"What is the South?" they always ask. It's a question never answered, not completely, but invariably asked. Usually by some Northerner with a taste for literature. Or by sociology students in search of a thesis. Or by a college roommate at Harvard. (See Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom.") I was first asked the question by a fellow graduate student at Columbia. ("What's it like, growing up in the South?") He asked it in the same tone one might inquire, "What was it like, living on Mars?" Southerners remain a fascination to others - almost as great a fascination as we are to ourselves.
These days, as we lose our distinctiveness, the question of Southern identity seems to be raised most by Southerners, who return to it like the tongue to an uneven tooth. As if we wanted assurance that we still exist. We know there's no sure answer to the question; we just delight in asking it - for the comfort and fellowship and pure pleasure of thinking about the South.
On this Lee's Birthday, the South seems only a lingering shadow of the great civilization-and-barbarism she once was, but that ended when? April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse? With the last great Southern novel, and which was it? When cotton was dethroned? When industry overtook agriculture, when the city took over from the country? Did the South end with the coming of air conditioning or of the two-party system? Or when the race issue ceased to be The Issue, and became just another Northern-style ethnic competition and/or collaboration?
The answer to that question always seems to come down to this: The South ended with the previous generation - which fits in well with the common perception that each generation becomes a little less Southern, a little more Americanized. It's like Zeno's Paradox about the hare who always halves the distance between himself and the tortoise, yet never catches up: Southernness is always fading yet never disappears. Our children will doubtless say it ended with us even as it continues in them.
Just as there are many Souths, so there are many Southernesses. And entirely too many simulacra. The Br'er Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris become the cartoon characters of Walt Disney. The culture that was, or perhaps never was except in retrospect, leaves behind its faux ruins and living fossils. Phony artifacts litter the landscape: minstrel shows, accents you could lay on with a trowel, and all the other Gone-With-the-Wind routines for the tourist trade. A picturesque past replaces any usable one.