Report from Louisiana: The Beauty of a Thing

(Photo credit: C.Pipes)

A friend of mine has a night -blooming cereus that she named Eudora, in honor of course of the famous Southern author Eudora Welty who had one in her own garden and was known for celebrating its buds with all night parties. When my friend’s cereus produced buds last week, rather than throw an all night party she sent a group text with a photo. Her message was filled with as much glee as Miss Eudora must have felt at her own blooms.  The flower finally burst into bloom last night and my friend stayed up all night long taking photos of it.  My text stream was filled with the evolution of a cereus this morning. By dawn the bloom was gone, closed up.

Miss Eudora has been much on my mind in past weeks as I picked up a volume of her collected stories recently. I have not read any of them in quite some time – since college, perhaps.  One exception would be “A Worn Path” which I use when I teach a creative writing class; other than that, the treasures of “The Wide Net” and “Clytie” have been long forgotten.  I spent several weeks this summer sitting outside under the shade of my magnolia rediscovering Miss Welty’s lovely southern prose and relishing the rich atmosphere she creates with her words.

There’s nothing more rewarding to me than picking up a book and rediscovering an old, favorite author.  While I read widely, both fiction and non-fiction, my preferences tend to Southern writers. Give me a Rick Bragg memoir, Flannery O’Connor, or even Faulkner and I am consumed with the words.

In the course of writing my soon-to-be-released biography of Cammie Henry I discovered the short stories of Ada Jack Carver, a bright light in the 1920s but who never produced anything of note after that.  Carver’s stories are rich in atmosphere and many have memorable characters such as old Baptiste in “Redbone” who initially seems to be celebrating the birth of a son by going into town to get drunk but there is more to the story…

What is it that makes Southern writers so distinctive?  Some critics contend that the Southern literary renaissance that began in the 1920s is still ongoing and I tend to agree with that.  When H. L. Mencken declared the south “The Land of the Bozart” and insisted that southern writers had produced nothing of substance, he fired up the pens and typewriters of every warm-blooded southerner who had a desire to prove him wrong.

The literature of the South is as unique and beautiful as its climate and its people.

I know that’s a matter of opinion — but it’s my opinion.

How long before this literature is targeted for criticism and banning as the Confederate monuments are?  Is that too much of a stretch?  Look at it this way: critics of the Confederate monuments say that the South lost the war, that the war was treasonous, that the Confederacy held slaves (as if the Union did not), and that the monuments were erected in the Jim Crow period; apparently their point with that last one is that these monuments are intended as some sort of subliminal white supremacy symbol.

This is all fallacious reasoning it seems to me.  These monuments were commissioned to honor the family that fought to protect their homes and their way of life.  And no, “way of life” is not code for slavery.  The way they lived was agrarian, it was slow and peaceful, it was with a work ethic and independent spirit.  Of course there were bad people who did bad things, but that has been the case throughout history.  Never has an entire culture been targeted because of that as is the case now.

One of our most beloved Southern writers was Harper Lee whose To Kill a Mockingbird is nothing if not a message on equality, tolerance, and dignity.  In Scout Finch we see the innocence of a child who has never been taught to see color in a person and who has never learned hatred or prejudice.  Those things are learned from adults and Atticus Finch’s lesson to his children was “put yourself in their skin and walk around in it.”  What are we teaching our kids now?

How many of us are living that way now?  How much of our hatred is learned and passed along to others?  How much of this monument mess and national anthem protest is just mob mentality?

And where does it end?  People ask that question often, but think about it.  For years overly sensitive lemmings have tried to ban books often citing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, and of course To Kill a Mockingbird among many, many others as offensive in one way or another.

How is that different than monuments?  These books are in public libraries just as monuments are in public places.  What’s the difference?

To me, both books and the monuments are works of art and should not be subject to censorship.  I disagreed when the Ten Commandments were removed from courthouses and schools but at least I understood the reasoning behind it (“separation of church and state”).  You could point me to a legal position that made that clear.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying things because of course books don’t equate to monuments in literal sense but censorship is censorship wherever it lies.

If our society does not stop with this over sensitive offended culture we are perpetuating there is literally no end to it.  Everything is a target.  If you are traumatized by a monument how could you possibly read Delta Wedding?  When will the book burning start?

Miss Welty abhorred the Civil War: she had one parent from the North and one from the South and she saw what the war did to Mississippi where she grew up (long after the war, of course).  “Ravaged” was the word she used. But she also knew that there are two sides to everything; her parents taught her that.

As we consider the modern debate of monuments, we need to remember that there are two sides to everything and that the men we see carved in these granite and bronze monuments were men – they were not without flaw and they were not perfect but they were human, just like we are, and we can learn from them still and we can admire their dedication to home and family.  My fear is that we want to remove them now but in another decade or two we will regret this choice and it will be too late.

The night-blooming cereus blooms only one night of the year. Their blooms are fragile and temporary and draw people to it in admiration and awe, but then it is gone until next year. Welty called them “a naked, luminous, complicated flower,” and maybe that’s what our monuments are. Perhaps we all just need to spend more time looking at the beauty of a thing.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.