As background for an essay I’m currently writing about southern politics, I had reason to dip into William Alexander Percy’s (Walker Percy’s uncle) classic 1941 memoir, Lanterns on the Levee. It is one of the great books about the post Civil War South, and it confounds just about every dominant narrative about the South then and now. This passage reads with special poignancy and irony today:
You will find in any Southern town a statue in memory of the Confederate dead, erected by the Daughters of something or other, and made, the townsfolk will respectfully tell you, in Italy. It is always the same: a sort of shaft or truncated obelisk, after the manner of the Washington Monument, on top of which stands a little man with a big hat holding a gun. If you are a Southerner you will not feel inclined to laugh at these efforts, so lacking in either beauty or character, to preserve the memory of their gallant and ill-advised forebears. I think the dash, endurance, and devotion of the Confederate soldier have not been greatly exaggerated in song and story: they do not deserve these chromos in stone. Sentiment driveling into sentimentality, poverty, and, I fear, lack of taste are responsible for them, but they are the only monuments which are dreadful from the point of view of aesthetics, craftsmanship, and conception that escape being ridiculous. They are too pathetic for that. Perhaps a thousand years from now the spade of some archeologist will find only these as relic of and clues to the vanished civilization we call ours. How tragically and comically erroneous his deductions will be!
Only it didn’t take a thousand years for our cultural “archeologists” to light upon these statues and be tragically and comically wrong about everything.
UPDATE: As I feared, reading comprehension among many of the commenters on this post is seriously deficient, or perhaps it’s just ignorance. Percy is one of the most celebrated figures of southern agrarian conservatives. Lots of you seem not to have been arrested, as a careful reader would, by the central sentence of this excerpt: “I think the dash, endurance, and devotion of the Confederate soldier have not been greatly exaggerated in song and story. . .” And thus too many commentators here have the meaning of Percy’s comment exactly backwards. Roger Scruton would have got it. I suppose it would be too much to suggest people read the whole of Percy’s famous book before making hasty judgments.