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Other writers can be listed: Thomas Nelson Page, Augusta Evan Wilson, George Cary Eggleston, Mary Johnston. Evetts Haley’s “Plutarchian biographies”) recall a lost way of life with nostalgia.But more than that, they offer a model they believe to be superior in most respects to the present.
And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the “progress” it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellecturally, culturally, as the Sahara Desert…The picture gives one the creeps… A self-respecting European, going there to live, would not only find intellectual stimulation utterly lacking; he would actually feel a certain insecurity, as if the scene were the Balkans or the China Coast….[It is] senile [and] crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious…a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.
In the North, of course, there is also grossness, crossness, vulgarity.
The “Sahara of the Bozart” opens with lines that are easily among the most famous written about the South in this century: “Alas, for the South!
Her hooks have grown fewer— She never was much given to literature.” In the lamented J.
His peculiar qualities have a high social value, and are esteemed. And furthermore, this superiority at the top is ever-so faintly reflected in the conduct of the lesser multitudes in their manners, their “civility.” And in their worst aspects the ignorant masses of the South are seen as suffering corruption from an alien influence: The tone of public opinion is set by an upstart class but lately emerged from industrial slavery into commercial enterprise—the class of “hustling” business men, of “live wires,” of commercial club luminaries, of “drive” managers, of forward-lookers and right-thinkers—in brief of third-rate Southerners inoculated with all the worst traits of the Yankee sharper. The philistinism of the new type of town-boomer Southerner is not only indifferent to the ideals of the Old South; it is positively antagonistic to them…It is inconceivably hollow and obnoxious.
One observes the curious effects of an old tradition of truculence upon a population now merely pushful and impudent, of an old tradition of chivalry upon a population now quite without imagination. What remains of the ancient tradition is simply a certain charming civility in private intercourse—often broken down, alas, by the hot rages of intolerance, but still generally visible.One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal reaches of the now mythical ether.Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles.In fact, this desolate picture, however accurate it may or may not have been, is much the same view as that of the post-bellum Southern plantation romancers.Using his own irreverent style, Mencken argues, in effect, that the 20th century South remains a frontier for Northern conquest and reconstruction.Gordon Coogler, author of these elegiac lines, there was the insight of a true poet.He was the last bard of Dixie, at least in the legitimate line.“The Sahara of the Bozart” is a bit more complex than that.It is not really a slur at all, at least not a malicious one, and Mencken does not limit his attention to the shortcomings of the South.Indeed, his famous essay is more properly regarded as an endorsement of the Old South and an introduction to the high chivalric tradition in Southern letters.He spoke bitterly of the barreness of the New South because (as incredible as it may seem at first glance) Mencken was really a defender of the Faith, an apologist for the old order and a crusader for moonlight and magnolias.