I originally wanted to include both these passages but cut it down because it would have made for too long of a post. But this is simply too good to leave out. I’ll pick it up right where I left off the last one, minus one paragraph:
Good men nowadays question what form of government is best and search like Plato for a formula, following which this benighted race of ours may automatically perfect itself. The Delta sages of my youth knew there was no such formula. Being convinced no system of government was good without good men to operate it, they considered it their bounden duty, their prime obligation as members of society, to find such men and elect them to office. Concerning democracy they had no illusions, their fears for it were prophetic; they esteemed it a poor makeshift, but the best devised by man for keeping the peace and at the same time permitting personal liberty. Their point of view, their sense of duty, their relentless striving, while certainly not appreciated or understood by me in my childhood, seeped into me, colored my outlook, prescribed for me loyalties and responsibilities that I may not disclaim – no, not though the sirens call and the flutes sound over the hill. Nor in this respect was my training unusual in the South for my generation. Anybody who was anybody must feel noblesse oblige, must concern himself with good government, must fight, however feebly or ineffectually or hopelessly, for the public weal. One of the first things I did after returning home from law school was to stump off to a mass meeting with Mr. Everman at which we read aloud bitter denunciations of a crime of violence. He thought that was the thing a man had to do, even if we were shot for it, as he believed we would be. And so did I. (When I started publishing verse Mr. Everman simply ignored it.)
During my day I have witnessed a disintegration of that moral cohesion of the South which had given it its strength and its sons their singleness of purpose and simplicity. Today there is fretting and fuming on the part of young people over what they should do, how they should act, what is worth while. Standards are in flux: there is no commonly accepted good way of life – and the hospitals can’t hold the neurotics, the mental cripples, the moral anemics, the blasted who strove to build a pattern because none existed.
Epstein with his heads neurotic, restless, ugly, is the appropriate portraitist of this generation, but Cap Mac and Father and General Catchings would have been at home on the west portal of Chartres with those strong ancients, severe and formidable and full of grace, who guard the holy entrance.
What was the pattern that gave them strength and direction, that kept them oriented, that permitted them to be at once Puritans and Cavaliers? To recapture the recipe might give sustenance to the undernourished of these times, but I suspect, lacking pepper and tabasco, it would be unpalatable to my contemporaries.
Sipping the dregs of a julep among the patriarchs of Chartres with the Queen of Sheba in her summer dress shedding immortal grace – in what better way could a little boy learn that the austerities of living are not incompatible with the courtesy and sweetness of life? I never heard them over their juleps express a philosophy of life, and if I had it would have been incomprehensible to me, but a philosophy was implicit in all their thoughts and actions. It probably made the Southern pattern. Perhaps it is all contained in a remark of Father’s when he was thinking aloud one night and I sat at his feet eavesdropping eagerly:
“I guess a man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able – always remembering the results will be infinitesimal – and to attend to his own soul.”
I’ve found in those words directions enough for any life. Maybe they contain the simple steady wisdom of the South.