Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

--Wendell Berry

Does this blog entry have anything to do with the Civil War? Of course it does. Everything has to do with the Civil War. Be patient. I have long been attuned to the sentiments expressed in much of Wendell Berry’s poetry, essays, and novels. His relentlessly green approach to living, his devotion to conservation and sustainable farming, his eloquent disdain for consumerism – all of this appeals to the part of me that wants to live a rural or remote existence. But he’s effectively a Luddite, and that would never do for me. I love technology too much, even the frivolous kind. Not so with Berry.
But that’s not what I wanted to comment on tonight. If I had been anywhere near Chattnooga last weekend, I would have dropped in for some of the AEC 2007 Conference on Southern Literature. “Southern” literature has had a powerful hold on my imagination from early on. People like Faulkner, of course, and Walker Percy, evoke an atmosphere or feeling that you remember for a long time -– and like so many, I’m a big fan of Harper Lee’s book -- but Flannery O’Connor made me want to drop what I was doing and start writing short stories of my own, right now. More recently, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, authors like T. R. Pearson have refreshed my love of fiction set in the separate world that is the American South. So what do they talk about at the Conference on Southern Literature?
Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham who had once been a reporter for a local Chattanooga paper, started off the conference with a talk on, “Living History: What the Past Tells Us About the Present.” Got some good quips in, too, or so it was reported: “Madison calling Jefferson a ‘French atheist’ seems sort of redundant,” and “Mississippi—that’s like Tennessee without hardback books.”
But it was the agrarian rebel poet Wendell Berry who wrapped up the presentations portion of the event with the keynote address, “American Imagination and the Civil War.” One can’t help but be struck by the fact that the opening and closing feature presentations at this literature conference sound like maybe they belonged at a history conference. Apparently, it speaks to the fact that Southern Literature and Southern History are inseparable. As Faulkner said, “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”
Berry, as expected, had some provocative opinions to share. Thanks to Kevin Trumpeter of The Pulse, Chattanooga’s Weekly Alternative, for some summary reporting on the subject.
Wendell Berry’s keynote address on Friday evening, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” also considered historical issues that have a particular resonance with today’s political concerns. As you’d expect from a reputed iconoclast, the poet-farmer’s take on the War Between the States would be classified as “revisionist.” Berry acceded that slavery was certainly one of the important aspects of the conflict, but pointed out a cause that frequently gets overlooked by the textbooks—“People generally don’t like to get invaded.”
Like a latter-day Faulkner, he lamented the lingering “curse” of the Civil War that continues to afflict Southern society and called the supposedly self-evident benefits of the Union victory into question. He referred to the emancipation effort as “botched,” noting that our society still has yet to come to terms with the “money power of the North that replaced the slave power of the South” and that Americans still rely on an subservient group of people (he cited Latino immigrants as the latter-day “Stepin Fetchits” of our society) to perform the menial labor which upper-and middle-class Americans are “too good, too well-educated, and too ignorant to do ourselves.” He suggested that the Northern victory not only imposed the vagaries of industrialization on the bucolic agrarian culture of the antebellum South, it also set the tone of overconfidence and privilege that is the hallmark of a contemporary American attitude that “conflates the American way of life with the will of God.”

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