Pilgrimage: Dinner in Charleston

Posted: May 21, 2007 12:01 AM
Pilgrimage: Dinner in Charleston

It's a far piece to go for dinner. That's what William Faulkner is supposed to have said when he declined an invitation to a White House gala in honor of the country's Nobel laureates. What a glittering occasion that must have been. The host, John F. Kennedy, called it the greatest gathering of American intellects since Thomas Jefferson had dined there alone.

Not much for glitter, Mr. Faulkner.

But this gala dinner is in Charleston. Yes, charming, legendary, cultivated, captivating and, let's face it, usually eccentric and occasionally even grotesque Charleston. It all comes with the emotional territory. How could one pass up any chance to visit such a city and legend?

Here it's pronounced Chah-leston. As Mark Twain once noted, the educated Southerner has no use for Rs except at the beginnings of words. At least since it was one of the three literary capitals of the Old South, along with Richmond and New Orleans, there has been only one thing plain about Charleston: It is irresistible. And knows it.

Tonight's dinner is in honor of the bicentennial of Robert E. Lee's birth. And what a festive gathering it proved. From the firing of the antique cannon on Marion Square to the traditional Charlestonian dessert, Charlotte Russe.

The flags are posted this evening by the color guard of the Washington Light Infantry, which is also observing its 200th anniversary this year. Each in its proper place, both Old Glory and the Confederate Battle Flag are presented with due ceremony. It's an unremarked tribute to the continuity of this Republic - despite that brief if bloody interruption circa 1861-65.

The official records of that conflict are still compiled under the title, War of the Rebellion, but only those unreconstructed, North or South, are still prepared to argue over what the Civil War should be called. We long since have become one country again, as General Lee himself urged us to be once the issue was settled. When it was over, he let it be over. That, too, was part of his greatness.

The final, culminating toast of the whole grand evening rings loud:

To Robert Edward Lee of Old Virginia!

There is a pause, and then "Dixie" breaks out like a mighty wave. It lets you know where you are. And that one can celebrate the South without getting hung up on Southernism. Or political correctness. Or any of that other ideological stuff that just gets in the way. Even better than a loud chorus of "Dixie" is a certain shared stillness the mention of his name still evokes in these latitudes.

It's a night to play Old South to beat the band. I first heard that phrase from a bright-eyed lady named Julia Raley, who used to invite me to occasional soirees in her grand, crumbling old manse on Barraque Street in Pine Bluff, Ark. The house is no longer there, with its stately pillars in front, its high ceilings, and the grandfather clock in the hall quietly ticking off the instant past. Yet it still exists, unchanged, in memory. Every time I pass that empty lot, I see it again, beckoning.

"You must come," Miss Julia would implore, her eyes a-twinkle. "We're going to play Old South to beat the band!" It was both promise and caveat, equal parts genuine enthusiasm and shared irony, irresistible invitation and inside joke. Which is the spirit of Charleston, too, at its self-aware best.

Much is said this evening about Lee, the South's beau ideal. His military prowess might be summed up by one, terrible tally: In one single, bloody month of 1864, from May 12 to June 12, from the aftermath of The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Union casualties under U.S. Grant, no mean general himself, would total 60,000. That number was equal to Lee's entire remaining force at that point.

But in the end, it is neither the victorious nor defeated Lee that explains his aura, but the passionate dispassion of the man, his Greek proportion. What sweeps us away is the Lee who could look down from Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, watch the federals below being obliterated by his guns, take in the sweep of the carnage he himself had engineered, and say: "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."

After it was over at Gettysburg, in all the smoke and confusion and death and mayhem, when Lee found Pickett roaming the battlefield, a general without his command, for his whole division was no more, the only thing Lee said was: "All this was my fault."

Not "mistakes were made." Lee did not fuss and fume, or blame Longstreet or the fates. He just went on. To save what he could, and carry on till he could carry on no longer. To do his duty, which was always his lodestar, his guiding light, his consolation.

At a time when the object of public life seems be to avoid responsibility, what a refreshment for someone who has been sentenced to follow the petty tumult called politics day after day, and even expected to say something coherent about it, to think on Lee for one night. It's a pardon.

Lee never wrote his memoirs. He may have been the only Civil War general, great or small, important or un-, who didn't tell his self-absorbed, self-justifying tale for a handsome price. He had no price. He was not for sale. What he had was a code. And he embodied it. Great in victory, he was greater in defeat. Through it all, he remained the same Lee. What Epictetus the Stoic wrote, Lee lived.

Much is said about Robert E. Lee this magical night. Each aspect of his character is extolled. Thank goodness he is present only in spirit; how embarrassed he would have been at such goings-on. One by one, his qualities are praised: honor, civility, compassion, dignity, courage, equanimity . . . and yet they cannot be separated, for he was all of a piece, whole.

Some damyankee once asked Flannery O'Connor, who wrote theology in the guise of stories about grotesque characters, why Southerners seemed to write only about freaks. Because, she explained, we in the South can still recognize a freak when we see one.

I'd like to believe that's still true, but I'm no longer sure, the South having been so modernized, Americanized and generally pressurized by now. But if we still retain any idea of wholeness, maybe it's because we once knew what wholeness was. It was, in a word, Lee.

It is hard to leave Charleston. The General casts a spell no one wants to break. But before departing Charleston, I do get to make the pilgrimage around the Battery, where the proud old houses still stare blankly across the harbor at Sumter, dim on the horizon. The old fort still squats there, like a lesson waiting to be learned again and again: United we stand, divided we destroy each other.

The Battery is lined with oleander bushes that now have come into bloom, beautiful as they are poisonous, a reminder of what goeth before a fall. Everywhere you look in proud old Charleston, there seems to be a lesson.