Saturday, November 14, 2009

Reflections on the Southern Gentleman

This semester of residential study has been more than an exploration of the Christian foundations of the West; it has also been my first real exposure to southern culture. A group of fellows that I will refer to as “the southern gentlemen” have introduced me to a culture that I, as a northerner born and raised in New Jersey, was thoroughly unfamiliar with prior to the program.

Russell Kirk, in his Roots of American Order, writes that in the days of medieval Europe, knights chivalrously roamed about searching for adventure, stirring the moral imagination through their feats of valor. This “wonder of medieval Europe” (p. 200) looked to do justice through defending widows and orphans.

In our modern age, the saints and knights of old have been replaced by scholars and gentlemen. Kirk gives the example of the poet Sir Philip Sidney, who, mortally wounded, gave “his cup of water to a dying common soldier: ‘Thy need is greater than mine.’ In this way, the chivalric ideal of the Middle Ages endured after the feudal institutions had been swept away” (p. 206). The knights of old offered later generations “a spirit of valor and honor and fortitude, and sometimes of generosity, that has not lost all its value” (p. 206).

Yet where is the gentleman today? He has been all but lost in the North, but I have discovered him in the South. Having spent many of my moments these past three months with fellows from the South, I have discovered a culture that has preserved many of the mores and values of the medieval knight. At a football game that our group recently attended, for example, one fellow, seeing one of the ladies shivering in the cold, having given her his jacket but seeing her cold nonetheless, also offered her his shirt. He would rather be at the game shivering than see any lady in even the least bit of discomfort. Another telling example is that of another fellow who, always depriving himself of every luxury, frequently cooks meals for the household to join him in community. For him, the joy of fellowship prevails over all other joy. Yet another fellow, suited up with a fresh-pressed shirt, will climb over to the back of the van in order to prevent the discomfort of any other fellow. The examples abound.

This is the southern gentility that we have all but lost in the North. It has affected every part of our lives. I was struck by the contrast between the victory speeches of the recently elected governor of New Jersey and the recently elected governor of Virginia. Both were the Republican candidates in heavily contested elections. The Virginian began his speech by thanking God for his “great Providence” and went on to unite the people for the common good. The New Jerseyan, stumbled through a speech stymied by the constant “boos” of a hostile audience every time he mentioned his opponent's name.

A recent news article of attempted robbery in Arkansas speaks further to my point. After two robbers took a victim’s wallet, they saw his ID and, realizing he served in the armed forces, returned his wallet to him and thanked him for his service. We thus see in the South a certain civility that we in the North have lost. Northern criminals have far less geniality.

The roots of southern gentility go far back. I recently heard of a story of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War. After it was apparent that he had lost the war and that the northern forces were headed down to this home, he abandoned his home but first instructed his slaves to remain so that the head of the Union’s army would stay at his home and be attended to with all hospitality. I am not aware of any northern generals that extended such hospitality to their opponents.

My prayer and hope for New Jersey is that we would recover that gentility that the South has preserved and that we would reclaim the humanity and dignity that has come so close to the verge of extinction.

1 comment:

  1. Great post John, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I would comment though, as I'm sure you would say, that the South by no means lays sole claim to gentility and hospitality. Perhaps our culture has preserved the vestiges of these virtues in certain customs and traditions and thus is the region of the country most properly characterized by them. For every shining example of chivalry we can raise, we might equally point to one, or several, racially prejudiced, misogynistic, backwards, and unaspiring southern male. This type of person can just as easily be identified throughout the country and not just the south, while it might be argued it would be equally difficult to find the gentleman as prevalent. I can agree with that. But we must be careful not to enshrine these gentlemanly ideals in every southern man, which I am certain you would never do. Until we can rightfully do so, I also raise my glass and prayers that the culture of family, country, God, that has been at least minimally preserved in the South can be reclaimed in every region of the United States.