Living Outside HistoryPrint
By Noel Polk
My title is a perhaps too clever play on the title of my book about the town where I grew up, Picayune, Mississippi, just north of New Orleans. Outside the Southern Myth, is a meditation on lots of things connected with my growing up Southern in a geographical sense but not really in a historical or ideological or romanticized sense. That is, Picayune was not, is not, Southern in the same way that Natchez, Columbus, Oxford, Selma, Birmingham, Jackson, and the Mississippi Delta are.
In fact, history never seemed of much interest to Picayune. The one antebellum house in the region is privately owned and operated, and since hardly anybody comes to Picayune except to visit somebody who lives there, it still hasn’t been turned into a bed-and-breakfast inn. Grady Thigpen, one of Picayune’s half-dozen real patriarchs, did a yeoman’s and commendable job of interviewing the older folks in the Picayune area and of recording those interviews in a series of books he published himself, to record the old times, especially beginning in the late 1950s when the most impossible of rumors exploded throughout the region—that NASA would move in and take us into outer space—and that in order to get us there it would have to destroy much of the area’s early history a little further South along the Pearl River at places named Gainesville, Pearlington, Logtown, and Turtleskin. There was some muttering among a few naysayers and discontents, but most of us were proud to be on the solar map, and a few cemeteries and old houses were a small price to pay to finally belong to the universe—especially since the history to be lost was somebody else’s, not ours. But Thigpen’s books are histories only in the sense that they record what people claimed to remember about the past; and they are generic history, describing almost nothing that is peculiar to Mississippi or to the South: most of what happened there could have happened anywhere with similar geography.
It is as if Picayune had succeeded in hiding from the rest of Mississippi and the South, swaddled as we were in the tall gorgeous pines of the miles-wide strip called the Piney Woods that runs just north of the Gulf Coast across the Gulf Coast states. We seem to have done everything we possibly could to avoid calling attention to ourselves. Even the name Picayune—surely the oddest, most bizarre name ever claimed by a town—actually proclaimed our kinship with the smallest, the least valuable, the least inspiring, identified us with small-mindedness and pettiness. It didn’t attach us either to the glories of the past or to the aspirations of the future, but rather stuck us in the current moment; like the daily newspaper a picayune might buy, life went on by the day, each day different, each day the same. The name was apparently given to us by Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson, the woman editor of the New Orleans newspaper by that name, who built and lived in our antebellum house in order to escape the noise and clutter of New Orleans.
So: I grew up outside the Southern myth—that portion of Southern history, that part of the public image of the South, that belongs to Natchez, Vicksburg, and Oxford, and that attaches itself to all the rest of us, no matter where we are from. There were no Civil War battles in the area, so we had no statues of Civil War heroes adorning the courthouse square: we had no courthouse square, for that matter, no magisterial courthouse or antebellum mansions to show to visitors and tell dramatic and quaint stories about. I never to my knowledge talked to a Civil War veteran or to anybody who knew one, and I never heard tales about “The War” from uncles and aunts. I did not grow up imbibing from my mother’s milk or from any ancestors an overwhelming sense of myself as a Southerner. I did not grow up surrounded by natural-born storytellers, and we did not sit around the veranda of an afternoon sipping toddies or moonshine, telling and retelling enthralling legends of crazy aunts and other local eccentrics. When I studied Mississippi and Southern history in high school I might as well have been studying the history of Afghanistan; and I still cannot keep the names of Confederate and Union generals straight.
We had to take history, of course: the curriculum at Picayune High School, we believed, had been designed so that the one teacher everybody had to take before graduating was the history teacher, Mrs. Richardson. The one fact that I permanently gleaned from her classes came one morning in 1959, when she came smirking into class brandishing a newspaper and announced that the last Civil War veteran had just died, a Mississippian, from just up highway 11 in Poplarville. “You know what this means, don’t you?” she said, with the only twinkle I ever saw in her very serious eyes. We didn’t. “It means the South has finally won the Civil War!” She announced this as something momentous, but we either hadn’t gotten to the Civil War yet or, more likely, I was not paying attention during Pickett’s Charge or Vicksburg or Jackson or Appomattox. So I was more mystified than elated at the news that we had won! Won what? I wondered. What war? What the hell is she talking about? I knew about World War II because my father had fought in it and about Korea because I had seen it on television. But Shiloh and Vicksburg were foreign countries to me, part of a time and place I had not inherited and knew nothing about.
To learn that we had just won a war I didn’t even know we had fought, much less were still fighting, lodged me firmly in a historical gap that seemed to shut me off from a past that everybody seemed to have but us Picayunites. In Picayune I was outside of history, but the minute I stepped outside of Picayune, it began to lean in on me, undertaking a relentless pursuit to situate me outside of Picayune: bearing down ferociously while I ran, still thinking of history as a series of facts and dates, not as a condition to be inherited. As an undergraduate just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, I read the racist monologues of the two Jackson papers, both owned by the same hard-line Mississippi family. At an Ole Miss-Kentucky football game I heard racist governor Ross Barnett incite Mississippians to mob rule and then listened to the carnage at Ole Miss on radio stations that played “Dixie” instead of rock & roll and commercials; and I read and watched as the freedom riders and marchers and demonstrators made their way through the South; listened and read and shuddered as the names Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner emblazoned themselves across this land of the free and home of the brave. I did have the grace to be embarrassed, humiliated even, when one of the murderers of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, Lawrence Rainey and his tobacco-stuffed face leered at the nation in Life Magazine’s famous photo of him sitting in the courtroom with his cronies. And at Mississippi College I met and got to know one of the sweetest girls I ever knew: she became a kindergarten teacher and was killed in the summer of 1968 in a shootout with the FBI as she and her lover were transporting in the trunk of their car a bomb they were going to use to blow up a synagogue in Meridian. The Jackson papers extolled her virtues and praised Mississippi College for making such fine young people possible. All this without hearing a shot myself, without seeing a Klan cross-burning, without witnessing a lynching, and almost without witnessing so much as a single act of discourtesy of any kind between the races. Running still, my head turned back to see how close it was, but still refusing to let it catch me, even as the bodies continued to pile up over a century after Appomattox.
Not my war, not my history, not a history that positioned me in time and space, since I was not Natchez or the Delta but merely small, 20th-century middle-class, historyless Picayune. In graduate school at South Carolina in the late ’60s, it got close but still I outran it. There I was advised that in fact the North had won the war and that everybody in South Carolina was still mightily pissed off about it. I was astonished to meet 80-year-olds who were still mad as hell at Sherman in particular for burning Atlanta and in particular particular for burning Columbia, the houses where their parents and grandparents had lived; they took the burnings very personally—which, as I once perhaps untactfully suggested to one of them, was exactly what Sherman had intended, wasn’t it? I met professors and graduate students who knew details of Civil War battles that I had only recently read about in Faulkner and who boasted of their own ancestors’ heroism at Petersburg, Cold Harbor, Antietam, Shiloh, and Chickamauga, and I kept quiet when they all assumed that because I was a Mississippian I had similar stories about my own family, which I for some reason did not want to share. I met many, and read the scholarship of others, who were still promoting the delusion that that damned war destroyed the last ordered society civilization has known—without, of course, considering on whose black backs, by whose black sweat, that order, had been built. Order? I thought even then, history’s salient having moved into the backwaters of my consciousness: for whom? Even in my obtuseness, I was beginning to understand that war was on the one hand a great Black Hole into which drained so much of the 20th century I encountered when I left Picayune and threatened to suck me in along with everything else; and on the other hand a kind of challenge since–because I liked reading and writing about Faulkner–I seemed inevitably and understandably taken to be in Southern Studies, where folks would expect me to know all there was to know about The Wilderness and Lookout Mountain. But it was still not my history, not yet, and thanking God, for that war was indeed a hard war to love. You have to work hard to love any war, I’d say, harder still to love one you had lost: not yet knowing that the losing was the cross upon which Southerners happily martyred ourselves. I heard reports of the reenactments of Civil War battles and wondered about that cross: did these reenactors believe they were finally going to win, to justify their rearguard martyrdom, or was it merely a mocking of war’s pity and fear, a continuing postponement of catharsis and its release?
Not my history, not my war even yet, when back in Mississippi for good some 30 years ago, I took visitors to Natchez and listened as the tour guides told us all about the beauty of the antebellum mansions but said not one word about the slave sweat that made them possible; watched continuing battles in the newspapers and the legislature, often joining them myself, over the replication of the Confederate flag in the Mississippi state flag until finally our legislature heroically decided to turn the choice of state flag over to the Mississippi voters who of course voted to keep the flag as it was, flying Confederately and smugly over the capitol and all state institutions. The evidence, mounting, came to point that it was undeniably my history, after all, when Governor Kirk Fordice, decked out in a wide gray tie on which Rebel soldiers hoisted the confederate flag high, called a press conference to announce that there would be no more set-asides for minority contractors. And my history, finally, when during my first fall at Mississippi State University the board of supervisors of Chickasaw County, just up the road from Starkville, decided that Houston, Mississippi, needed and must have a Confederate monument; decided this right about the same time the state was finally arresting and trying to bring to trial Preacher Killens in Philadelphia, for his alleged part in the 1964 slayings of the three civil Rights workers: Coincidence? I report; you decide.
My war, finally, then, certainly: it of course always had been, it and all its afterglow, and I never feel that it is mine more bitterly, and bemusedly too, than when I travel and meet people who type me because I am a Mississippian. I’m bemused because I know better; bitter because I know our accusers have so often had ample reason to think of all Mississippians that way, given how often we shoot ourselves in our social and cultural and political feet; and over the years when candidates for jobs came to my campus for interviews and were still surprised that we had sidewalks and McDonald’s and Porsches and BMWs, and reported, with some shock, how many of their friends and family had questioned their intelligence, not to say sanity, by presuming to seek employment in savage, redneck, racist Mississippi. It was my war, my history, most galling of all in my recognition that I was going to be tarred with it no matter what I said or did or was or tried to be: I was redneck, racist, ignoramus.
In Picayune, history was something that happened somewhere else, in another country, countries as far away as Vicksburg and Oxford—and I don’t mean miles. If anything, Picayune’s eyes seemed always on the future: we mushroomed around the lumber industry and the railroad that came through carrying folks back and forth between New Orleans and Chicago; we rejoiced when the interstate came through and didn’t worry too much over the possibility that a great influx of New Orleanians might make of Picayune a bedroom community and so change its demographics and its bland social life, though of course some perennial grousers expressed considerable concern over the possibility that some of those Cajun Catholic folks might want to be able to buy beer at the 7-11; and we rejoiced at NASA’s arrival, naming our first shopping mall the Space Flight Plaza Mall, a quite wonderful and even preposterous ecstatic overreach, it seemed to me even then, to attempt to catch the tail of the first rocket to the moon. Picayune was ever a way station for folks on their way from one place to another, folks escaping the past into an unknown, unknowable future. That is, our motto seems always to have been: we start today, not yesterday. We look forward, if only because we have no backward to look at. Picayune was Ground Zero.
Growing up without history, and with eyes pointed by default into the future, I had no solid place to stand on the constantly shifting and destabilizing sands of the present moment, no already-established points of view to guide my understanding of what was happening, no traditions to accept or to rebel against, to help me make sense of things. I had no sense of process, of how things got to be the way they are, the step-by-step accretion of action, reaction, and consequence, cause and effect multiplying themselves infinitely over the years. It never occurred to me that any of the citizens of Picayune, other than my own parents, actually had a reason for coming to live in that little place; they just seemed to me to have appeared there one fine morning, said “Well, here we are,” dropped their suitcases, and settled down.
But Picayune in the ’50s was no static Eden. I was aware of something energetic and dynamic about those days. There were, still are, those truly wonderful pine trees everywhere, some few live oaks here and there along the Pear River. I saw the logging trucks that pulled the cut trees from the forest, and I lived barely two or three blocks from the saw mill where the trucks took them; I heard the saws rip them in to lumber; I saw the gleaming bright boards stacked by the thousands, probably by the millions. I knew that loggers and lumbermen were cutting the timber, but I was never conscious of any diminishment of the forests that has distressed so many Southerners and Northerners too who read Faulkner and inevitably—and wrongly, I might say—see lumber mills in his fiction as scenes of despoliation not just of the wilderness but of Eden too. Faulkner disparaged the waste of natural resources, not their uses, and I saw little waste. I had no sense that anything was being destroyed, but saw that the lumber was very creation itself and that in the Piney Woods, around Picayune at least, creation and destruction fed on each other in a perfectly balanced symbiosis of nature and people and need.
Thus the Picayune of the ’50s seems to me now a historical neutral zone of sorts, a place where the South could have started over, if it had wanted to, because it was relatively free of so many of the blemishes, the irreparable blunders of the past that marked other parts of the state so indelibly.
To my father Picayune was precisely that, a place to start over, to escape his origins as a country boy from Monticello: not a bad desire, to be sure, and easier to understand if you don’t sentimentalize the rural life of the Depression, as so many of those who established Southern literature as an academic discipline have done. A deep, life-giving response to the possibilities of the American Dream drove my father almost from the beginning, but I’ve no doubt that he was less driven by the dream itself than by its obverse, the white-hot burning desire not to spend the rest of his life plowing. He and all his siblings except his older sister moved away from farming as soon as they could. So far as I could tell, he felt no need to be any more Southern than he was born; that was an accident of the history he was running from. He never mentioned Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, that I remember, and I doubt if he could have outlined the Battles of Gettysburg or Shiloh or the Wilderness. He didn’t have time for anybody’s history but his own, and he was running like hell from that. He was much more interested in his future and ours, was as committed to the present and the future as NASA was. Even if he would not have put it in these terms, he was as committed to being by-God middle class and by-God American and by-God city folk as he could possibly be, and I expect he’d have willingly run every tree in Southeast Mississippi through the planing mill to make all that happen. And I’m confident that he was not the only country boy to feel this way.
He moved to Picayune in 1939. He was 22, with a high school education, a fugitive from the Depression in rural Mississippi. He took a job as a night clerk in a service station, spent his days moonlighting by borrowing one of the boss’s pickup trucks and driving satsumas to Monticello to sell, so that he could visit my mother-to-be. When they got married, his boss raised his salary from $15 to $20 a week. In 1943 he was inducted into the army and was wounded in Italy. After the war he worked as a chief clerk for two hardware stores, where he learned the trade. In 1953 he decided he wanted to be the boss himself; he bought a Firestone Tire & Rubber Company franchise and sold Firestone tires and Philco appliances for the rest of his life.
The store’s essential product was the middle-class life: we sold Firestone tires and various other appliances and devices for the good life: refrigerators, ranges, washers and dryers, lawn mowers and parts, shotguns and rifles, fishing gear, radios and televisions and hi-fi equipment. It was a small hardware version of an old-fashioned general store and a risky proposition, since there were at least three or four other similar stores in small-city Picayune, stores much larger and better equipped, much older and more established in the community, with a wider range of choices.
My father was not an easy man to get along with. No doubt he suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by his near-death wounding during his War. I didn’t of course know that then: all I knew was his temper, his high expectations of me, and my own inability to predict how he would react to a circumstance. I spent years—until recently, actually—trying to figure out what was so wrong with me that made him erupt so unexpectedly at me. I was 10 in 1953, and spent the following decades watching and, I like to think, helping him build a business. He kept citing frightening statistics about the number of failures among newly started businesses like his and vowing that that was not going to happen to him—to us. I never did know, still don’t know, how he managed to make a decent living, what combination of the power of his personality, the quality of the Firestone and Philco line of products, dogged hard work, under-the-table financial deals, or simple good luck made the Firestone store a go. He did work hard. He left home early, sometimes way before dawn, and came home late, sometimes spending 20 or so hours a day at one or another aspect of the business. He could afford to employ only two or three people at any given time—a bookkeeper, a salesman/assistant manager, someone to change the tires, to deliver and install air conditioners and washing machines—so he had to tend to a lot of the store’s activities himself, both managerial and menial: delivering appliances, changing tires, repairing lawn mower engines, installing TV antennas. When bookkeeperless, he would sometimes go the store at 4 a.m. to post the previous day’s receipts, before opening the doors at 7. When he closed at 6 p.m., he would come home for supper, then perhaps head back to the store to catch up on the lawn mower engines that had been brought in for repair; frequently he would then go out looking for people who were behind in their credit payments, tracking them down in their homes and, if necessary, repossessing the item they had bought.
By 1968 the store was beginning to pay off in all the ways he wanted it to. As he became successful, he was invited to join the Rotary Club and was very proud to associate with some of Picayune’s older and more distinguished people. He became a deacon in the First Baptist Church. He became a Shriner. He bought nice clothes in Dallas when we went there to visit his brother, and he enjoyed telling about the shopping, the purchase. Picayune wasn’t big enough for him.
For 15 years he worked like a dog to be a city boy, then died of a massive heart attack, his first, on a hot July day in 1968, literally from the strain of overwork, changing a huge truck tire because there was nobody else to do it.
I fear that much in this minimalist sketch of his life will leave the impression that I accuse him of Babbittry, of a shallow chamber-of-commerce quest for material certification; that I present him as a parody of the American Dream. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, that is precisely the opposite impression I want to create. There is nothing parodic about his life, not if you see it from his point of view or from that of thousands of others across the South who shared that same quest. You can see the outlines of parody only if you are sufficiently a Have as to see him and his like as pretenders. He wasn’t pretending. Not a bone in his body was faking anything. He desperately wanted a share of the good life, and it wasn’t his fault if he didn’t have the luxuries of place and fortune, wasn’t the scion of a Delta or Natchez plantation family, where somebody else did the work.
He hated life in the country, but soon discovered that life in the city was also a serious, serious business. Some years ago when I was reading through microfilm copies of the Picayune Item, I ran across a picture of him during his early days in Picayune. The accompanying story reported that he had been the victim of a holdup at the service station where he worked, on the main highway through town. The thieves held a gun to his head, forced him to the floor, and fled with the cash in the till and a tank full of gas. He never mentioned it and I didn’t discover it until long after he was dead. I doubt that he forgot it, as I cannot.
What really terrified him in the city was of another order altogether. The summer following my tenth grade, he and I worked the Firestone Store mostly by ourselves: just the two of us to do all the store’s activities of selling, sweeping, installing, delivering, collecting. In some ways we were closer than ever, but the summer was unrelenting in its pressure on both of us, he to make a living, I to get along with him, to contribute, to make him happy, to justify myself.
I worked most days from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. or so. One evening around closing time, during one of those several stretches when he started at 3 or 4 a.m. and didn’t come home until around midnight, sometimes later, he told me to go on ahead, drive the pickup home, and he’d call later for me to come get him. We lived barely a half mile from the store and, because I wanted to walk and dawdle and probably because I just didn’t want to be obligated to come back to get him later, I brought the truck around to the front where he’d have to see it, then began my mindless walk home. I had not gone five blocks when he caught up with me. He jerked the truck over toward the sidewalk I was on, slammed the brakes, and said “Get in this truck, boy.” He was angrier than I had ever seen him, the anger the more intense and brutal for its absolute coldness: not the usual temper tantrum but a controlled fury that even then suggested that something besides my disobedience was at stake. He spoke softly, but I could hear him over the blaring retributive squeal of the brakes. I got in, shaken, not knowing what I had done—a more or less permanent condition, not knowing what I had done that would eventually turn out to be wrong. He jerked the truck into first gear, pulled off so hard my head bumped against the back window, and sped the rest of the way home as if running from something. He turned into our driveway, lurched to a gravelly stop behind our new high-finned Chrysler and said, “I don’t work twenty hours a day to pay for a car and a truck so that my family has to be seen walking.” He leaned over me and opened the door. I couldn’t even think, much less say, “But I wanted to walk. I wanted to.” I could only get out of the truck, watch him slam into reverse, slew backwards out into the street, and gun it on back in the direction of the store.
I am still stunned by this, more than 50 years later; even then I knew that it came from out of nowhere, both its intensity and its devastating originality. It was light years outside the widest range of errors I thought I might ever be guilty of: walking home. From this distance I can attribute motives, probable causes: who to know what encounter with what richer folks at the Rotary Club, what innocent jest, what crack, overheard by what improbable chance, had set him off, reminded him of his many long walks to town or to a neighbors’ or even just of the time when he didn’t have other transportation than his feet? Even so, I cannot account for, or forgive, his exceptional fury. Understanding and forgiveness are not the same, not necessarily even related.
I don’t remember what passed for the next three or four hours. I only remember myself in my bed in my room at the front of the house, in the dark, wide awake and wishing I—or he—were dead, wishing I could figure out how to make him happy somehow, not suspecting that he was probably even unhappier than I, more out of place than I, and much less likely than I ever to understand what he’d done. I lay there opening myself to hatred, almost convincing myself of its power to immobilize him, to shut him out of my emotional concerns: that was the only power I had over him. And then came the only apology he ever offered me, an apology which, in being even more complicated than the affront, denied me that saving hatred.
Lying there, in more than one kind of darkness, I had no idea of the time. I heard the house’s reverberating wood signal his arrival home. He and Mother talked, I do not know about what; perhaps she remonstrated with him. Some time later, long enough for him to have stewed, bathed, prepared for bed, he came to my room. I was preternaturally aware of every sound as he walked the long hall toward my room. He knocked, and I said, “Come in.” He opened the door in the dark, and I remembered in a flash that I hadn’t closed the door to the cedar closet, which opened toward the door behind which he stood repentant. But no sooner than I regretted my carelessness, he entered the room. I heard the bump and then the silence, into which I plummeted in freefall. I knew from the sound that he had bumped his head, and I hoped he hadn’t put his eye out on the sharp corner. It was bad enough, but he said nothing, and after a pause he came to my bed. He stood there a moment; even in the dark I could tell he didn’t know how to implore, what position to assume, how even to begin, so foreign was the idea of apology to him. I didn’t help him; I didn’t turn on the bed light; I didn’t want to see. I was still plummeting, though his footsteps had given me some purchase on time and space. He got into bed, embraced me. “I’m sorry,” he said, and I bawled. “It’s okay,” I said, and hoped that it was, but of course it wasn’t. He lay there with me some time longer—I don’t know how long; it could have been most of the night—then got up and walked carefully back to his bed: I did not turn on the light, though I knew his arms were outstretched to find the cedar closet before it found him. Next morning there was a spot of blood on my pajamas and one on my pillowcase, brown and accusing; he had a small BAND-AID on his forehead. We never spoke of the incident, and it has never been more than a micro-millisecond or two away from my mind. The apology is constant because it was sealed in blood that I had inadvertently drawn. The affront is there to explain the apology, and if the incident had not been significant enough in his own life for him to apologize for it, actually to recognize and admit culpability, doubtless I would have swallowed this too, deep-sixed this too, like everything else.
Still, it’s not the apology but his virtually helpless sputtering exasperation at me for walking home, his sense that my walking home was somehow a public humiliation of him, an action that somehow excluded him from a class to which he desperately wanted to belong, a future to which he had desperately and even frantically committed himself so long ago, a future by which he would escape his own history. His helpless fury, doubtless more terrifying to him than it was even to me, is the center, the core, around which all my memories cohere, the vortex out of which all my meditations about things Southern whirl, in double and triple helixes, roaring soundlessly round and round in my head—and they swirl all the more complicatedly because nothing in his life seems to me now particularly Southern at all. He was merely one of thousands of country boys across the nation during the Depression who figured life in the big city would have to be better than subsistence living at the wrong end of a mule.
In my more generous moods I can think of him as wanting something I might eventually have been able to give him had he lived long enough. He often said, and I believed, that he wanted us to have things he didn’t have, and I know that he didn’t mean just nice middleclass things like indoor plumbing and air-conditioning. I think he also meant, though he would not have put it this way, to exculpate me from his past, to absolve me of his history, to give me a past less needful of escaping.
I had not the leisure, in the ’50s, to worry overmuch about his history, much less his parents, who died before I was four years old; I was too engaged in the daily act of making myself invulnerable to him. But in fact, I now know, knowing his history, understanding him, would not have helped me one bit there in the trenches of the daily raw-nerved confrontations, major and minor: my understanding of him would not have changed one thing about him, would not have given me the power over him, over myself even, that I so desperately needed; understanding him then would have complicated my life, since knowing his history would have asked of me the impossible: to pity him, and pity him I could not. It was thus pointless to try to know him, since no amount of knowledge could have absolved me of him or him of me. Now when I let myself feel anything about those years, it is not even regret so much as a constant ponderable sadness at whatever of family we didn’t have because he had his history to escape and I had mine: he was he and I was I, blood be damned, and because each of us desperately needed the other to be something that he was not and could never be.
So maybe the sanitized bubble of historylessness that I thought insulated Picayune was rather my own opaque bubble that insulated me from lots of things. Maybe I had no history because there were things I did not want to know, about him or about Mississippi, for fear I would inherit a history which nothing could absolve me of, and which I could not change. Maybe I feared the outrage and the helplessness I would feel if I knew how my antecedents of blood and region had helped to create the conditions that were already beginning to explode in Mississippi, literally and figuratively, as I entered my teen years. Maybe I was scared that I would be called upon to do something about it—that having a history I would be called upon to be responsible to it. And in Mississippi in the ’50s and ’60s, how terrifying was that? So maybe it was not a protective bubble I grew up in but a womb taking its own good time to birth me into my history; or maybe not a bubble or a womb either, but a simple hole in the sand in which I willy-nilly buried my head.
When my Polk grandparents were moving, I have been told, my grandmother put the suitcase holding all the family photos and mementoes on top of the car; the suitcase fell off as they turned one or another bend on the way. Gasoline was very expensive, and they were very poor, so when they discovered the loss they did not turn around to look for the lost suitcase: they kept moving forward. I suspect my family has lost lots of pictures on the various radii they have traveled and have likewise wasted little time in search or in regret.
I’ve always taken that incident as almost too perfectly apt: the history—the documents, at any rate—that gets lost along the road to somewhere else, but symbolic nevertheless of my own history. I have made some halfhearted efforts to discover my Polk roots, but I have never been able to go backward further than about 1880, or forward later than 1830 or so, and never able to connect up either of the strands, so I sort of gave up, and to tell the truth was not all that interested, since James K. Polk had no children and so clearly I was not presidential timber.
But going through my mother’s papers just after she died at the age of 82, I discovered that she had become something of a closet genealogist and had tracked down her—and my—Hamilton and McDaniel ancestors. Our Hamiltons, four brothers’ worth, had come by way of Ontario down the Mississippi; three of them settled in Louisiana, where one of them built a house that still stands. The fourth was my great-great-great-great grandfather, Hance Hamilton, who bought some land in Pike County in 1820 and built a home there, making him one of the earliest settlers in Southwest Mississippi. I have to admit, that’s pretty nice to know: Hance Hamilton’s very name entrances and en-Hances me! It’s not a bad place for a history to start.
An excerpt of this speech, delivered at the University of Southern Mississippi, appeared in the print edition of our Autumn 2010 issue.
Noel Polk is emeritus professor of English at Mississippi State and editor of Mississippi Quarterly, which focuses on the life and culture of the American South. He lifted and adapted a good portion of this essay for oral delivery from his 1997 book Outside the Southern Myth.
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