A Yankee Who Understood Southerners

“Dear me, what’s the good of being a Southerner?” asks one of the characters on the very first page of Henry James’ nineteenth-century novel The Bostonians. Though this question may not be the most important theme of James’ widely-hailed book, the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes of the South serve as a backdrop for the entire story. Indeed, James, a native New Yorker born in 1843, found the South both captivating and exasperating, inspiring and pitiable. Yet in at least a few respects, James was a Yankee who not only understood the Southern character but appreciated that perhaps there were one or two commendable things about Dixie.

The Mississippi-born Northern transplant Basil Ransom is one of three main characters in The Bostonians, which takes place approximately a decade after the end of the Civil War. Though Ransom comes from aristocratic stock, like many Southerners his inheritance was devastated by the war in which he fought as a Confederate officer. His plantation ruined and his fortunes depleted, Ransom tries to reinvent himself as a lawyer in New York City, with limited success.

James offers a deeply empathic portrayal of Ransom, both as an individual and as someone who represents a humbled, broken manifestation of American civilization. James writes:

He [Ransom] too had been much bereaved, and, moreover, that he had fought and offered his own life, even if it had not been taken…. He had lived to see bitter hours. His family was ruined; they had lost their slaves, their property, their friends and relations, their home; had tasted of all the cruelty of defeat.

Perhaps such sympathies came easier in a time when most everyone could name a family member or friend who had died in a war that claimed 2.5 percent of the American population. Indeed, Lincoln and Grant, among other Northern leaders, were eager to reconcile with their Southern brethren, rather than villainize and punish a people whose mortality rate during the conflict exceeded that of any country in World War I, and all but the region between the Rhine and the Volga in World War II, according to historian James MacPherson.

The novel also acknowledges that a Southerner’s love for his region is something difficult to explain to outsiders who, themselves often untethered to a particular place and culture, cannot appreciate this devotion to one’s ancestral patria. We are told:

He [Ransom] had a passionate tenderness for his own country, and a sense of intimate connection with it which would have made it as impossible for him to take a roomful of Northern fanatics into his confidence as to read aloud his mother’s or his mistress’s letters. To be quiet about the Southern land, not to touch her with vulgar hands, to leave her alone with her wounds and her memories, not prating in the market-place either of her troubles or her hopes, but waiting as a man should wait, for the slow process, the sensible beneficence, of time — this was the desire of Ransom’s heart.

This is something many of the contemporary criticisms of the South — leveled on the grounds of racism, bigotry, or antiquarian traditionalism — fail to understand. As I’ve argued elsewhere for Abbeville, good Southerners do not love the South for its hypocrisies and moral failures, but in spite of them, because it is theirs. Like other traditionalist societies, the South engages in a veneration of the dead and honoring of its cultural and intellectual inheritance, stemming largely from the same thinking as Chesterton’s comment about heedlessly taking down fences. My grandfathers, both buried in Virginia, were accomplished men with serious flaws I hope to avoid; that doesn’t mean I take their photos and mementos down and throw them into the garbage.

Ransom also has a deliciously playful Southern sense of humor. When one woman asks him if he is ever different, he replies, “Oh yes; when I dine out I usually carry a six-shooter and a bowie knife.” He frequently uses humility as a means of poking fun at the vanity of others. And he alone sees the irony of a Northern society that allows young, inexperienced, and hopelessly idealistic people to lecture older generations on such topics as moral progress or romantic love.

Though he detests the absurdities of feminism he witnesses in progressivist circles, “practically, at least, he admitted the rights of women.” What that means, at least in part, is a chivalrous sense of duty towards the opposite sex. James describes this as an “almost superstitious politeness to women,” as “it was in the nature of a gallant Mississippian to do everything a lady asked him.” This reaches comical levels when Ransom is prevented from listening to a lecture given by his love interest because another woman, who is herself romantically interested in him, refuses to depart his company. Ransom’s own sense of gentility prohibits him from leaving a woman’s presence at an event until she has left or another man replaces him.

The Southern lawyer “would be to the last a courteous Mississippian.” He expresses generous compliments of others that his Northern hosts find perplexing. Though he views his Yankee cousin Olive as acutely annoying, he never verbalizes his disapprobation, and reproves a friend who does. “Don’t say anything against my cousin,” he warns, demonstrating an irrevocable loyalty to kin. Even his idea of a good time, 150 years removed from our present day, is oddly familiar. His “conception of material comfort… consisted mainly of the vision of plenty of cigars and brandy and water and newspapers, and a cane bottomed arm-chair of the right inclination, from which he could stretch his legs.” Replace brandy with bourbon, and the newspaper with a good magazine or book, and James has pretty well described my favorite evenings.

For James, the character of Ransom represents the battle between North and South, progress and reaction, and reform and conservatism, as English scholar Richard Landsdown has observed. Ransom is a traditionalist to the point of absurd caricature. When he submits an article to a magazine for publication, the editor rejects it, claiming the Mississippian’s ideas “were about three hundred years behind the age; doubtless some magazine of the sixteenth century would have been very happy to print them.” Indeed, Ransom, like many Southern conservatives, looks askance at his own age, viewing it as “talkative, querulous, hysterical, maudlin, full of false ideas, of unhealthy germs, of extravagant, dissipated habits, for which a great reckoning was in store.” Was James describing Ransom or me?

The Bostonians also aptly portrays Southern conservatives as deeply suspicious of revolutionary reformist zeal. Ransom, for example, calls his own time “the age of unspeakable shams.” More playfully, the Southern is described as having his own “private vision of reform… the first principle of it was to reform the reformers.” Unfortunately, as many of us have come to realize, the best reform of the reformers often comes not from our attempts at rational dialogue with them, but when our progressivist opponents meet the inevitable obstacles of human nature, human sin, and human finitude. Sadly, it often takes a lifetime to learn such lessons.

The great conflict of James’s novel is between the Southern conservatism of Ransom and the Northern progressivism of his love interest, the feminist orator Verena Tarrant. Ransom rejects Tarrant’s feminist ideology (which in its rhetoric and ideological objectives is surprisingly similar to its contemporary descendent in the twenty-first century). Ransom finds Tarrant’s views not only risible but blinkered. He remarks at one point: “The suffering of women is the suffering of all humanity… Do you think any movement is going to stop that — or all the lectures from now to doomsday? We are born to suffer — and to bear it, like decent people.” In that one sentence, James, through Ransom, reminds us that men and women are by nature intended to be allies who complement, rather than compete with one another.

Despite these many and varied sympathetic portrayals of Southerners, the Northern writer James remained deeply ambivalent, and even critical of the former Confederacy. During a post-war trip that took him through Richmond and Savannah, he commented on the South’s “social peculiarities, the ruin wrought by the war, the dilapidated gentry… all the pathos and all the comedy of it.” He admits, while in Richmond, that he had staked much on his “theory of the latent poetry of the South,” a theory that in the Commonwealth resulted in disappointment. “Richmond, in a word, looked to me simply blank and void.” He admits that he had “attached some mystic virtue to the very name of Virginia.”

Perhaps James should have remembered he had visited a city recently devastated by an economically and demographically disastrous siege. Indeed, my parents, who attended college in Richmond in the 1970s, told me that the city at that time had still not fully recovered from the Civil War. I, for one, retain that feeling of “mystic virtue” towards my home, the Old Dominion.

James can actually be quite biting in his criticisms of Southern society. In his personal writings he calls “the other Southern idea” the “hugest fallacy,” and an “immense, grotesque defeated project.” His words for the antebellum South are even more severe, claiming that it suffered from “the very convulsions of its perversity… a world rearranged, a State solidly and comfortably seated and tucked-in, in the interest of slave-produced cotton.” He also derides the South for what he claims is its “general and permanent quarantine,” from the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths found in literature and science. Well then!

One must chuckle at such criticisms, given that in many respects Southern states are the ones now trying to preserve uncomfortable and inconvenient truths —  say, about the human person, human sexuality, and man’s need for a transcendent, objective telos. Thankfully even here James offers us, through his character Basil Ransom, the proper response to incessant attacks on dear old Dixie: “Given it up — the poor, dear, desolate old South? Heaven forbid!”

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