Southern meanness, Southern politeness

James Dickey as the Sheriff of Aintry in the film adaptation of his novel  Deliverance

James Dickey as the Sheriff of Aintry in the film adaptation of his novel Deliverance

Over the weekend I ran across Florence King’s With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy while browsing my favorite used book store. King (1936-2016) was a Southern humorist, author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, and longtime columnist for William F. Buckley Jr’s National Review. Her specialty was misanthropy—the dislike of mankind.* I had heard her name invoked quite often by other writers for that magazine, and they always spoke with immense affection and admiration for her razor wit and savagely keen eye for human stupidity. So when I saw her name on the spine I grabbed it and started flipping through it.

This passage hooked me. Near the end of a lengthy description of Ty Cobb’s famous temper and general gruffness, King writes:

The Southerner’s famous mean streak is usually attributed to a murky sadomasochism involving fears and fantasies of interracial sex, but I suspect it is really a reaction against the demands of Southern hospitality.

This caught my attention for two reasons. First, it is the fashion, in our sex- and race-obsessed age, to ascribe everything weird or distinct about the South and Southerners to anxieties surrounding miscegenation. This is seldom invoked as a sole causal factor but it is more and more often the first line of explanation, though it fails for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it was not unique to the South. Second, King’s suspicion jibes precisely with an observation made by the Coen brothers some years ago, about which more below.

King, delightfully, goes on:

South Carolina novelist Blanche McCrary Boyd writes: “Southerners are as polite as cattle, except when they’re not. When they’re not, they might shoot you or chase you around the yard with a hatchet.”** Living up to a reputation is an exhausting business. It is humanly impossible to be as gracious as Southerners are supposed to be, but we long ago got in too deep. The rest of the country came to believe our propaganda and, fatally, we came to believe it ourselves.

In consequence, we produced monsters of hospitality who cast a pall of incessant, unbearable niceness over the entire region. All classes participated in the torture. The aristocratic prototype of hospitality is the crystalline great lady of whom it is said, “She’s kindness itself.” The plain-folks prototype was my grandmother, the miles gloriosus of the spare cot, constantly braying, “We’ll make room!” and issuing jocular threats about what she would do to a guest who even thought about leaving too soon. (“I’ll just tie you right up and keep you here!”)

Hospitality carried to such extremes is bound to create its opposite, and so we produced the misanthropic good ole boy who greeted out-of-state travelers with speeding tickets or unmarked graves, depending upon his mood. If Ty Cobb had not been a ballplayer he would have made a great Georgia sheriff.

In his first book The Southern Tradition at Bay, Richard Weaver briefly describes the some noteworthy elements of the famous caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks. Sumner, in a speech laced with sexual innuendo (there’s that projection, again), had insulted Brook’s dying uncle, Senator Andrew Butler. Weaver notes that, as Brooks prepared to avenge this insult, he “deliberated for two days over whether to use the horsewhip, the cowhide, or the cane for his assault upon Senator Sumner because a different degree of insult was implied by each.”

That’s the same care taken in seeing to the comfort of guests applied to the avenging of an insult. The Coen brothers once said that part of their inspiration for Fargo was their observation that “the most polite societies are also the most violent societies.” Compare the courtliness and cold-bloodedness of Arthurian chivalry or the Nibelungenlied, the oathbound rules of host and guest in the Eddas or Beowulf, or the brutal vengeance of Odysseus upon the suitors—the latter a straightforward case of redressing an abuse of hospitality.

The key factor in all of these examples is honor, of course, and King’s observation should ring true the moment you dip into the study of any honor culture. Understand the seemingly paradoxical relationship between mild-mannered courtesy and violence, and how honor adjudicates these conflicting impulses, and you’ll have grasped something important about Southerners. Until then you can only misunderstand and dismiss.

Ty Cobb’s meanness, by the way, has been grossly exaggerated. He was tough, competitive, and extremely aggressive, but as Charles Leerhsen demonstrates in his excellent recent biography A Terrible Beauty, most of the stories of Cobb’s frothing-at-the-mouth psychosis and racism are either caricatures or lies. Check that book out for sure, especially if you love baseball. Here’s a sample of Leerhsen’s findings from Hillsdale College’s Imprimis.

Oh—and I bought King’s book. Can’t wait to read the rest.


*I am a wannabe misanthrope, too lily-livered and obliging to embrace the lifestyle. I therefore find people like King wonderfully amusing. We need them the same way Lear needed his Fool.

**True story—An aunt of mine, one of the saintliest, kindest, most hospitable and charitable people God ever graced me in knowing, quite famously chased my grandfather around the yard with a hatchet when they were children. His offense? He had eaten a piece of watermelon she had claimed for herself.

The Line that Held Us

It’s been quite a while since a novel has gotten its hooks into me the way The Line that Held Us did. Set in the rural North Carolina mountains near where I went to high school, this story by David Joy opens with an accidental killing that leads to lies, more lies, and ever more violence—including murder.

the line that held us.jpg

Darl Moody is hunting on another man’s property, hoping to shoot an out-of-season buck for some extra meat, when he spots what he takes to be a wild hog rooting around the forest in the twilight. He shoots it and finds that he’s actually killed Carol “Sissy” Brewer, a simpleminded man he knew in high school. Like Darl, Sissy was poaching—ginseng, in this case. Darl is terrified. He’s not only accidentally killed a man while committing a crime himself, the victim is a Brewer, and the Brewers are a white trash family known for their independence and violence. Sissy’s brother Dwayne is a ruthless giant who delights in provocation and cutting people down to size, and he’s the devoted protector of his little brother. If Darl confesses to the killing he’ll go to jail—and he’ll have to contend with Dwayne.

Faced with this dilemma, Darl tries to wriggle his way out of it and calls up his best friend, Calvin Hooper. After a lot of begging, Darl convinces Calvin to help him cover up the killing, and they bury Sissy in one of Calvin’s fields.

This accident and their response to it set in motion a cycle of lies, suspicion, and violence. Dwayne, whom we first meet bullying some bullies in the Franklin Walmart, proves an excellent detective and wreaks terrible vengeance as he works his way toward the truth of what happened to his missing brother. Darl and Calvin, for their part, repeatedly double down on their lies, seeking refuge in the continually shrinking cover of untruth and exposing themselves and the people they love to more and more danger.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, but it surprised me several times—again, something I haven’t felt in a lot of my recent fiction reading. And I haven’t felt such a keen sense of dread in a long time, either. Both of these things—the surprising turns and the steadily mounting dread—stem from the powerful characters Joy has created.

Darl and especially Calvin feel like real people; I pictured them as some of the guys I grew up and went to high school with. I know the type—think of an Appalachian Llewellyn Moss—and their actions are authentically motivated and true to life. They’re independent minded but bound by bone-deep obligations to the land and their families. Perhaps the only tie that proves stronger is their friendship. Joy develops real and recognizable secondary and tertiary characters, especially Coon Coward, the old loner, fiercely protective of his ginseng patch, upon whose property the story’s tragic hamartia begins.

But the real standouts among the supporting characters are the women—the mothers, sisters, and aunts that shore up mountain communities: “For as tough as the men were in these mountains,” he writes, “the women had always been stone. They were used to loss, accustomed to never having enough. They were fit for the harshness of this world.” Chief among them is Angie Moss, Calvin’s girlfriend. Angie embodies a seemingly paradoxical pair of hillbilly qualities: intense personal independence and unshakeable loyalty to other people—in this case, Calvin, and, as we find out early in the book, their unborn child. Angie plays a small but crucial role in the book, raising the stakes both for Calvin, whose lies ensnare him and then threaten to undo his world, and for Dwayne.

Dwayne is an Old Testament prophet, moved to wrath by love.

For Dwayne Brewer is the most arresting character in the book. Scarred by his upbringing but defiantly embracing it, a bundle of ideals and resentments, violence and tenderness, Dwayne quotes the Bible with the facility of a seminarian and believes unyieldingly in the rightness and immutability of God’s law, but leaves no room for forgiveness. He is an Old Testament prophet, moved to wrath by love. His sole motive in life is to protect his beloved brother; deprived of that, his mission becomes to foretell and inflict as much suffering on the transgressors as possible. He’s at his most terrifying when he has a point.

These character traits and bonds of loyalty and obligation drive the novel. Calvin helps Darl cover up his manslaughter out of brotherly love. Angie finds deep reserves of steadfastness, endurance, and courage out of love for her unborn child. And Dwayne wreaks the havoc he does out of love for his dead brother. And all of these characters—with the exception of Angie—wrestle with the consequences of their misplaced and disordered loves.

In a novel so attentive to the damage done to relationships and human lives by one primordial sin, the ensuing deceit, and the inevitable death and damnation that must come without an unforeseen and un-hoped for mercy, it cannot be coincidence that one of the protagonists is named Calvin.

The Line that Held Us is dark; violent; grotesque in the right ways and the right places, with torture, exhumations, and brutality I haven’t even mentioned; elegantly written, with an evident love for the mountains in which it takes place; and utterly gripping. I lost sleep—and at the busiest time of the semester—to finish this book. If you want a hard look at some of the places we can go out of love and loyalty, pick it up.


You can watch Joy read the first chapter of The Line that Held Us and discuss the book as a whole here. I’m not surprised to learn that Joy is a fan of Ron Rash, as am I, and he also mentions Cormac McCarthy’s Lester Ballard in describing Dwayne. A good interview, well worth watching if my review has piqued your interest in this excellent novel.

Above the Waterfall

This week I read my second Ron Rash novel of the year, Above the Waterfall. I got through it in two days—it's excellent. 

Like most of Rash's fiction, Above the Waterfall takes place in the western North Carolina mountains, but unlike his historical novels Serena, One Foot in Eden, and The Cove, this story takes place in the present: a horribly real, recognizable present. This is the Appalachia of dependence—on distant relations to care for the children of failing families, on big-city resort developers and tourist dollars, on chemicals like painkillers, pot, and meth.


Les, a 51-year old Sheriff on the verge of retirement, and Becky, a middle-aged park ranger and Les's sometime romantic attachment, narrate the story in alternating chapters of present and past tense. Becky survived a school shooting as a girl and is still haunted by it in her mid-forties. She tries to dull the memories of the tragedy, her permanently disrupted family life, and her difficulty forming relationships by retreat into the wilderness and meditation on the beauty of the world. A devotee of Gerard Manley Hopkins, her chapters brim with his kind of allusive, fragmentary poetry as she pieces together her memories with her present struggles, particularly her difficult feelings for Les and the pain of a recently failed relationship with another nature lover, a man who turned out to be an eco-terrorist. 

While Les is an artist too—a painter of watercolors—his career in law enforcement has imparted to his narration a directness that sits uneasily with his artistic inclinations. After decades arresting drug addicts and wife beaters, identifying corpses, and bearing bad news to the parents of meth-addicted children, his matter-of-factness even seems like a coping mechanism, as if he can only deal with the horrors he sees by describing them without polish.

What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.
— Above the Waterfall

What unites Les and Becky, other than a brief fling, an interrupted love affair, is an elderly man named Gerald. Becky has struck up a friendship with Gerald who, bereft of his wife and only son, lives alone on ancestral land abutting a new but struggling mountain resort. Gerald's meth-addicted nephew takes advantage of his generosity every chance he gets. While Becky tries to help Gerald however she can, Les, pestered by the resort's owner, has to try to persuade Gerald not to poach the trout living in the resort's stretch of the creek that flows through both properties. 

The morning after an altercation in the resort parking lot that almost sends Gerald to the morgue, scores of fish wash up on the banks of the creek—poisoned with kerosene dumped into the stream above a waterfall where, according to Gerald, now rare speckled trout have returned. Gerald insists he's innocent, and Becky takes his side. Les, juggling the resort's problems and a harrowing series of meth busts, is just trying to keep the peace during his last days on the job. It's not enough.

This is my new favorite from Rash. What gripped me in my old favorite, One Foot in Eden, were the strongly drawn relationships—between the young couple at the beginning of the book, between the couple and a roguish neighbor, between the couple and their son many years later—and the threats that tested them—betrayal, adultery, lies, murder. Above the Waterfall shares these strengths but outdoes One Foot in Eden. With its cast of middle-aged characters, each of whom harbors hurts and secrets, each of whom struggle to overcome past sins and earn forgiveness, and with its setting in a dying world, this novel adds a thick layer of poignancy and theologically inflected melancholy. It moved me, and it made me think.

Above the Waterfall is a powerful portrait of a world in which all are guilty and the law is inadequate to mend such brokenness. It depicts a world in need of redemption, and Rash suggests, that redemption is available if the sinners just look for it. In Becky's words:

The next morning as I'd hiked out, I started to step over a log but my foot jerked back. When I looked on the other side, a copperhead lay coiled. Part of me not sight knew it was there. The atavistic like flint rock sparked. Amazon tribes see Venus in daylight. My grandfather needed no watch to tell time. What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.