Southern Individuality.

from a series of sketches by J. W. De Forest: "Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons."

            Whether chivalrous or semi-chivalrous, the Southerner has more individuality of character than the Northerner, and is one of the most interesting, or, at all events, one of the most amusing, personages on this continent, if not in the world. He has salient virtues, vices, and oddities; he has that rich, practical humor which is totally unconscious of being humoristic; he in the gravest manner decorates his life with ludicrous and romantic adventures; in short, he is a prize for the anecdotist and novelist. Dixie has thousands of high-toned gentlemen who suppose themselves to be patterns of solemn and staid propriety, but who would be fit to associate with the Caxtons and Doctor Riccabocca. In that land of romance you will find Uncle Toby and Squire Western and Sir Pitt Crawley and Colonel Newcome and Mr. and Pickwick and Le Chourineur, all moving in the best society and quite sure that they are Admirable Crichtons.

            In what other part of the civilized earth would a leading statesman write a ponderous political work in dialogue, after the fashion of the essays of Plato and Cicero? Such a gusto of classical imitation might possibly be found in a Harvard Sophomore; but at the South we discover it in an ex-United States Congressman and ex-Vice-President of the Confederacy. Alexander H. Stephens is as redolent of Greeks and Romans, as verdant with lore, as Keitt or Pryor.

            Where else could you meet such a curious incarnation of the apostolic character as ______ ______, a planter by profession and habitude, but a preacher by mission? He was a passionate religionist; if he met you in the street he buttonholed you and vented upon you his dogmas; chance passers-by were beckoned to until he had a circle; you listened because you dared not run away. One Sunday, exhorting in a little cross-roads church, and having been annoyed by two negroes stealing out of the house, be came to a solemn pause in his service, and then spoke as follows: “Next Lord’s day shall hold worship in this same place. I shall bring my double-barreled gun; I shall stand that gun, brethren, in the pulpit, alongside of me; and, if any man gets up and goes out while I am preaching, by I’ll shoot him.”

            A half-fuddled planter called on me one evening and invited me out to a treat of stewed oysters. The restaurant was the back-room of a bakery; we sat on broken chairs, among sticky pans, spilled flour, and loaves of dough; the oyster-cans were opened with an old bowie-knife. When the stews were before us my friend observed: “Come, don’t let’s eat this like savages. Major, can’t you ask a blessing?“ As I declined, he pulled his broad- brimmed felt from his muddled cranium and said grace himself.

            I knew a worthy old South Carolinian, bearing a name of Revolutionary notoriety, who would not invest his money at high profits, holding that “six per cent., my dear Sir, is the interest of a gentleman.”

            I knew another worthy old person who raised a set of white and a set of black children, treated both with generosity and affection, maintained an excellent character in his church, and died in the odor of public esteem.

            I knew a planter who, having said in a drunken spree that he would sell his plantation for twenty thousand dollars, would not revoke his words when sober, although it was worth thirty thousand.

            I knew of another planter who beat his beautiful wife as long as he lived, and at his death willed her a considerable property, on condition that she should never quit the State, he knowing that her chiefest desire was to remove to the North.

            I knew Southerners who taught their slaves to read in spite of severe prohibitory laws, who labored for their growth in morality and piety as missionaries labor for the conversion of the heathen.

            I knew of a Louisiana lady who flogged a negro woman with her own hands until the sufferer’s back was a vast sore of bruised and bloody flesh.  

            Audacity, vehemence, recklessness, passion, sentiment, prejudice, vanity, whimwhams, absurdities, culture, ignorance, courtliness, barbarism! The individual has plenty of elbow-room at the South; he kicks out of the traces with a freedom unknown to our steady-pulling society; he is a bull in Mrs. Grundy’s china- shop. Strangest of all, he believes that he is like the rest of the world, or, more accurately, that the rest of the world should be like him.

De Forest, J. W., “Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 38, Issue 225, February 1869; New York: Harper & Bros.

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