That most Southern of phrases, "a sense of place," came up at a gathering the other evening. It elicited only a quizzical expression from one of the guests, who seemed to think it referred to her neighborhood. Of course she had a sense of place. Why, she'd lived there for eight years. And before that? A succession of places, all of which she left vague.
I was at a loss. I so often am. About so many things. Among them, how do you explain a sense of place to someone so unburdened (and unblessed) by one?
It is more than a geographical designation, a sense of place. It has to do with identity, with roots sunk deep not just in the land but in the language and look and feel, and maybe death, of a place.
Faulkner may have said it best, as usual, maybe as always, when he said he realized early on that he could write for a lifetime and never exhaust all the possibilities of his "little postage stamp of native soil."
Others may be deaf to the music of their place. They may even go from one coast to another and remain unchanged, not ever having acquired a sense of place to change. They mystify those whose sense of place is obdurate, understood, so natural there is no need to mention it. Indeed, to dwell on it would be a kind of bad taste, like spelling out the obvious.
Someone with a sense of place will be full of grief and longing if he must leave it, or sometimes even if he must stay, whether he expresses it or not. Faulkner was able to make his fictional, but certainly not false, Yoknapatawpha County a whole world. Because it was a whole world -- to him, or to anyone who knows what a sense of place is. As for those who don't, they inspire a bottomless pity among those who do. The way anyone homeless would, however rich he might be in material things. But you don't want to get into all that, and appear not sympathetic but condescending.
Someone with a sense of place, all-informing and always present, like the man of one great book, is someone to be reckoned with -- anchored, secure, steady no matter which way the wind blows. In place. He may move, but he will not be moved.
All of which came to mind on pondering the death of Reynolds Price, the Southern novelist. To call him a Southern novelist is not to limit his scope or his appeal or his power, not in the least, but only to describe their source. Which was and is a sense of place. Perhaps that is what, during his recurring bouts with a paralyzing illness, sustained him most.
If Faulkner's world was a Mississippi of the mind, Reynolds Price's was a wedge of North Carolina some 60 miles east of Raleigh. He would make it his sovereign realm, one he could conjure up again and again, inexhaustibly.
He would start from a spot on the map (Macon, N.C., and environs) that he once summed up as "227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression." And go from there to write words that would melt the stars, beginning with the first sentence of his first masterpiece, "A Long and Happy Life." He opens the book with a single Faulknerian sentence, only clearer, that tells us pretty much all we need to know about Rosacoke Mustian, and her boyfriend, too, spanning a whole world in the process:
"Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody's face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line, and when he even speeded up and passed the truck (lent for the afternoon by Mr. Isaac Alston and driven by Sammy his man, hauling one pine box and one black boy dressed in all he could borrow, set up in a ladder-back chair with flowers banked round him and a foot on the box to steady it) -- when he even passed that, Rosacoke said once into his back 'Don't' and rested in humiliation, not thinking but with her hands on his hips for dear life and her white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat."
Wow. Now that's what a sense of place will do for a writer. Or a reader. Or anyone. An understanding is established right off. It can happen even wordlessly, just with a look, a gesture, perhaps not even that. Just a shared presence. I noticed it in the Army. The northerners had to use words. Southerners, black or white, could communicate with each other with a glance, a wry smile, or just the way we carried ourselves. The next time somebody looks at me quizzically when the phrase Sense of Place comes up, it occurs to me there's a two-word definition for it: