The Water In Which You Swim

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There’s always either a honeymoon or a period of shock. Many of them who’ve read Faulkner and loved the blues are starry-eyed when they get here and visit Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, or drive through the Delta. Others feel dismay at how different the little community, the town square, is from the large urban worlds they’ve lived in. There’s always a time of transition, which I think in Oxford is a fairly smooth one, because people are quite warm and the community is accessible.

Some years back a French woman was at the Faulkner Conference in Oxford, and we took her out in the countryside, where she saw all these crumbling houses and poor cabins straight out of Faulkner, and poor little villages with the firewood stacked up on the front porches of the post offices, and she exclaimed: “This decadence, I love this decadence . I wish I could bottle it and take it back to France.” Have you seen much of that?

There will always be a kind of two-way street we live on in the South: the Americanization of Dixie and the Southernizing of the nation.

Yes. I think people find what they want in the countryside. The South has a mythic quality because of the writers who shaped those myths, and certainly Faulkner is a great architect of all of that mythology, the world of Yoknapatawpha. The French, above all people, have a love affair with the South. They’re filmmakers, they’re writers, they’re photographers. They’re constantly visiting our Center. I worked as an associate producer with Bertrand Tavernier on his film Mississippi Blues , which he co-directed with Robert Parrish. Later the French government made me a chevalier of arts and letters because of that project.

Can I see your medal now, Professor?

I keep it under wraps.

William Styron wears his on his lapel. The Japanese, I’ve noticed in my time at Oxford, are profoundly drawn to what they see and absorb in the Deep South. Have you noticed that from the Japanese?

Yes, very much so.

Why the Japanese? How do they relate to all this?

I think one of the aspects about the South is its accessibility culturally, the fact that we are not dealing with large urban worlds. We have a rural world that’s family-related. It’s also a society that has known defeat and poverty and illiteracy. It’s a Third World culture in many ways, not the high-tech, progress-related cosmos that America projects in its public image. The Japanese, I think, are profoundly moved by the whole question of defeat and triumph over defeat. The associations with Faulkner for the Japanese are intensely real. We have a young woman recently arrived in Oxford who’s very much drawn to the blues. She came here to study the blues and visited an old black musician whose recordings she had admired in Japan. When she told him that she’d come from Japan and was in awe of his work, he began to play for her. She told me this. As he was playing, she saw tears coming down his cheeks; he was crying because he was so touched that someone would come from Japan to hear his music. She left a teaching career to come and take courses at our Center.

Why does there need to be a Center to study Southern culture?

For the same reason there needs to be a hearth in a house, a place that represents a kind of center of a home, where people can sit and talk and look at the embers as they share an intimate time and space. There’s never been such a place for the South. Ironically, the places where people spoke about the South earlier in this century were outside the region, places like Yale, where C. Vann Woodward, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren chronicled our region in such wonderful ways. The South needs and deserves to have a place where people can gather, a kind of think tank, a kind of research center, a kind of family reunion. And the Center offers all these dimensions. It’s not your traditional academic research center. It’s open to all manner of events, including discussions of civil rights, the Civil War, music, literature. The South’s culture has come of age, we’re at a point now where Southerners, black and white, old and young, men and women, can join together and concentrate on things they share. This increasingly is the role that our Center will have: a bridge among groups that have rarely come together. We see this as a process of healing the old wounds and making our culture healthier and stronger for the future.

How do you define the South in terms of the Center’s focus?

Well, we have defined the South in three ways: first, the geographic South, which we see as going from Baltimore, Maryland, to West Texas. Then there is the South outside the South, in that you have black Southerners from the Mississippi Delta who moved to Chicago, whites from Appalachia living in Cincinnati; you also have the expatriate Southern community, which you chronicled in North Toward Home . You have Richard Wright in Paris, Tennessee Williams in New York, and Willie Morris, formerly in New York— a kind of diaspora of Southern cultures, and artistic communities. The third definition is the global world of the mythic South, which has touched people everywhere, from “Roots” to Gone with the Wind , the blues, rock ’n’ roll, Faulkner, Styron, Welty. These are realities of the imagination.