Way down south in Delaware?

Paul Greenberg

10/30/2006 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Dear Ex-Delawarean,

It was wholly a pleasure to receive your lesson in the Southernness of the great (if small) State of Delaware. And I confess to having had a little fun - okay, a lot of fun - at Joe Biden's expense when he described his state as Southern.

Senator Biden's geography may have been be a bit off, but I've got to admit his timing was impeccable. The first Southern presidential primaries will soon be upon us.

I am indebted to you, as a former resident of Delaware, for letting me in on Delaware's Southern character. I know you're not just whistling Dixie, but the whole idea doesn't sound quite right: Way down South in Delaware?

Of course, geography can be misleading. Florida, for example, may be just about the southernmost of the states, but that scarcely makes it the most Southern.

Senator Biden points out that Delaware was a slave state in antebellum times, but being a slave state doesn't equate with being a Southern state. Else, other border states - like Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and even West Virginia - would have been unequivocally rather than only peripherally Southern during The War.

"Today's Delawareans," you claim, "are still quite bigoted and racist and quite supportive of the Ku Klux Klan." As if this made them Southern rather than just hateful. But I can see why, holding such an impression of the state, you chose to leave.

Even if your unflattering description of Delaware were accurate, a compendium of all-too-Southern sins scarcely makes a state Southern, any more than having a caste system makes India an extension of Dixie.

We live in a time when being Southern has become the fashion. Every family now seems to boast a Southerner in the woodpile - much like half of Arkansas claiming to be Cherokee. It's quite the thing. And now Delaware turns out to be a Southern state. To quote a line from "Southland in the Springtime" by the Indigo Girls, "When God made me born a Yankee he was teasin'Š."

I have no doubt that many Delawareans think of themselves as Southern, and probably make a lot bigger deal of it than folks in the heart of Dixie. That kind of self-consciousness is a common phenomenon on the periphery of any ethnic culture. Or in its diaspora. Is anyone more aware of being Southern than the Southerner transplanted to, say, New York?

See the late Willie Morris' "North Toward Home," which I've always thought his best book, maybe because I first read it in my little editorial writer's cubicle when I was at the Chicago Daily News. I disturbed everybody else in the office by laughing out loud at his stories of a displaced Southern boy in Manhattan. And I certainly shared his homesickness.

To quote Lord Acton (and why not - everybody else does, and it gives a mere newspaper column a certain faux-scholarliness), exile is the nursery of nationalism. I have no doubt that there are Delawareans who are much more Southern than the general run of Southerners, just as some of the most fervent Zionists I've ever met are American Jews who prefer to practice their ideology at a safe remove. See George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" for other such examples. (Or his essay on almost any subject for that matter. He's a master of clear prose-and clear thinking. But I repeat myself. Writing is thinking.)

John Shelton Reed, the Tocqueville of Dixie, has written quite a bit about the marginal Southerner. (He uses words like "marginality" when he's being sociologist-serious rather than just plain insightful and funny as all get-out, which I'd like to think is also a Southern trait.) Anyway, according to Dr. Reed, marginality tends to intensify ethnic/regional identity. Or in plain Suthuhn, there's nothing like being a ways from home to make a man appreciate it.

The thesis of one of John Reed's more statistic-laden studies, "The Social Psychology of Sectionalism," is that Southern regional consciousness "is heightened (1) by urban upbringing and residence, (2) by education, (3) by exposure to the national mass media, and (4) by travel and residence outside the South."

In short, the farther we are from our roots, the more conscious of them we become.

Dr. Reed could have been describing all the authors of "I'll Take My Stand," the classic manifesto of the Southern Agrarians in the 1930s, which was essentially the work of urban academics and intellectuals.

Or he could have cited Richard Weaver, the Southern prophet and elegist. (For what is a prophet but one who urges his listeners to return to the truer ways of the past?) Richard Weaver spent his academic career teaching rhetoric at that great Southern institution, the University of Chicago. Go figure. It is not a simple thing, Southernness. But you know it when it's not there, as in Joe Biden.

A Southerner manque like Sen. Biden can be as amusing as the real thing, but only unintentionally. By all means, let's cut the senator from the great little (and I'm sure quite decent) state of Delaware some slack. He may not be a Southerner, but his attempt to pass himself off as one shows commendable ambition.

Hurry back,

Inky Wretch