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The University of Alabama, in addition to the many other academic and social activities it offers its students, fields a varsity football team.  Perhaps you are already aware of this, for they have played admirably over the years.

You also may be aware that a great many people in and from the state of Alabama – including a sizable number who did not, do not, and will not matriculate at the University – care very, very much about the fortunes and performance of the students who made the cut to play on this varsity football team.

Soon that team will meet the varsity football team fielded by the University of Notre Dame in a pre-arranged contest.  (Notre Dame’s varsity football teams also have played very well over the years, until the last several years when they did not, until this year when they rather suddenly did, again.)  The winner of this game will be acknowledged, somewhat arbitrarily, as the best out of all the football teams, supported by institutions of higher learning, that compete at the varsity level in the United States.  It’s quite an honor.

Old Football

OK, I’ve ridden that conceit into the ground.  Writers are always tempted to turn big games, especially championship games, into palimpsests with bigger meanings about bigger issues than just the game itself.  This year’s BCS title game is such a semiotic playground, is so loaded with Backstory! and Import!, that it would have turned Borges into a college football fan.

The Crimson Tide against the Fighting Irish!  The two most storied football programs in the land!  The Bear versus Knute Rockne, All-American!  Roll Tide Roll and Shake Down the Thunder!

The champions, the victorious mechanisms, through which marginalized populations gained a purchase in the American mainstream while staking out and maintaining a cohesive group identity!

(Put that on a t-shirt!  I dare you!)

Dixie Babble will post updates leading up to Monday’s championship game, because this game is evocative of an important part of the South’s history and culture, and because this game is a very big deal to a very big portion of Southerners.

Also, because that ‘very big portion of Southerners’ includes Mrs. Babble, and Dixie Babble – despite occasional evidence to the contrary – is not dumb.

Over at the Birmingham News (through al.com), Bob Carlton is running a Pop Culture Championship between Alabama and Notre Dame, starting at the movies.  Pick your favorite cinematic football player: the Crimson Tide’s All-American kick returner Forrest Gump (fictional), or Notre Dame’s benchwarming tackling dummy Rudy (pretty much fictional, it turns out).

Partly because we should cherish what little college football we have left in this season, and Clemson and the University of South Carolina played two of the most exciting bowl games we’ve seen.

Partly because the Tigers and the Gamecocks both won, with guts and drama, and my friends in and from the Palmetto State deserve to celebrate.

Partly because South Carolina’s many, very passionate football fans, normally as bifurcated and bitterly opposed as any, can, for once, be happy at the same time.

Partly because these are the sorts of games you would show someone who doesn’t yet understand the pull and hold of sports in general, and football in particular.

But mostly because I wanted an excuse to watch this again.  And again.  And, maybe, again.

clowney.0_standard_352.0

Only one thing drew me away from the bowl games today: cooking the turnip greens.greens

(Speaking of the bowl games – Jadaveon Clowney, oh my good Lord.)

Though my wife fancies up the black-eyed peas into Texas caviar, I like my greens straightforward: some bacon, some salt, a quarter-hour of hard boil, an hour of simmer.  My father taught me to cook them that way, as he learned from his mother.

Have the years that I began with greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread been luckier and more prosperous than those that I did not?  Well, yes, by and large, as best as I can remember.  Do I really believe that this meal has mystical powers?  I’d say I believe it for the same reason I believe in ghosts: it’s so much more fun than not believing.

Better yet, I’d say I believe for the same reason I toss a pinch of spilled salt over my left shoulder, or remind myself – only every so often, and only in certain company – to say “might could.”

The folklore holds that eating this meal on New Year’s Day became lucky right after Sherman’s March, when black-eyed peas and greens were all the Yankees left Southerners to eat.  (Though some say Sephardic Jews brought the black-eyed peas custom with them to Georgia in the 1730s.)  In the standard telling – as far as there is such a thing – the peas stand for coins, the greens for bills, and the corn bread for gold.

This symbolism would have come as a surprise, once upon a time.

“The great triumvirate of southern vegetables was made up of turnips, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes,” quoth the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.  “Turnips were often planted in an open space near a pioneer’s house site before he had built the house, because they could be planted in late summer and would produce turnips and greens before a freeze ruined them.  The greens were more valuable than the turnips themselves, and in the spring they met the residents’ almost desperate need for a green vegetable.

“Cowpeas were of many varieties.  [Ed.’s note: including black-eyed peas]  Better green but good dry, peas were boiled with a piece of fat salt pork.  With corn bread they provided enough calories and enough protein to sustain a hard day’s work, and that was what the southern farmer needed.”

blackeyedpeasFor all but a few, the hardscrabble life of the Southern frontier gave way to the hardscrabble life of Reconstruction, sharecropping, mill and factory working, and generations relied on the same cheap, durable foods.  The daily fare of most of the South didn’t change much until after World War II.

I suspect that the notion of greens, peas, and corn bread bringing luck on New Year’s really began – or really took hold – around this time, too, and I suspect that the notion was less about the stated purpose, less about looking ahead to the new year, than looking back to some notion of a purer, poorer, prelapsarian South.

The Old North State

Maybe it’s the basketball.  Or, more precisely, the lesser fervor for college football.  Maybe it goes back as far as the “vale of humility” days, the paucity of plantations and plantation aristocracy, and the state’s reluctance to secede.  Maybe it’s just having “north” in the name, but even before North Carolina popped up blue on the 2008 electoral map, other Southerners often looked at the Old North State and weren’t entirely sure it was really ‘South.’

Geography put North Carolina in the Upper South, made it hard for the state to thrive in the antebellum economy (a regressive state constitution didn’t help), but made it easier for the state – especially its Piedmont – to grab hold of the various “New South” projects with a grip unmatched, except for maybe Atlanta’s.

Former Charlotte Observer editor Ed Williams, a Mississippi native, said of North Carolina, “In this state, there was a fierce and ceaseless battle between the forces of enlightenment and reaction, and, unlike in most of the South, the outcome was not a foregone conclusion.”  The standard narrative and popular conception – inside and outside the state – emphasize the battle, that North Carolina at least put up a good fight against its worst impulses and “the burden of Southern history.”  Before any North Carolinian pulls a muscle reaching to pat his own back, though, he would be wise to remember that enlightenment lost the battle at least often as it won, that post-Reconstruction North Carolina has been home to the only armed coup of an elected government in U.S. history, “Bloody Gaston,” at least 168 lynchings between 1865 and 19411, the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, and – for 30 years – Senator Jesse Helms.

Still, the rest of the South tends to look at North Carolina and see Chapel Hill, as wayward and subversive in its sociology department as in its preference for the Smith Center.  They see Asheville, with its high-end resorts and hippie enclaves.  They hear the nasally voices of all the halfbacks (who left the Northeast for Florida, missed changing seasons, and moved halfway back) and the in-migrants working high-tech or high-creativity jobs in the Research Triangle Park (some look askance at our having a Research Triangle Park in the first place).  They see Charlotte, as gleaming and as gridlocked as any Northeastern metropolis.  A hotel clerk in south Georgia once asked where I was from, and said, “Well, that’s almost the South,” when I told him2.  My own wife, Alabama-born and bred, told me, when we were dating, that she’d never thought of North Carolina as “really” the South, though she did think so of Virginia, and I must “really” love her since I married her anyway.

That’s what the South sees.  The rest of the nation looks at North Carolina and just sees more South.  As far as most of America is concerned, my wife and I, for all practical purposes, are from the same place.  A colleague in the book business once took me to dinner with him and some of his New York friends, who were friendly and welcoming and visibly surprised that I could carry my end of conversations about politics and pop culture.3

The Daily Show came to Charlotte along with the Democratic National Convention, and for the most part they treated the host city as if it were a newly found province full of rustic exotics.  They got giddy over biscuits and grossly misrepresented our barbecue.  (This is too important for a footnote: In no sense can any meat still clinging to a rib be called “North Carolina barbecue,” unless the rib itself is still clinging to the rest of the hog, which is still cooking over hot coals.)

I love The Daily Show, which won a much-deserved 10th consecutive Emmy Award last night.  You know what other show won big at the Emmys?  Homeland, filmed in Charlotte, as were The Hunger Games and Talladega Nights and – um – the last season of The Bachelorette.  The Emmy broadcast honored the late Andy Griffith.  One presenter mentioned that another presenter hailed from North Carolina; he doesn’t, actually, but Emmy-winner Julianne Moore does.  So do this guy and this guy and this guy’s parents.

Charlotte is the 17th-largest city in the U.S. – bigger than Detroit, Boston, Seattle, Denver, and Washington, D.C. – and is at the center of the 33rd-largest metropolitan area, bigger than Austin’s, Indianapolis’s, and Milwaukee’s.  It’s second only to New York as a financial center, and is home to Bank of America.

Charlotte, in other words, is hardly a backwater, any more than Atlanta or Nashville or Richmond is, but perceptions abide.  Maybe that’s not all bad, at least to those of us who want the South to remain – in some sense if not all – the South, distinct and of a piece with the best of its particular history.  Even if the rest of that South isn’t at all sure how the Old North State fits in.

1 To be fair, that number falls below the figures for the rest of the Southern states, except Virginia, which is damning by faint praise at best.

2 I said back, “Watch it now,” in that smiling, friendly, no-but-seriously-you-better-watch-it-buddy kind of way that men have; it was the only response that would have satisfied him.

3 To preemptively answer my children and all others who would question my knowledge of pop culture, this conversation took place a long time ago.

My sophomore year in college, I shared a dorm suite with several friends.  One Saturday, a week or two into the first semester, I rose early, showered, and dressed.  I was filling a flask (of, um, water . . . yeah, of water) in the shared bathroom when one of my suitemates stumbled in, bleary-eyed.  I finished what I was about and gave him his privacy.  Two more friends staggered into the hall, just up, unprepared.

I was concerned for them.  “Y’all better get a move on.”

“For what?”

I came to a sudden stop and blinked at my friend.  “For the game.”

He looked confused.  “We’re not going to the game.”

I looked more confused.  “What do you mean you’re not going to the game?”

“I might listen to it on the radio.”1

“But . . . you could go to the game.  You could be at the game.  It’s right over there.”

He shrugged.  He just shrugged.

“But . . . but it’s football.  It’s college football.  And . . . and you’re in college.”

I had never considered the possibility, nor could I wrap my mind around the concept, that a college student without pressing matters would not go to a college football game played at home.  Now, I’m a reasonably smart guy.  I love to read, and have done so widely and deeply.  I’m somewhat more than a history “buff.”  I ponder and consider, probably too much for my own good.  Yet a large part of why I wanted to go to college (as opposed to why I knew I ought to go2) came down to attending college football and college basketball games, for free, on a regular basis.

And I went to Wake Forest.3

We take our college football way too seriously in the South, and we don’t take education very seriously at all.  I have long wondered, then, how many Southerners down through the years have been suckered into higher education much as I was – by falling, at an early age, for the splendid pageant of the game and all that accompanies it.  Other than the voices of loved ones, my favorite sound is the right mix of the following: the snap and thump of a drum line, the swell and ebb of a crowd’s open-air cheers, the bark of signal-calling, the grunt and smack of blocking and tackling.

The 2012 college football season started this past weekend.  We need it, we fans of the game; we need the drum lines and the blue skies and the brutal precision, the tactical artistry, of the game itself, after an offseason that has pummeled both us and the myths that the game accrued to elaborate and justify its primal truth, that it is useful – if not downright needful – to outsmart, outrun, and/or overpower those who would oppose us and ours.

I can’t imagine that John Heisman or Pop Warner or Amos Alonzo Stagg imagined that football would become the cultural behemoth it has become, but I suspect that the “culture” of football, the one that the NCAA has now decided to decry, the one that’s getting the blame for the cover-up at Penn State, was in place before Teddy Roosevelt became president.  To play the game – not just well, but without getting maimed on the first snap – requires such dedicated practice and focus, so many hours of physical training, so much strength and speed and aggression and bravery, that the game becomes the world entire to those who play and coach it.  Nothing else is as important or worthwhile.

Surely, nothing else in the South is as important and worthwhile as college football, right?  Hasn’t that become the commonplace?  Isn’t the proof in the BCS trophy, which has spent the last seven years in one ex-Confederate state or another?4  That sort of sustained dominance makes it hard to argue that, to paraphrase the t-shirt, we don’t do football better in the South, which makes it hard to argue that they don’t care more about it in what was once the Old Southwest than they do in what was once the Old Northwest.

Except that I’m not sure that they do.  I don’t know that the South cares more, but I do think the South cares differently.  (It’s not so much that we do things different here; it’s that we do many of the same things in a different way.)

With a resounding lack of surprise, Rick Bragg traced the importance of football in the South back to the shame of Civil War and Reconstruction.5  That shame, Bragg explains, was redeemed and expiated in 1926, in Pasadena, when the Alabama Crimson Tide won an unexpected victory in the Rose Bowl.  It wasn’t economic prosperity or racial reconciliation or educational achievement, but it was something the South could crow about.  Those Alabama boys had gone out and whipped the Yankees in the most direct and satisfying way possible, short of actually re-fighting the Civil War. 6

Bragg quotes the eminent Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, who describes the young Southern men in that long-ago Rose Bowl as drawing “on a long history of not being afraid . . . It’s not like you’re unprepared for a little physical suffering,” if you were (or are) a young man raised in the South.  Bragg elaborates that “next to the pain of just living down here, football was, well, like playing games.”

That notion has a nobility to it, and a truth.  My own grandfather, who started laying brick when he was 8, told my father once that, after going home from school to work construction all his life, going to football practice was like a vacation.

Bragg is far from the first to make this argument (or tell this story?  or spread this myth?), and neither he nor those who came before are wrong.  They are, however, not entirely right, in the sense that the story is still incomplete.

It’s too easy, chalking up another piece of Southern culture to “because we lost the War,” when maybe we fought and lost the War because of that Southern culture, in the first place.  It lets us off the hook, retroactively and actively: we got back our lost pride, we showed them Yankees, by whipping ‘em in football, instead of in education, income, health or quality of life.

It’s the kind of answer that raises more questions, because once you drag in history, once you go beyond “we love it because we win a lot, and we win a lot because we love it,” you stare into a rabbit hole that goes way, way down.

Why football?  How much of our love for it came from beating the Yankees at their own game, and how much from our own warlike predilections?

Is tailgating in the South the spiritual descendant of the picnic at Twelve Oaks, or just a function of having warmer Novembers?

Does it mean anything that the combat simulacrum of football came about not only within living memory of the Civil War, but as the American frontier finally closed?  If it does, what does that mean for the South, where isolation and invasion froze frontier attitudes in place for a long, long time?

Is the Deep South really – I mean, really – more football-mad than western Pennsylvania or central Ohio, or Oklahoma, or Nebraska, or Michigan?  Or is more just made of it, in part because of the SEC’s remarkable run, and in part because it fits into preconceived notions and narratives about the Deep South?

Do the young men of the South draw on a “long history of not being afraid,” or on a long history of being very afraid, of having so very much to be afraid of – of the wild and primal land itself, of the Chickamaugas and Creeks, of slave revolts, of Stoneman’s Raid, of your own bushwhacking neighbors, of duels and blood feuds, of droughts, of carpetbaggers, of the company men, of the subjugated millions you’ve wronged and wronged again, of lynchings, of forced deference, of overcrowded prisons, of no hope – so that all you have in this world to stand on are cunning and strength and pride, and the savage prayer for God to join you against the foe?

I thought about none of that this weekend, nor will I next weekend, not when I’m in front of my TV and not when I’m in the stands.  I’ll think about the merits of the 3-4 defense and why the O.C. keeps calling that delayed draw that never works.  I’ll think about being 16 again, or how I wish I hadn’t been so Ichabod-skinny when I was 16 the first time, or about how much fun it would be to be twice as big and twice as fast and half as old as I am now, like those kids out there on the field.  I’ll think about having another hot dog in the third quarter.

I’ll think about staying up late to watch a Pac-10 game.  It is football, after all; it’s college football.

 

 

1 I went to college in the olden days, before every game in the country could be found on cable or online.  I’m so old, in fact, that the radio my friend listened to probably had an actual dial.

2 At the time, I thought I ought to go because I’d get a better job, because I’d have more earning potential, and – mainly – because my parents wanted me to go.

3 Wake Forest University is the smallest school – by a substantial margin – in the six BCS “Automatic Qualifier” conferences.  When I was there, I was one of about 2800 undergraduates; schools like Michigan and Ohio State have more students currently enrolled than Wake Forest has alumni – ever, living and dead.  Despite Jim Grobe and the 2006 ACC Championship, the Demon Deacons still have the lowest winning percentage of the AQ teams.  I’m still Proud to be a Deacon.

4 Since 2005: Texas, Florida, LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Alabama.  (The last 6, you’ll notice, are all from the SEC.)  Confederacy, hell; the BCS title hasn’t left the Gulf Coast in 7 years.

5 It’s a little funny that the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s college football preview, in which Bragg’s article appeared, read “Curse the SEC.”  Their other outlets give off the distinct whiff of terror that the SEC is going to so dominate the sport, for so long, that college football will become a regional niche sport.  (To be fair, the various ESPN “platforms” have featured some thought-provoking commentary on football the last couple of weeks, especially Charles Pierce’s Grantland article on the history of land-grant schools and J.R. Moehringer’s “120 Reasons.”)

6 Actually, they whipped the University of Washington (as in the state), who don’t really qualify as Yankees, and they beat them by one point, which doesn’t really count as “whipped.”  The bigger victory was over the derision and low expectations.

Condi in Augusta

So, America’s best-known He-Man Woman Haters Club finally lets in two women, and one of them is named Darla.  No one else finds this funny?

The other first woman admitted to Augusta National is known as Condi, and no one is surprised.  Condoleezza Rice is one of the most accomplished people of the age, male or female; she is also an avid golfer and sports fan, so she should fit right in on Magnolia Drive.

Yet Rice’s obvious qualifications obscure the extraordinary fact that one of August National’s first female members was once a little girl in Birmingham, excluded from water fountains and schools, personally affected by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.  Good Lord, what a life.

 

I confess that Dixie has not been much on my mind these last two weeks.  The games of the 30th Olympiad have taken what little attention I have to spare.

I geek out over the Olympics.  Being from the South, I’m a sucker for elaborate productions of grand sentiment and triumphant nationalism; when said productions also involve physical dominance, how can a good ol’ boy resist?

I am tugged by my own personal history with the Olympics, too: I remember watching the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid at the same time that I watched a rare snow fall on my North Carolina home.  I ran back and forth from the TV to the window, giddy with the growing realization that not only were we going to beat those Godless Commie Russkies, but we weren’t going to school the next day, either.

Then the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics came about a week after my family had moved from my hometown to a new one on the other side of the state, where I almost got into a fight my first day in town.  Staying inside and watching every minute of the overproduced, red-white-and-blue broadcast seemed the safer option, at least in the short term.  I was young enough to be only vaguely aware that Carl Lewis was a massive tool; it made me much more vulnerable to the hype machine, but it also let me appreciate the magnificence of what he accomplished in the L.A. Coliseum, without being distracted by the full knowledge that he was, you know, a massive tool.

Centennial Park in Atlanta

In retrospect, I should have figured out a way to make it to Atlanta for Dixie’s only Olympic Games, even though in 1996 I had neither money nor a reliable car.  I should have bummed a ride, hitchhiked, crawled, since, given how it turned out, I doubt the Olympics will ever be so close again.  The media covering the games complained about the heat and humidity (apparently surprised that the American South swelters in late summer), as well as the shortcomings of MARTA (though Charles Pierce wrote recently on Grantland that he went to the Atlanta Olympics “as a fan and had a great time,” adding, “Most of the people who covered those Games consider them one of the great train wrecks in the history of the Olympics. There is a greater distance between reporters and spectators than I thought there was.”).

And then one of our homegrown whack jobs decided that blowing up the Olympics would be a good way to . . . what, exactly, I don’t remember.  He wasn’t crazy about women’s reproductive rights, damn furriners, the modern world?  I remember that he had bombed some Birmingham women’s health clinics before the Games, and I can’t forget that he hid for years in the southwest corner of my state, in the deep Appalachians where the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee meet.  I remember that the media wrongly identified a security guard named Richard Jewell as some kind of lead suspect, which he wasn’t, but they hounded him into reclusion and lawsuitsanyway.  He was a big ol’ round-bellied hoss, more than a bit of a Bubba, and it was almost as if he was offered up as a sacrifice, a man who looked like the worst and most convenient stereotypes of Southern manhood, because such a man makes an unprovocative scapegoat.  It was almost as if Richard Jewell was dragged into service as a global exculpation of the South’s old sins, in order to hide the new, darker version of those sins, as represented by the actual bomber, whose militancy was far worse than the Bubbas’ old lazy ignorance and casual hate.  A man like Richard Jewell is easier to confront, condemn, and punish than the far more disturbing Eric Rudolph.

——-

I geek out over the Olympics every four years.  I geek out over London every four months or so, so imagine my geek singularity now that the two have converged.  London is the only place outside the South I’ve ever lived or ever would live.  London bursts with the spoils of a thousand years as a city, a capital, a seat of great empire; it manages to be sprawling and dense at the same time.  Within a week of my first arrival I went to Westminster Abbey.  They charge a small fee to tour beyond a certain point; when I stopped to pay, and looked down at my wallet, I noticed that I was standing on the gravestone of Charles Darwin.  I jumped a little, not used to trampling on the resting place of a man who changed the world.  The kindly old man waiting to take my money looked at me with that paradoxical patient exasperation that Londoners so often feel for Americans tourists, as if to say, “Yes, Charles Darwin.  Isaac Newton’s rotting over there.  Now, then, that’d be two pounds, please.”

Londoners tend to be polite, blissfully reticent, sarcastic, cranky, pessimistic but indomitable, and orderly.  No wonder I could live there.  And, four hundred years ago, Londoners led the founding of what would be the United States of America in what would be the American South.  Many English had tried to gain a foothold in North America; the Virginia Company of London succeeded at Jamestown, if barely, and at great cost.  The English who invested in the Virginia colony – either with their money or their person – were called adventurers, and the name fits.  They were hierarchical, more medieval than modern in most of the salient ways, but even their aristocrats were bumptious with the aggressive energy and vulgar vitality of a restless and growing nation, just starting to assert itself in the wider world.  They were vigorous and ambitious, grasping and brutal; their heroes were Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, whom other nations called pirates.  As much as America wants to see itself as a “city on a hill,” imbued with divine purpose, the nation irrevocably began at Jamestown, a purely commercial enterprise founded and backed by a corporation.

Jamestown, VA

These pushing English, transplanted to the Virginia tidewater, set the template that the country – and especially the South – would adapt, revise, remake, but always refer to, down through the centuries.  The timeline of the South can be traced, though faint and twisting, back to London.

So even if I haven’t watched the Braves these last two weeks, or pondered on the ruins of tobacco sheds, or speculated on the Democrats’ convening in Charlotte and all that it could mean, or even worried much about the coming college football season, Dixie may have been on my mind more than I thought.

This is funny –

“By the late 1960s . . . pressure from local church groups (in Hillsborough, NC), who didn’t like racing on Sundays, led Bill France to look elsewhere as he sought to build a larger, faster track. Unable to persuade local authorities to expand the Hillsborough site, he turned instead to a small town in Alabama and built the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.”

– especially when you pair it with this:

“But historic Hillsborough, North Carolina, can probably claim more critically acclaimed authors per capita than any zip code in the region.  . . . A list of Hillsborough’s resident authors reads like a who’s who of Southern letters—(Michael) Malone, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Randall Kenan, Craig Nova, Annie Dillard, Frances Mayes, Hal Crowther…the list goes on.”

I’ve been to Hillsborough, and I’ve been to Talladega, and I can’t quite make the mental leap to what might have been.  Though I would like to see Michael Malone pounding down PBRs in the infield and throwing chicken legs at Kyle Busch.

(Many thanks to Lew Powell for sharing the ‘Hillsborough Speedway’ article on the North Carolina Miscellany blog.)

William Faulkner died 50 years ago last Friday.  He died in a sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi, not far from the “little postage stamp of native soil” he transformed into Yoknapatawpha, but not in it, either.

By then he was already the “lion in the road” for Southern writers, a Nobel laureate, his work declared “unmatched in our time” by Robert Penn Warren.  He outlived his only contemporary rival, Ernest Hemingway, and so he got the last word in their long-running and childish war of snide remarks.  “I cannot respect a man,” Faulkner said, “who takes the short way home,” though Faulkner killed himself with alcohol as surely as Hemingway did with a shotgun.

By coincidence, I finished re-reading The Hamlet last week.  The most remarkable thing about this remarkable novel is that it’s far from Faulkner’s best.  It lacks the heat and force of the earlier masterpieces; even so, I’d rank it with the best American novels of the 20th century, and would give a minor body part to write something as good.  As a young man I marveled at the rhythms of his language, at the head of steam his sentences could build.  Now I am deeply impressed by his storytelling, his skill at constructing a scene and a sequence, and I am humbled by the range and depth of his imagination.  Though he wrote almost entirely within the borders of a single fictional county, he populated that county with an entire world.  He seems to feel perfect empathy for each character he creates, to have lived an entire life on each one’s behalf.

Like George Washington and Babe Ruth, Faulkner’s excellence has become a cliché, and so he’s unappreciated in an odd sort of way.  As Southern readers and writers, we tip our caps and salute his standing, but we don’t take The Sound and the Fury to the beach.  We admire and maybe even grapple with his work, but we don’t cherish it like we do Walker Percy’s or Lee Smith’s or Harper Lee’s.

That’s a shame.  His best novels are difficult and demanding, and revelatory and extraordinary.  They’re even, at times, really, honestly, funny.  They reward the attention they require.

Andy Griffith

The word “icon” gets thrown around a lot these days, almost as much as the phrase “the word (fill in the blank) gets thrown around a lot these days.”

So I’ll say instead that Andy Griffith stood for something.  His name, his face, his TV costume, the notes of his show’s theme song, all work as shorthand for a certain kind of South: a time and a place that, like all the many Souths of the mind, only ever sort of existed.

Andy Griffith died yesterday.  He was 86.  He died in Manteo, North Carolina, where he’d made his home for as long as I can remember.  I will now make the irresponsible if geographically correct observation that Manteo’s not quite on the absolute opposite end of the state from Mount Airy, Griffith’s Blue Ridge hometown and the long-assumed model for Mayberry, but it is doggone close.

Manteo, though, is where the young Griffith, fresh out of Chapel Hill and teaching school in Goldsboro, played Sir Walter Raleigh in Paul Green’s outdoor “symphonic drama” The Lost Colony, so maybe it felt as much like home as anywhere else.  Griffith moved on from Walter Raleigh to the state’s dinner-club stand-up circuit, and then made his name playing country dumb: first on his hit record “What It Was Was Football,” then in the television movie (and the Broadway play and feature film) No Time for Sergeants.  Then he proved he had serious talent by playing the sociopathic Lonesome Rhoads in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.  It’s a performance and a movie that will curdle the stomachs of those who know and love Griffith only from Mayberry and Matlock.  Griffith is vicious and lustful and manipulative, enthralling and intimidating co-stars as forceful as Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.  He’s amoral and terrifying.  He embodies the acquisitive, Snopesian, white trash South, and could have made a career playing – and come to stand for – that, had the success of the No Time for Sergeants feature not given him a chance to create his own TV comedy.

The Andy Griffith Show was such a hit that in eight years it never left the Top 10.  It spawned not only spin-offs and direct descendants, but a whole subgenre of sitcoms and variety shows.  Griffith showed network executives on both coasts that people in the South – and throughout so-called Middle America – not only owned them new-fangled tee-vee sets, but they had the discretionary income to spend on advertisers’ products.

He also showed that they were aware – or, at least, could sense – that massive shifts in society were under way, shifts that frightened them and made them hungry for what they already thought of as “simpler times.”  Civil Rights were just the righteous crest of the wave; the surge and the rip were economic.

Economics are more or less missing from Mayberry, along with black people.1  Each of the main characters in The Andy Griffith Show has a trade, a job that serves a concrete function within the small town society: sheriff, deputy, barber, mechanic, schoolteacher, town drunk.  No one clocks a shift at the textile mill or furniture plant, which by 1960 was what most small-town Southerners did for a living.  The agrarian-market small town that Mayberry would have been was, by then, largely a thing of the past, replaced by mill towns and factory towns.  Within a generation, those small towns, too, would be dead or dying, the few survivors staying alive by trafficking in the kind of nostalgia that made The Andy Griffith Show such a hit.

The Mayberry fallacy is the belief that the town and its people are based on Griffith’s memories of a cherished boyhood.  The geography and the forms might have been drawn from Griffith’s hometown, but the show’s content is its star’s own conception of the hometown he’d liked to have had, along with the writers’ and the actors’ skillful use of ancient tropes, about comedy and about rural and small-town life.  Mayberry was never real, least of all for its creator, yet millions have flocked to the show (and thousands have flocked to Mount Airy), and they swear by them both as time capsules, as works of historic preservation, for a time gone by and better, when everyone knew not only their role but their neighbors’, and each was happy with and in their role, and all were decent and wholesome and good – give or take a Fun Girl from Mount Pilot.

Many who so swear, of course, tend not to realize – or choose to ignore – that the core and font of Mayberry’s goodness isn’t strict and wrathful order, but the decency, humility, and gentleness of its sheriff, who in the era and region of Bull Connor didn’t even carry a gun; that they themselves are more Barney Fife than Andy Taylor, and that Mayberry would become hellish and dystopian if Deputy Fife were running the show; that if any little bitty part of The Andy Griffith Show was ever true in the real world, even for a moment, it was true only for a very fortunate few, and could never last.  Many who so swear tend to the right, and I do not know what they make of Griffith’s long and vocal support of liberal causes and Democratic politicians, in state and national races.2

So far this has been a shitty year for North Carolina.  We’ve lost Doris Betts and Doc Watson and now Andy Griffith, along with many others, and William Friday was just in the hospital in serious condition; we regressed our state constitution, and our legislators have voted – if only by accident – to rip the state apart, literally.  We mourn the loss of a beloved entertainer, a native and neighbor of whom we were proud, but we also contemplate the waning – I will not say the loss – of what Andy Griffith stood for.  He said of his namesake show, “Our basic theme was love.  And understanding one another.  And hoping the best for one another.  Love.”

He did not give his fans a testament, a historical record.  He did not show the small-town South as it ever really was; he stood for what it was and is at its best: a community, decent, caring, humble, gentle.  Mayberry was never anything but a dream, but it sure was a good dream.

1 In a 2003 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Griffith said he regretted not including African-Americans in Mayberry, but that he didn’t want them appearing only in menial roles, and that he and the writers were unable to figure out a way “so (characters) would rush into a black doctor’s office.”

2 Why take down that video, Funny or Die?  Jeez.