If there is one thing Northerners think they understand, it’s the South. The temptation, at least as old as Aesop’s “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” is understandable: there is a certain delight in the superiority complex that comes with cosmopolitanism. After my family moved to rural Florida when I was eleven, I spent seven long years wishing desperately that I could leave the South, and I am usually happy to confirm that getting pickup trucks stuck in swamps on purpose was a popular pastime among my neighbors, and that the Twitter account @__FloridaMan is indeed true to life.
But I’m always a little uneasy when people I know now in Chicago assume that everyone in the South looks, thinks and acts like Larry the Cable Guy. In a recent article on the retirement of the Confederate flag, Barbara Kingsolver writes that the South lives “in a shadow of condescension” from the North, which seeks to “deck [Southerners] out as ignorant, vaguely incestuous hayseeds.” “Defining Southern pride,” she acknowledges, is “an endless navigation” for an intelligent person. And yet it is notable that in the minds of most Northerners, this navigation is not even worth attempting. Insofar as many occupants of the “country” hold reprehensible views, the logic goes, the culture that accompanies those views must also be, if not reprehensible, then at the very least idiotic. How could there be such a thing as Southern pride, these Northerners ask, if there is nothing in the South to be proud of?
One of the first big splashes in American fiction this year was Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country, a three-hundred-plus-page tirade against the rural South by the former literary editor of Harper’s. In this novel, a narrator who happens to write exactly like Ben Metcalf recounts his childhood and adolescence in Goochland County, a real county in Virginia that almost every reviewer of the book has assumed is fictional. In fire-and-brimstone sentences that go on for hundreds of words, the narrator rages against those who glorify life in the countryside. Targets include Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone and Henry David Thoreau, but most importantly the pseudo-Metcalf’s own parents, who move the family to Goochland with the hope that living close to nature will be enriching. As Metcalf shows, the move proves to be just the opposite: Goochland, he tells us, is the land “in whose dirt our national evil was gestated, and out of whose grass it sprung, and on whose stock it immediately fed” (the sentence goes on for four more clauses). Nature, which Metcalf sees as malevolent, sets the stage for the ignorance that many Northerners see at the heart of Southern culture. Goochland provides “annoyance and lack and trepidation,” Metcalf says, “and what more is asked for our violence to germinate and grow?”
Metcalf is nothing if not sharp: in his hands, incidents involving murderous attic rats and hillbillies fornicating in ditches become hysterical and hysterically real, although part of the fun in my case may have been that these stories are often uncomfortably familiar. Particularly hilarious is the chapter on the teachers at the local grade school, who alternate between body-slamming their students and mis-explaining circumcision. Later, after finding he can easily access his father’s gun closet, pseudo-Metcalf holds up a school bus full of bullies by aiming a shotgun at the bus driver.
The problem is that this depiction of rural life is buried beneath chapter after chapter of complaining about the horror and depravity of the places being depicted. The school bus anecdote takes twenty-five pages to get going and at least another fifty to reach its destination, largely because Metcalf digresses for five pages every time he has a new thought or mentions a new noun, often pausing mid-thought to apostrophize the reader, his parents, or God. Actually, the book Against the Country most resembles is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, whose preposterously digressive narrator famously spends half his “autobiography” trying to relate the story of his own birth. But while Tristram’s digressions are mostly delightful, Metcalf’s are mostly tiresome. As the novel progresses, the narrator pretends to develop more nuanced views about Goochland, but after two hundred pages—having narrated maybe ten separate events—pseudo-Metcalf remains a frightened boy surrounded by obese racists and rabid forest creatures. (At this point he shifts gears, spending the last hundred pages reflecting on his abusive father, that father’s hatred of J. D. Salinger, and various family dogs—go figure). As unfortunate as his life in Goochland sounds, the superiority complex Metcalf develops in relation to those around him makes him impossible to sympathize with. His verbosity, which eventually becomes the subject of self-parody, does little to mask the fact that his opinions about the South are no more complex than those of the hillbillies that sit next to him on the bus.
The exurban swamp where I grew up looked a lot like some of the landscapes Metcalf describes, but in my experience the South isn’t home to any subterranean evil—it’s just really, really boring. The habits of my high school friend group, whose idea of fun consisted of smoking pot and driving to Arby’s, confirmed this: there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and very little to say. The things that Metcalf identifies as evil or terrifying—the kudzu climbing onto the highway, the snakes in the swimming pool, and the meth-head in the middle of the road—set one’s schedule back by twenty minutes at most. When they’re not being elected to positions of power, even the bigots become tedious. My life in the South mostly involved avoiding things—mosquitos, heatstroke, Republicans. It only very rarely involved actually doing things. So even though I don’t share Metcalf’s fear and rage, I’m no more capable than he is of finding anything to be proud of in the place where for seven years it seemed like nothing ever happened.
But there are people out there with the conscientious pride Kingsolver strives for in the Guardian. I know they are out there, because I read their books. Even as I fumed about the twisting country roads and pungent cow pastures that encircled my neighborhood, I was falling in love with authors who loved fiercely those very same pastures and roads. Most of William Faulkner’s body of work takes place in a single Mississippi county, the fictional Yoknapatawpha. The naturalistic prose in these novels is some of the best there is in English: the very same woods that I avoided at all costs become mysterious and mythical when his characters go hunting or even just walking in them. The same could be said for Carson McCullers, or Flannery O’Connor, or Kingsolver herself, all of whom I read and loved both before and after I left Florida. These writers render the people and the places of the South not only as failures and wastelands but also as objects worthy of reverence and attention. Southern literature, for all its frequent darkness, is a prideful literature.
Surely Metcalf must have been familiar with all these authors when he set out to write Against the Country, just as he must also have read Twain’s wonderful “Two Ways of Seeing a River” before he attacked the Mississippi River in his Harper’s essay “American Heartworm.” But when Metcalf and I set out to describe the South, to explain to Northerners what it is “like down there,” neither of us can muster anything like Twain’s or Kingsolver’s appreciation. Metcalf can only find a virulent hatred of the country and its occupants, and I can’t find much of anything. Against the Country is exhausting not just because Metcalf’s view of Goochland is too narrow (although it is) but because it’s the only view we get. He neither develops his own perspective on the “fungal entity” of the rural South nor considers the perspectives of any of the Southerners around him. For my part, I wish I could believe that the book’s habitual digressions were a conscious joke about the fact that so little happens in the South, as opposed to being an advertisement for Metcalf’s self-conception as a hyper-articulate essayist; if I were to write a three-hundred-page book about the South, it might be similarly full of digressions, only because I would have so little to say about the subject. I would be admitting what Metcalf also admits in Against the Country: that I can’t see the South that Twain and Faulkner see.
Here we find that Southern literature helps us in the same way literature often does: by widening, and recalibrating, our perspective. I must have stopped hundreds of times to let deer cross the road in Florida without ever giving the animals a second glance. But when I reread Faulkner’s short story “The Old People,” I’m struck by his description of the deer that appears before the McCaslin hunting party, “its head high and the eye not proud and not haughty but just full and wild and unafraid.” After I put the story down, passing a deer on the road still seems banal (pseudo-Metcalf would probably pee his pants), but I am forced to admit that for somebody it constitutes an experience bordering on the sacred.
Both Faulkner and the bigots who litter my home state would probably claim to feel “Southern pride.” There is no excuse for the kind of pride that claims, as one sign near my Florida house does, that the Confederate flag stands for “God, Guns and Guts.” But reading Faulkner, or McCullers, or O’Connor, allows us to see what sometimes exists alongside and beneath such signs. It is not perceptiveness that gives them this power (Metcalf is perceptive, too) but a deep familiarity with the places they write about. This pride in place, when expressed in fiction, shows us a South that is worth our attention (if not always our approval): the shared lemonades and close-knit cul-de-sacs of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the awe-inspiring forests and swamps of Faulkner’s “The Old People” and “The Bear,” and the deep ambivalence of Quentin Compson, Harvard-bound hero of Absalom, Absalom!.
During spring break this year, I took a road trip to Mississippi with three friends who had never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line. After driving for fourteen hours we reached the city of Oxford, the lifelong home of William Faulkner. Faulkner’s famous mansion (called Rowan Oak, now a museum) is nestled on a back road not far from Ole Miss, where the night before we had seen a group of fraternity brothers waving a Confederate flag from the window of a bar. It was easy to imagine Faulkner going on a stroll through the neighborhood and witnessing the behaviors that had so disgusted us. What was harder to imagine was how he could have seen such ugliness and still used Mississippi as the setting for the sagas that had made us want to visit Oxford in the first place. But if I still can’t bring myself to see what Faulkner saw, it might be because I—like Metcalf—am the wrong person to ask.