Friday, October 29, 2010

On Understanding "A Sense Of Place"

From Old Virginia Blog:

2:23 PM (9 hours ago)On Understanding "A Sense Of Place"from Old Virginia Blog by Richard G. Williams, Jr.

"The south has produced the world's best literature. It dominates world culture. Southern culture is the most powerful and expressive in the world." ~ Timothy Tyson

William Faulkner's Typewriter

"The American South is a geographical entity, a historical fact, a place in the imagination, and the homeland of an array of Americans who consider themselves southerners. The region is often shrouded in romance and myth, but its realities are as intriguing, as intricate, as its legends." ~ The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

"The South is cultivated in collards and covered in kudzu . . . Many of us are descended from Scottish settlers and African slaves--and we usually find that we have more in common with each other than with Northern urbanites." ~ Clint Johnson

In a recent post at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin wrote about a question he was recently asked in a public forum. The question was in regards to where Kevin was born. He responded on his blog with this rather curious comment:

"The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth."

Kevin's response presents a wonderful opportunity to briefly discuss how our place of birth and where we grew up - our "sense of place" - impacts our views on history and does, in fact, often give one "unique access to the past" - particularly when it comes to the WBTS.

First of all, no honest questions are silly - especially if it pertains to one's place of birth and is asked of someone whose field of work specializes in dissecting and psycho-analyzing a particular geographic region of the United States.

Secondly, no informed historian or writer could state, with a straight face, that one's place of birth, and the various cultural influences of the diverse regional areas of the United States, do not impact one's perspective and views on history - whether that impact is realized or not. Of course, this is true of not only the South, but practically any region of the world since all regions have their own unique and colorful history.

Thirdly, I'm not quite sure what Kevin has to gain by insulting someone for asking an honest and reasonable question - someone who took time out of their schedule to come hear Kevin participate in a public forum. That won't go very far to encourage attendance and sincere questions at these types of events in the future, that's for sure.

Since Kevin has mentioned this issue before, I get the distinct impression he's uncomfortable with the topic, perhaps revealing his own feelings (justified or not) of inadequacy due to his not being "Virginian, born and bred." (See, I can pyscho-analyze too.) Many moderns like to imagine a homogeneous America where our rich regional differences have been purged and we all march in bland (and boring) lockstep sameness of opinion, perspective, dialect, and views on history. While some of that has occurred due to mass marketing and other influences, the various regions of the United States still have distinct cultural differences which impact the way we view all sorts of topics, history being just one of them.

Being born in Dixie and raised with the knowledge that your ancestors sacrificed and fought bravely to defend their homes against overwhelming odds certainly has an impact on your perspective, your emotions and, yes, the way one intellectually approaches the study of the WBTS. I should know since I was born on a battlefield where two of my own Confederate ancestors fought. I also spent much of my childhood at my grandmother's home on that same battlefield, exploring the surrounding woods, fields, and streams where, just underfoot, lay mini-balls, shrapnel and yes, blood. Images of Lee, Jackson and the boys hung from parlor walls, books on the WBTS adorned our bookshelves, and the ghosts of the Confederacy seemed to always be present. This experience does indeed give me "unique access" to the past.

Does anyone really believe it is a coincidence that the definitive biographies of the Confederacy's two most recognized icons - Lee and Jackson - were written by proud Sons of the South and descendants of Confederate soldiers: Douglas Southall Freeman and James I. Robertson, Jr.?

Could anyone, other than a Southerner like Faulkner (who grew up breathing Southern air still - figuratively speaking - heavy with the smell of gunsmoke), have written these words:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago. ~ William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

Some historians have openly admitted their regret for not having Faulkner's connection to the South and the Civil War:

Moreover, not a single ancestor fought in the war, a fact I lamented as a boy reading books by Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman and wanting desperately to have some direct connection to the events that fascinated me. ~ Gary Gallagher

Both Faulkner and Gallagher refer to this passion being associated with youth, but don't fool yourself into thinking that much of that feeling does not linger into adulthood - it often grows even stronger. And these feelings also often lead to a lifelong passion regarding history and one's life work, as evidenced in the following line about legendary relic hunter and historian, Tom Dickey:

"And, this was not just any war fought in a far away land. It was a war that took place on the soil where he was born and grew up, and therein lay his fascination with the Civil War and its artillery."

Freeman would never have written his monumental biography of Lee were it not for his youthful fascination with the Confederacy and his ancestral ties:

Douglas Freeman had acquired a lifelong devotion to Confederate history from tales told by his father, one of General Lee's soldiers. He was taken to see the first 'Civil War Re-enactment', one performed by the actual veterans and it was then that he vowed to write the history of Lee's fabled Army of Northern Virginia. As well as the two massive biographies, Dr Freeman (he was part of the first generation of historians to earn a Ph.D.) wrote several other works of Southern history and historiography. ~ Richard Mullen: America's Greatest Biographer: Douglas Southall Freeman

And David Johnson, in his excellent biography of Freeman, further points to the fact that Freeman's place of birth, and all that went with it, continued to influence Freeman's writings until the day he died:

Having written and read millions of words, Douglas Freeman chose to be remembered with words from Tennyson's Ulysses: I am part of all that I have met.

The influences that shaped his life never left him. Always there was Walker Freeman - wounded veteran, struggling clerk, successful businessman, keeper of the faith; always there was the city of Richmond - its traditions, its heritage, its tragedies, its future . . . always there was Lee - the supreme example of service and sacrifice.

Now, all of this is not to say that those from outside the South can't write good histories of the region or offer insight on the Confederacy and the WBTS. Outside observers very often do see things that natives miss. That is a perspective (whether one admits it or not), as is one which comes from a homegrown Southerner. So, yes, it is important to know of an author's or historian's place of birth, where he grew up, and whether or not he understands what many have referred to as "a sense of place" so one may evaluate bias and perspective. That is certainly a legitimate inquiry. Why would anyone think otherwise?

In reading Kevin's blog, and others like it, it seems many writers and historians have difficulty getting their mind around the concept of "a sense of place." Wikipedia offers some good insight on this concept:

Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or peoples. Places said to have a strong "sense of place" have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual's perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place. The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the place being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music, and more recently, through modes of codification aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing places felt to be of value . .

In order to have even the most fundamental understanding of Southern history and memory, one must understand this concept referred to as "a sense of place." This is especially true of the South and her various (and often complicated) perspectives on the WBTS . One's place of birth does, very often, provide a "unique access" and perspective to the study of history - especially the WBTS. And it can also be "privileged." I consider mine both.

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