Jewish World Review April 5, 2006 / 7 Nissan, 5766
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Greetings from the Holy City, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean, and pride cometh even after the fall.
The palmetto trees still line Broad Street, the old clocks still tick off the instant past, and the voices all around still have a certain lilt. It all makes for a soothing sound, much like that of the waves offshore, it not being hurricane season.
I'm honked at only once when I'm too slow crossing a downtown street, and am appropriately shocked. It comes as a relief and reassurance when I look back and see that the car has an out-of-state license plate. Florida, I think, which might as well be up North in certain unfortunate respects. My faith is restored.
Not that all is as it once was, but was it ever?
It is not the plain sense of things that matters in the South, but their resonance in time, the river we all swim in. We do so knowingly here in ornate old Charleston or gracious old Savannah, or in what's left of New Or-leens, Land of Dreams.
Or we can lose touch with the past in any mod, indistinctive metropolis you'd care to avoid. The best explanation I've ever heard for why the South fought the Civil War was so Atlanta wouldn't happen.
Charleston is no longer the Old South, though it can still play the role to beat the band when called on. The various New Souths have washed over it, each leaving its architectural fancies strewn about like so many shells on a beach — some glittering, others plain, many sideways, and others full frontal, designed to impress.
Whichever South you see in the next moment or around the next corner, Old or New or a combination of both, old Charleston is never a No South, one of those franchised cities that's nowhere in particular.
If you want to know what the city's been, or wishes it had been, just look around. Like history itself, architecture may say more about the present that creates it than the past it seeks to capture.
Of course the Greek Revival style rears up here and there, a residue of Charleston's golden age. John C. Calhoun, patron saint of nullification, interposition and eventually secession and devastation, still stands on his towering pedestal, safe from the hoots and missiles of the lower orders.
Naturally he was much enamored of anything Athenian, believing that only a slave society could afford its citizens the leisure to be truly free. Which is a perfectly understandable philosophy if you're looking at a society from the top down instead of the bottom up.
The late great Richard Hofstadter had John C. pegged: The Marx of the Master Class. Calhoun's whole political philosophy, elaborate as it was, could be summed up in a single phrase from George Orwell's "1984":
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.
The Greek Revival style, like the Colonial and Georgian styles before it, would give way in turn to the Victorian, before fashion came full circle with the Neo-Colonial and Neo-Classical vogues. They would all intermingle here, borrowing decorative touches from each other, and making today's old-new Charleston a kind of mix-and-match of Southern architectural tastes.
The houses of old Charleston may not represent the way we really were, but they certainly symbolize the way we wish we had been. Never underestimate the formative influence of the wish, the myth, the dream. Certainly not in these latitudes, where the Lost Cause may have molded the Southern consciousness far more than the actual one ever did.
You wouldn't think Southerners would need to have the Arab mentality explained to us. We of all people should instinctively understand the feelings of a defeated civilization left to simmer in anger and frustration at the victory of ever-encroaching modernity, and determined to subvert it.
Soon it is time for the pilgrimage across the harbor to Fort Sumter, where the whole tragic folly, aka The War, began. Americans would lose two countries in that great conflagration: The old South would disappear forever except in memory, which can prove stronger than death. And the old federal union of these several states would be gone, too, reborn as one nation indivisible.
The only thing that would remain the same would be the need for malice toward none and charity for all.
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