Southern Talismans II

29 05 2011

The Wednesday night dinner in Milledgeville that I referred to in my last post was an august gathering of southern luminaries. To my immediate right sat William A. Sessions, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of English at Georgia State University and the author of the soon-to-be-released only authorized biography of Flannery O’Connor. Bill was a personal friend of O’Connor’s. Directly across from me was Deal Hudson, current President of the Catholic Advocate and former President of the Jacques Maritain Society (and conservative politico for the Catholic cause). He worked the room like velvet ~ amazing to watch. To his left sat Frank Hanna III, one of the leading Catholic philanthropists in America and billionaire businessman who, among other things, donated to the Vatican Library what is considered to be its most valuable holding: the Bodymer Papyri (174 and 175, I think). He also hosted the dinner. Just to his left, at the head of the table, sat Louise Florencourt, first cousin of Flannery O’Connor and member of the first class of women to graduate from Harvard Law School in the early 50s. She was not to be trifled with, in spite of her being in her 80s. A beautiful and graceful woman, she was. There were a few others there who were equally beautiful and impressive in their own right. (What is it about southern Belles, anyway?)

And then there was me.

In other words, this was a seriously impressive and erudite group I was at table with. And what was I foolish enough to order? A stack of BBQ ribs. I’m not sure there is a messier item on any menu in the world than a plate of southern basted beef ribs. The sauce has the viscosity of 10/40 car oil and makes napkins utterly and incomprehensibly useless. Needless to say, I spent much of the evening talking with these brilliant people with shreds of beef sticking out from between my front teeth and an entire goatee of bbq sauce around my lips so that I looked like a southern minstrel, or better yet, Spanky from the Little Rascals after eating a huge piece of chocolate cake. I tried my hardest to retain a modicum of dignity, but to seriously no avail. They had to bring out “the bowl,” which is a bit humiliating, actually. It’s a steamy hot bowl of water with lemon slices in it, which is apparently the only thing that works to remove what would otherwise be a permanent stain on one’s face. I was duly humbled, fitting for the only Yankee at the table whose only concern prior to the meal was that I hadn’t forgotten all my table manners at a meal with southern gentility. Oops…

The rest of the week was spent in relative anonymity at the Georgia State College Flannery O’Connor archives. What a delicious little treat that was ~ four days straight in the world’s most comprehensive collection of O’Connor manuscripts and memorabilia. Talk about a kid in a candy store. And then there were the fascinating speakers at all hours of the day and night, which I was able to pick and choose from at my leisure. The week ended with a concert in the gorgeous Magnolia Ballroom with Julie Lee and Dave Perkins and Friends. Julie Lee I first heard of on a PBS special profiling Allison Krauss, and immediately fell in love. Her music is nothing less than haunting. Dave Perkins was just the opposite: he was, well… Dave Perkins. It was a glorious evening of great southern bluegrass rock-n-roll, a fitting end to a fabulous week.

Actually, my trip ended back in Atlanta at the home of Bill Sessions, who gave me carte blanche to peruse his study where he is currently putting the finishing touches on what was, at the time, a biography of well over 1,000 pages on O’Connor. It was a gift of southern hospitality that I won’t soon forget. I also got the backstage pass to the O’Connor archives at Emory University, another little coup for this hapless newcomer in O’Connor country. It was an overwhelming week.

I think what impressed me most about the South was its hauntedness, if I can borrow a term from Ms. O’Connor. And by that I don’t mean something spooky. On the contrary, it strikes me as something eminently sane and grounded; a willingness to accept the mysteries of life without the Enlightened urge to explain it all. There is a mystery to its manners (again, I’m channeling O’Connor here), an edge to its history, a quiet acceptance of its sorrows, a stubborn resistance to melancholy, that makes it, in some ways, far more trustworthy than its northern and western counterparts. What do I mean by that? The South I met that week seemed haunted by a sort of resignation… of its history, I think… but without a maudlin “woe-is-me” caste to it. And this resignation ~ maybe acceptance is a better word ~ gave the South an anchoring self-awareness that the North and West do not have. It’s like when you meet someone who has lived a checkered life of successes and failures and who, by dint of this history, is neither over-confident nor insecure. There is a grounded quality to the person, a wholesome acceptance of themselves that makes them good company. They can shed a tear as quickly as they can crack a joke ~ usually about themselves.

I’m grasping for words here. Suffice it to say, my trip to O’Connor country, to the Old South, was eye-opening and deeply resonant. This was not only the Old South, it was a touch of the Old World, the world of enchantment where people understood that not all of life can be quantified or held under the scrutiny of science and technology; where manners still mattered, and ghosts haunted its roads and its music.

I loved it, and I hope to return.

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