“What is the South?” they always ask. It is a question never answered but always asked. By some Northerner with a taste for literature. By social scientists in search of a thesis. By a college roommate at Harvard. (See William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom.”)
But most often the question is asked by Southerners, who return to it like the tongue to an uneven tooth. It is put at the end of an evening by friends around a dinner table who know there is no answer, and who aren’t even sure there is a South anymore, but who delight in talking about it for the comfort and fellowship and shared identity. In these latitudes, it is the equivalent of asking, “What is art?” A question impossible to answer, impossible to leave alone.
On this Lee’s Birthday, the South seems only a lingering shadow of a great civilization-and-barbarism that once was, but ended when? April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse? With the last great Southern novel, and which was it? When cotton was dethroned? When industry overtook agriculture, when the city took over the country? When did the South end with the coming of air-conditioning, or of the two-party system? When the race issue was no longer The Issue, but just another Northern-style ethnic competition?
The answer always seems to come down to this: The South ended with the previous generation which fits in well with the common perception that each generation becomes a little less Southern, a little more Americanized. It is like Zeno’s Paradox about the hare who always halves the distance between himself and the tortoise, yet never catches up: Southernness never disappears entirely. It’s safe to predict that our children will say it ended with us even as it continues in them.
Just as there are many Souths, so there are many Southernesses. And too many simulacra. The Br’er Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris become the cartoon characters of Walt Disney. The culture that was, or perhaps never was except in retrospect, leaves behind its faux ruins, its living fossils, its pottery shards for display purposes only. Phony artifacts litter the landscape: minstrel shows, accents you could lay on with a trowel, Tourist Attractions and all the other “Gone With the Wind” routines of the Professional Southerner. A picturesque past replaces any usable one.
For a conquered people, the vicious usages of the past remain: the Confederate battle flag waved at a racist rally, or removed from a state flag for separate but equally confused reasons. Is there any symbol of the South from “Dixie” to the Southern belle that has not been commercialized, burlesqued, exploited, debunked?
There is one who has withstood it all: Robert E. Lee. Not that there aren’t always those who would use him for their own purposes, whether high or low. One is not sure which is worse, those who would hide behind him or those out to debunk the image. This much is clear: It is using Lee for some polemical purpose, rather than simply standing in awe, that is the sin. Happily, there is always something unconvincing in such efforts. They inevitably fall flat, like some kind of contrived moral attached to a great and in the end inexplicable fable.
The most serious-minded of our oh-so-modern polemicists the argumentative types who write history books that sound more like briefs for the prosecution seem unable to deny Lee’s nobility even to themselves. Their arguments lack more than accuracy; they lack conviction. Perhaps because they realize that to denigrate Lee is to give up some inviolable part of themselves.
Such is the general’s effect even now. Imagine what it must have been on those who shared his small space in time, on the men who would rather have been defeated with Lee than have won with anyone else.
His presence still gives a wholly different dimension to what is meant by victory or defeat.
It is not clear just when the general left history and entered myth. It is clear that he represents something more than the sum total of his battles, his words and even his self-effacements. In the end, it is not what Lee did or did not do that explains his appeal. It is what he was, and is.
It is not his victories that elevate Lee. It is Lee who elevates his victories, and in the end elevates his defeat. He has emerged victorious over the very ideas of victory and defeat. It is his acceptance of all things with honor that makes the conventional meaning of victory and defeat inapplicable in his case. He was the same Lee after Chancellorsville as he was after Appomattox.
The historians who have tried to crack the alabaster mystery that is Lee and unveil some complicated mechanism whirring deep inside have succeeded only in shattering their own theories. They keep running up against the serenity and simplicity of the man and the myth, and can’t be sure which is which.
Once fluency has replaced deliberation, and deconstruction supplanted simplicity, of course Lee would become a mystery. His motives seem inexplicable in this time because he explained them so simply in his own: duty, honor, country. (And no, his country was not the South; it was Virginia a concept surely beyond the mobile, modern bicoastal mind.)
Lee’s was but the code of the gentleman. But who now can remember what a gentleman was? Therefore we conclude that there never really was such a thing. There must be some self-interest in Lee, in the whole idea of a Lee, that we can find if we just keep chipping away at the marble man. Shard by shard, we will yet explain him, until his spell lies shattered into a hundred different pieces. All we have to do is make him complicated, and start hammering away at where all the pieces join. And he’ll split apart.
Modernity, which is another name for the American experience, is incapable of seeing wholeness. And it is his wholeness that explains Lee’s emotion without sentimentality, his mythology without fictiveness. He was all of a piece.
Lee did not exult in victory or explain in defeat. At Chancellorsville, arguably the most brilliant victory ever achieved by an American commander, his thoughts seemed to be only of the wounded Stonewall Jackson. As if he understood that losing Jackson would be to lose the war, that nothing would be the same afterward. At Appomattox, he was intent only on the best terms he could secure for his men. From beginning to end, as circumstances changed, he remained the same. And does yet.
If the South is more than a purely geographic designation, if there is still a South worth preserving, it is because myth continues to shape her, and Southerners can still imagine what it is to be all of a piece.
When Flannery O’Connor was asked why Southerners seem to have a penchant for writing about freaks, she would say: Because in the South we are still able to recognize a freak when we see one. To do that, one must have some idea of what wholeness would be. In these latitudes that idea of wholeness has a name: Lee.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial page editor of Little Rock’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.