Departments

The South

In order, my first observations of the South. The stupendous clouds, like levitating icebergs. The jumble of wealth and poverty. I had seen mansions and hovels, but I had never seen a mansion, a hovel, and a clipped suburban lawn, all along the same mile of highway. The rarity of winter clothing – at temperatures when Northeners would bundle up, Southerners persevered in shorts and T-shirts, as if taking notice of the cold would only encourage it.

I have not gone much farther. I have become a Louisianan, but not really a Southerner. Of course being a Rodriguez helps with that. Here I pass for native unless I bother to deny it; but of course Rodriguez is not so happy a name in the rest of Dixie.

Comparing Louisiana with the South is tricky. Which Louisiana do you mean? Broadly speaking, all Louisiana is divided into four parts. The northwest, the watershed of the Red River, was settled by Americans of the same Scotch-Irish stock as the rest of the South. It is something like East Texas. This is where rock and roll happened. In the less south southeast, the Florida Parishes (Percy’s Feliciana) were settled by the English, and are something like Mississippi. This has been at times the most violent area in the US, host to multigenerational blood feuds. In the southwest, Acadiana was settled by Germans and Acadians; and in the very south southeast, Barataria (including New Orleans) was settled by the French and Spanish. (This is where jazz happened.) These last two regions are both culturally unique to Louisiana and very different from one another. Chances are, when you think of Louisiana, you are thinking of them: aristocatholic decadence and europeasant uninhibition.

But even allowing for regional variation, the interests of Louisiana were never quite the interests of the South. Again and again Louisiana has sacrificed for the South, and the South has taken. In the long view the relationship between Louisiana and the South has the shape of an unhealthy marriage: on Louisiana’s side, all passion and devotion; on the South’s side, something between tolerance and contempt.

In 1864 Louisiana was the wealthiest, most splendid state in the Union; four years later it was the poorest and most desperate, forever. “Often rebuked, but always back returning.” Mississippi, for example, resents Louisiana for stealing the spotlight during Katrina. When they talk about it there is a subtext something like this: We had it bad too, but we didn’t squeal on national television. We hearty salt-of-the-earth goodmen took our knocks, gritted our teeth, and rebuilt while those weirdo slacker heathens whined and sat on their thumbs. One might object something about the different challenges of rebuilding neighborhoods that were swept away in a night vs. rebuilding neighborhoods where the very ground spent weeks steeping in poison; but who can fight myth?

The Civil War is history to Northeners, yesterday to Southerners; something northerners learn about in school, something Southerners learn about at home.

In this respect I am an atypical Northener. Growing up my best friend’s father was a Civil War re-enactor. I know the smells of campfire and canvas, of wet wool and black powder. I think Battle Hymn of the Republic was the first song I ever memorized. I am reflexively blue the way Southerners are reflexively gray.

The contradiction in my feelings about Louisiana and about the South is clearest when I look at the war. I have no quarrel with Sherman, the bugbear of the South in general; but I personally dislike Butler. True, the war was particularly bad here – things went on in the Florida Parishes under Butler’s blind eye that read more like Apocalypse Now than Gone With the Wind – but there is no real basis for this distinction; it is simply emotional.

Still, I am not a Louisianan by birth. As an outsider I have to recognize that Louisiana is part of the South. The distinctions are many, but they are only distinctions, not differences. If I want to understand Louisiana I should understand the South better.