on Her Southern Inheritance. The variations follow.
The rural South - which is most of it still and its grandest gift - specializes in sunsets: not the addled-egg, operatic, desert kind but a winey, dying radiance in sky and trees that makes you all but pray to join the light in its rush toward rest. Or makes you expect to see an angel step toward you from the near pine-woods with the one word you've wanted from God, in gentle hands - Pardon or Welcome or Reconciled. For Southern country landscape still trembles in the grip of spiritual immanence - a land pressed on not only by the living stragglers who cross it but by spirits of Indians; early settlers; Revolutionary soldiers; all the soldiers and civilians who died in rebellion; the slaves and freedmen who tilled and tended; by the God of whom the region is convinced; and by Satan, Prince of This World, Prince of Lies.
I'm rural Southern, as I said, by birth and rearing but an avid indoorsman and no Civl-War student. I've never read Lee's Lieutenants, for instance (once a rite of Southern manhood), and cannot replay one battle for you, though my Grandmother Price (whom I clearly recall) was kissed by Lee and though I've known Confederate veterans and former slaves. Yet I've found myself lately, on no conscious search, in the midst of slow sunsets at two large places in the life of that war, empty of living souls but me. Those solitary evenings form an emblem, in my head at least, of some of the urgents gifts and warnings the South now brings the nation. Invisible as they are, I can only hope to hint them - a legacy the nation has requested at last, having finally earned it.
Appomattox Court House rides a long low ridge above a small stream in southern Virginia. It is kept now as a park to nail-down the memory of Lee's surrender, the end of our fiercest struggle. In American fashion, what had been torn down of the village is now restored to the pristine state of Platonic Forms - no human buildings ever as fresh as these. The surrender-house itself, honest family-dwelling of a man named McLean, was dismantled by speculators who planned to erect it as a commercial museum in Washington, then failed; it is now rebuilt - every thirteenth brick is from the original house. Yet you're shown the small parlor, where Lee and Grant never met, with reverence appropriate to the real boards and nails. Well, the air is the same; you're on the same spot on the earth's old skin.
And the skin is the thing - the beautiful place, far from towns and noise, straddling this broad crest of land above the valley in a cold fall sunset. You can turn right from the house and walk a quarter-mile to a viewpoint on the valley. There's a little low contraption with a button to push. More in fear now than hope, you push and stand looking over scarlet trees toward night. A clear male voice says that you are on the point where, at dawn on April 12, 1865, the final surrender parade occurred - 27,000 Confederate survivors passed and stacked their arms. Then the voice reads a passage from Joshua L. Chamberlain, the Union general in charge of the scene -
"Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier's salutation, - from the "order arms" to the old "carry" - the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the (Confederate) column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual, - honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order; but an awed stillness rather and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!"
Something human has ascended to the beauty of the place and inhabited it - one uplifted figure, with profound salutation. You feel, at last. Ninety miles from my house, alone in the place, the great-grandson of men who might have marched here, I feel some atavistic love of kin redeemed and rewarded. Southern kin, I mean - pitiful survivors of their own selfish folly, resourceful to the last in drawing figures on the air, the glorious and hair-raising pictures of pride.
Six miles northeast, the flat land begins to roll; and the color of the earth - almost purple round Plains - lightens to doeskin, topped by broomstraw like coarse Viking hair. No houses in sight. You cross Viney Creek, then Sweetwater Creek; then - still vacant country, nine miles from town - you come on some black iron gates to your right. You're at old Camp Sumter, called Andersonville.
Here in a stockaded twenty-six acres, between February 1864 and April '65, more than forty-five thousand Union soldiers were imprisoned - unroofed, scarcely fed, watered only by Sweetwater Creek (soon a sewer) and a spring which appeared in the worst month, August (named Providence Spring by the prisoners). Thirteen thousand died.
A week before Christmas, it's quarter to five. I'm here all alone, only a part attendant waiting at the gate-house to close up behind me when I've had my little tour. The sun is performing the grandeur I mentioned. I drive very slowly through the cemetery first; all the dead are there under close white headstones the size of shoe-boxes - William Pike, S. C. Paley, Conrad Dumond. Then along a sand track through a stand of scrub pine to the campsite itself - the 26 acres open to the sky as they were a century back. The near-end offers another button to push - unvarnished facts of horror with laconic reminders that Union prisons were hardly more humane; that a Union prison in Elmira, New York had a death rate comparable with Andersonville's (the best guidebook to New York State will not tell you that; and even the tape at Andersonville ignores the Union's Camp Douglas in Chicago, which had the highest death rate of all the war prisons.) Then a few mourning monuments and 25 deep holes, dug by prisoners - some for water, some for freedom. Down the gentle slope is Providence Spring and Sweetwater Creek still crossing the site. Nineteen feet inside the vanished stockade is a row of white posts - the Deadline, to cross which was certain death. Little markers for the Dead House, the fort, the hospital. I stop near the creek, walk over dry grass, and stand on the Deadline. No one to see me, not even a crow.
These days there are two main places to visit from Americus, Georgia. Nine miles west is the town of Plains, a pretty (not prettified) standard farm town of the seaboard South - watertank, warehouse, row of old stores, a former railway-depot selling souvenirs, skirts of good frame houses (mostly needing paint). Then the houses play out; and west a short way, past a pecan grove, is a road to the left which will take you through the cemetery another short way, past rickety houses played round by black children, to a low yellow house almost in the road with the railway tracks maybe fifty feet in front.
You're at Archery. Miss Lillian has directed you - "You want to get there or see some thing once you do?" It's a settlement consisting of this sensible house, the disused chocolate-brown store in its yard, and the Negro houses sprinkled in view around it. Another mental place, no big ganglion of life; typical of a thousand more Southern place-names which only mark a general locus of feeling, no visible cluster of movement or sound. Any alien motorist tooling through here would see nothing much but the cheek-by-jowl closeness in which two races live and, in the Negro houses, a textbook demonstration of the startling durability of unpainted wood. The house painted yellow, though, was Jimmy Carter's home - the small accelerator, built of kin and work, in which his boyhood was raised to critical speed (his family called him "Hot") and from which he was spun toward the Navy, the state-house, us.
You can turn just beyond the Carter house and retrace your path through Plains, past Miss Julia Coleman's (the crippled teacher who started Jimmy reading) and Jimmy's own street, now blocked by Secret Service. Then back through Americus and on from there on Highway 49, through the newer well-shaded suburban homes, to the other place.
I've been more than one place that has borne great suffering over stretches of time - Dachau the worst, before it was doctored-up to museum status. Such places have about them, however many tourists, their own clear calm - a calm in proportion to the pain they witnessed, as though they had earned perpetual reprieve from mere perturbation. Here is no exception. I surprise myself. I tear a slip of paper from a memo pad and bend and, with the largest coin from my pocket, scratch up a teaspoonful of the dirt. It is sandy, the texture of clean woodashes. I fold it in the paper and mean to keep it always. Four hundred miles from my comfortable house - far from there as Manhattan - I still feel at home. Here at this dense core of human suffering caused - however haplessly - by countrymen of mine, I mainly feel family pride and hope in a man I met the night before in a mobile-home restaurant over simple splendid food: James Carter Jr., whose blood-kin were working this country thirteen years before Virginia bureaucrats chose its peaceful hills to bear the thick nightmare of Andersonville. Men herded and starved and dying, no mercy.
Pride and hope for one large reason - he is from this place. Not only Sumter County with its special cause for knowledge but the South, the old Cause. What he knows - what my little spoonful of dirt knows - is the South's knowledge (white and black), shared on this continent by only one other people: Indians. Pride of the self, its passion for power - to own other men and make their choices - will end in helpless cruelty, total defeat, punishment, long decades of shame at the hands of hypocrites.
In a time when the whole United States has lost its first war, though on foreign ground (a war based on folly much like Confederate folly - the will to use others as tools for our gain), and when three out of our last four presidents are known to have deceived us in directing our lives, the nation has turned to a man who makes no effort to conceal his origins in and indebtedness to that tragic land, people, and knowledge called South. Still burdened with the blood-guilt of Vietnam, still fetid at the center of government, we have chosen to hope that such a man might help us cleanse ourselves, might guide us with the ancient human skills his home has shown him - guide us honestly out of the dreamy savage innocence we've wreaked on other peoples and on ourselves into knowledge of the wrongs incurred by us all and the will and wit to amend them humbly; then on into fresh lives as men and women on the ruins of our pride, sane neighbors again to a frightened world.
Maybe no man can do that. Maybe this one can begin.
May a countryman offer him profound salutation - this figure in words - as he bends to the yoke.