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A Place To Come To

Posted: Sep 04, 2008

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The End of Placeness,” columnist Peggy Noonan laments what she sees as an absence of “placeness” in the Presidential candidates. She writes “I miss the old geographical vividness.” Noonan hastens to add that a lack of placeness could be a good thing in some cases but “Why does it feel like a leveling? Like a squashing and squeezing down of the particular, local and authentic.”

Is the American South one of the last bastions of place in this rapidly changing world? LBJ was undeniably from Texas, Carter from Georgia, Clinton from Arkansas. Their sense of place clung to them like a garment they could not (and maybe would not) shed. Southern novels are rich in the sense of place. Reams of scholarly treatises attest to the significance and value of place in southern literature.

In 1977 Robert Penn Warren published his tenth and final novel, a quasi-autobiographical bildungsroman of a young man named Jedediah Tewksbury, born in the fictional town of Dugton, Alabama (Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky), who leaves the south to become a successful professor of literature only to find that he can never truly know who he is unless he comes to terms with where he came from. InA Place to Come To, the protagonist spends a lifetime trying to obliterate his humble past only to discover in his sixties that he must return to the place he has been running from.

I can relate. For many years I strove to purge my speech of any trace of southern accent hoping that the people I met would perceive me as a citizen of the world, not as a girl from Alabama. I avoided mentioning my home town in the classes I taught or when I traveled. I wanted to be from some place exotic and glamorous, certainly not Athens, Alabama. Like Robert Penn Warren’s character, I consciously cultivated a worldly sophistication that I imagined would disguise my origins in the rural south. Like Quentin Compson in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, I both loved and hated the south.

During my recent trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, I was pleased to hear myself saying with pride that I was from Alabama. I was happy to be able to reinvent the popular image of Alabama and portray at least a substantial segment of its populace as highly educated, urbane, informed, and progressive. I felt strongly the ties of place and the tug of roots. I remembered that Thomas Jefferson saw himself first and foremost as a Virginian.

As our culture becomes more and more mobile, as people change jobs as often as they change cars, as fewer and fewer persons live anywhere near the place where they were born, we will, I sincerely hope, become more understanding of our differences, more tolerant, more flexible, more accepting. I hope that the intense ethnocentrism, bigotry, and even xenophobia that embarrassed me about the south when I was young will be transformed. However, as we move toward globalization what will be left behind? Will we lose all that makes us unique and particular?

Noonan observes in her WSJ article that “the lack of placeness in the candidates contributes to a sense of disjointedness, their floatingness.” They do not seem to belong anywhere. Nothing from their place of origin clings to them. She recalls an incident to illustrate her point: “I was at a gathering a few weeks ago for an aged Southern sage….Most people there were from the South, different ages and different generations but Southerner—the men grounded and courteous in a certain way, the women sleeveless and sexy in a certain way…Even as an outsider you knew them. They were Mississippi Delta people…and the sense of placeness they brought into the room with them was sweet to me.”

Last night as I listened to the merry voices of my dinner guests and luxuriated in the melodic cadences of their rich south Louisiana accent, I knew the answer to the question that newscasters have been posing again and again to the residents of New Orleans and surrounding areas: “Why on earth do you live here?” I knew that, as one man responded, “it’s in the blood.”

(Photos of Alabama from top to bottom--Desoto Falls, Statue of Confederate Soldier in Fort PayneGovernor's Mansion in Montgomery, Sunset at Gulf Shores)

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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