The Meaning of Name and Place

Southern Homestead

An address delivered on August 10, 1950, before the annual reunion of the Weaver family.

Everybody admits, I believe, that the most difficult people of all for a man to convince are the members of his own family. And since I am here before a very complete gathering of my family, I look upon my case as a trifle hard, and shan’t be surprised if I don’t convince anyone of anything.

In thinking over subjects on which I might be qualified to speak, it occurred to me to look at Weaverville and the Weaver community through a perspective of Chicago. I have been condemned for the past six years to earn my living in that most brutal of cities, a place where all the vices of urban and industrial society break forth in a kind of evil flower. I sometimes think of the University to which I am attached as a missionary outpost in darkest Chicago. There we labor as we can to convert the heathen, without much reward of success. But of course we learn many things about what is happening to this country.

Anyone who removes to such a place from an old-fashioned society like ours, with its roots in the past and with its well-understood relationships, becomes conscious first of all of the absence of community. He is made aware that people existing together in one geographical spot do not necessarily comprise a community. There in Chicago we have a politically defined area, we have local laws and institutions, but that which makes true community, namely association on some non-material level and common attachment to some non-material ends, is lacking. One encounters the curious fact that the more closely people are crowded together, the less they know about one another, and the less they care about one another. And I think the man transplanted to such a place can sum up his perception of the people around him under two heads.

(1) Theirs is a condition in which nobody knows who he is. Oh, of course one knows that he bears a name, which he got from his parents, but he does not know what went into the making of it. It does not stand for any particular thing. A name there is an index rather than a characterization. Names are spelled out rather than weighed. I am not here speaking of names that rest on empty genealogical pretense—the silliness of a coat of arms. Names can gather weight in even the humblest communities; they can become names for industry, for loyalty, for kinds of expertness, or for simple truthfulness. But in the overgrown and falsely glamorized city of which I speak, all the forces are against the establishment of names in this way. Instead, the very conditions of existence combine to make one anonymous. It has been said that the masses of a great city are people without faces. But they do have faces, and often you can see the marks of frustration on them. It would be more revealing to say that they are people without names. They come to be like mass-produced parts, polished, machined, and what is worst of all to say—interchangeable.

(2) Nobody knows where he is from. Oh, in a sort of objective way he knows that he had a birthplace and that he went to a certain school. But as for the more important feeling of being formed and sustained by a traditional background—this he does not have. Sometimes he tries to make this a point of pride, because the big city is on the whole the professed enemy of the local and the provincial. Usually the feud between city slicker and country fellow is presented on the level of comedy. It would be more appropriate to present it on the level of tragedy, because it conceals a deep opposition of philosophies of life. What the big city fails to see, or willfully ignores, is that provincialism is one of the chief supports of character. To be of a place, to reflect it in your speech and action and general bearing, to offer it as a kind of warranty that you will remain true to yourself— this is what it means to have character and personality. And without these things there is no individuality.

It is often observed by students of art that all the great arts of the world have been provincial. There is no such thing as an international art. It is highly doubtful that there can be such a thing as a national art. It is the province which gives to an art its particular vision of the world, or imparts to its interpretation a meaningful character. Therefore, the slickness, the anonymity, the impersonality of the great cities, which are so much sought after today, especially it would seem by the young people, are a fool’s gold. These are rea-sons for saying that it is a good thing to have roots in a province or a locality and to express something of it in one’s being. It is good to have a local habitation and a name.

I would not ascribe the fault entirely to the inhabitants of metropolis. Many of them are victims, who have never had a chance to understand what it means to be a member of a community. Often they exhibit hunger for the sort of thing community can give and make pathetic gestures in its direction. But there is no denying the tendency toward atomization of our society as long as the purely urban ideal is allowed to dominate. That is a fact which keeps the sociologists worried and keeps the philosophers pessimistic.

Now, for the first time in generations, the future of the great cities is somber. There are responsible thinkers who fear that either they are going to blow themselves up or be blown up. And I must say that I sometimes get the feeling that the big city is itself an explosive. It is only waiting the right combination to set if off. Like explosives, their leading characteristic is a high degree of instability. And that is why we hear of their more lucky citizens fleeing to cabins in the Ozarks, to New England farms, and to quiet places in our own South.

The South, as we well know, has been made up from the beginning of what I am describing as communities. Our pattern has been that of the local neighborhood, the village or perhaps county, in which men have relationships other than that of cash exchange. For this we have been subjected to a lot of ignorant ridicule. We are the country cousins of the American family. We are behind the times; we are not sufficiently sold on progress; we are even suspected of disloyalty to the American way—as that way is pictured by advertisers and exploiters. Our capacity to resist the things that emanate from New York and Chicago has been enormous. Sometimes I think the South is best described by paraphrasing a witty French phrase: “The more it changes, the more it remains the same.”

Many years ago a few men were found to prophesy that the South was destined to be the great flywheel of American society. In the science of machinery, this is defined as a heavy wheel, rotating at a uniform speed, whose function is to stabilize the motion of the whole machine. If the machine speeds up too much, the flywheel holds it back; if it slows down too much, the flywheel speeds it up. The South, with its massive weight of tradition, with its pace regularized by a steady contact with nature, seems to perform that essential function. Our role has been, and I think will continue to be, that of the indispensable conservative counterpoise. We have nothing of the hysteria of the great cities. We have long memories, and it is against our instinct to build for a day. Of course this is vexing to a lot of people. There is a school of opinion in this country which considers the South a problem child. But this problem child may yet prove to be the savior of the household.

This, from such vantage point as Chicago gives, is where I see our place in the American scene. We are provincials. We have our names on the land. These are great assets. But in the midst of self-congratulation it is well to recall responsibility too. It seems to me there are two vices which we cannot in the least afford; we cannot afford presumption and we cannot afford complacency. After all, the battle we are in—I mean in general the battle against the dehumanization of life—has been a losing one for more than a hundred years. Thus far we see only signs of change. But as society begins to look back, to ascertain the real sources of its strength, it is not presumptuous to say that we shall have to be recognized.

This piece was originally published in Volume 1, Number 3-4 (1981) of Southern Partisan magazine.

You might also enjoy these articles...