- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Sonnenreise . I would, at twenty three, willingly have settled for life in that corner of the Gulf Coast, but we were bidden onward to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi Valley: oily meanders a mile wide between levees, long, ditched tracts of cultivation leading to the flat horizon, causeways over standing water. Somewhere hereabouts, where AfricanAmericans were then a majority, we had our first encounters with black America. We gave a lift to two young black men, eavesdropped in a country store on a courteous conversation about cotton between a white farmer and his grave, elderly black tenant, conspired with a respectable black salesman at a gas station over use of the lavatory—“I’ll wait until you white folks have gone on.” Unimaginable today the apartheid of American life only forty years ago. A little farther on we encountered the issue of apartheid in tangible form. The governor of Arkansas had called out the National Guard to keep nine black students from entering the Central High School in the state capital, Little Rock. There had been riots. There was the threat of more trouble. On an impulse, we crossed the Mississippi and the vast rice fields that lay beyond and drew up outside the school, an unpleasing concrete monolith. There was not a bayonet in sight, not even a state trooper. We ventured into Little Rock’s black quarter. I would like to record that we were hissed in the streets. On the contrary, I recall sensing a certain surprise on the part of the inhabitants at the sight of two young white men in seersucker suits tramping about between shop signs advertising palm reading and hair straightening but otherwise only friendliness, greeting, and concern that we had lost our way. There was trouble again later, which would eventually prompt the Supreme Court judgment ruling school segregation unlawful but not a hint of it in the Little Rock we saw. What a quiet revolution America’s revolution in race relations was to prove; when I next visited the country in 1977, twenty years after Little Rock, it was as if to an India that had abolished caste.
Somewhere beyond Little Rock, Maurice and I parted. He was shortly due back in England. We had done much else that I have not recorded. We had visited the Tennessee Valley Authority, that Rooseveltian experiment in the public ownership of natural resources that liberal America then foresaw—visitors from England watching the mismanagement of the national economy by civil servants could have warned otherwise—as the way of the future. We had taken a long hike in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains, conceived some sense of the vastness of the American forest, without parallel in Europe west of the Russian border, a brooding presence at the verge of settled land. We had visited black public housing and grand white-fenced horse farms where owners and trainers made pets of their lithe black stable lads.
The South retains for Europeans a trace of cultural familiarity. Pain is a dimension of old civilizations. The South has it. The rest of America does not.
We had seen a great deal of the Old South, the elegant summer retreats of Natchez, the New Orleans French Quarter, preserved plantations approached through hanging avenues of Spanish moss, sanitized slave cabins, most of the battlefields—the ostensible purpose of our great journey—of the Civil War. We had also seen much of the New South: smoking oil refineries at the Mississippi mouth, a vast new automated glass factory somewhere in Arkansas where the handful of workers wore Hawaiian shirts and seemed possessed by holiday mood, courts of justice, city halls, public hospitals, the beginnings of what I suspect must have been one of the first interstates. New it may have been by contrast with the antebellum world of plantations and horseflesh; it struck me then, as the memory still does strike by comparison with the South I know today, as an unchanging and almost empty land, short of people, settlement, and traffic. I remember hours of scrub pine landscape on roads untraveled by another car, advertisements for Burma Shave or pecan pie in towns miles ahead through which we had passed before realizing they were intended stopping places, poor little farms, pretentious placenames, tired soil, weary people, dull, hot skies, interminable, featureless distance. Oddly, I came to like the South and still like it more than any other part of the United States. It retains for Europeans a trace of cultural familiarity, as the rest of the country does not. Sonnenreise . I have often tried to analyze why I should have a sense, however slight, of being at home in Dixie. Class system, yes; history, yes; but more important, I suspect, the lingering aftermath of defeat. Europe is a continent of defeated nations; even Britain, the offshore survivor, has had occasion to lick its wounds. Victorious America has never known the tread of occupation, the return of beaten men. The South is the exception. Its warrior spirit, which supplies the armed forces with a disproportionate flow of recruits, is a denial of the decision of 1865. The famous femininity of its women—not a myth, not to European men at least, who find them feminine as other American women are not—is a quality that comes from grandmothers who found a strength their men had lost, learned to comfort, helped to forget, never, never said the unsayable thing. Pain is a dimension of old civilizations. The South has it. The rest of the United States does not.