Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A reading on Europe and the American South


To Europeans, Helen Taylor observed, the South 'seems to share a troubled and profound burden of history'. [....] Europeans can see themselves in southern writing and history.
William Faulkner's famous observation that 'the past is never dead, it's not even past' was even more relevant to Europe than to the South. White southerners who are still fighting the Civil War hardly seem unusual to people in Ireland who speak of 'King Billy's great victory on 'the green, grassy slopes of the Boyne' in 1690 as if it happened last weeks, and Serbs who are clearly still deeply embittered by the outcome of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 could surely teach the 'fergit hell' crowd of southern whites a thing or two about holding grudges. Italy's North-South antagonists are much sharper than they are here, and pro-secession groups like our League of the South seem a little less unusual in a country where it is actually disgruntled northerners who have been threatening to break away. Expressing their defiance of the North, some in southern Italy even sport Confederate flag bumper stickers and wave the banner at soccer games. When Don H. Doyle asked if the people of the Italian South knew what the flag meant, a professor from the University of Naples assured him, 'Oh, yes, we know what it means.....[W]e too are a defeated people. Once we were a rich and independent country, and they came from the North and conquered us and took our wealth and power away to Rome." 
Regional distinctions still matter throughout Europe, and while many in this country claim the South is now indistinguishable from the rest of the United States, from their more detached perspective Europeans can still see the differences, and these differences are precisely what makes the South so fascinating to many of them. Both the inexorable process of globalization and the ongoing efforts of the European Union to shape Europe into what is effectively a single nation make the South's long-standing resistance to total immersion in the American mainstream seem not just relevant but in many ways admirable.  
This identification with the American South has led a group of European scholars to organize the Southern Studies Forum, which convenes biannually to discuss various aspects of southern literature, history, and culture. At their 1991 meeting in Bonn, two Danes talked about antebellum southern literature, and a Dutchman about Mark Twain. An Austrian focused on Walker Percy; an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a German tackled Faulkner; and another German discussed Thomas Jefferson.

p. 329-330, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. James L. Cobb

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