Convenient Fictions

Aug 20, 2020 at 12:10 pm by Paulette Jackson


Some years ago, a woman with whom I went to church, gave me a stack of newspapers she had saved, which included articles written by Southern Agrarian, Donald Davidson. Her husband was related to Donald Davidson, which was how she came to have them. This article draws from one those newspaper articles.

I love reading the works of the Southern Agrarians and Fugitve Poets. Their writing is filled with experience, knowledge, passion and love for the land. When I read their works, it's like they are sitting in my living room telling me about their experiences. It is inspiring.

While we are exposed to many perspectives these days, regarding, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the foundations of our county, it can be a centering reminder to read Donald Davidson, as well as Andrew Nelson Lytle, and the other Southern Agrarian writers. It can be a walk down memory lane, with those who lived and loved life in the history of south.

I hope you enjoy the article and perspective below, adapted from an article by, Donald Davidson, who lived the history, and wrote about it ...for us to learn and remember.

Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Demosthenes, Pericles. We know them as presidents, activists for social justice, military leaders, spiritual guides and icons of culture.

What they have in common is the ability to communicate with their audience, an ability that has earned each of them a place on the list of the top ten best orators in history, and the power to persuade the course of human events throughout time.

The articular eloquence of oration by many speakers has been the target of both praise and criticism in our own culture; praise for interpersonal skill and criticism for lack of clarity. An auditory door for communicating, the orator lets us hear and invites us to respond, whether informatively, persuasively, demonstratively or entertainingly. And because of the ability to influence, an orator’s objective will want to include being believable – a skill that can expand the power of influence and can also tip the scales in favor of promoted programs, ideas or values.

In American history, a particular stage to wield words in speeches for gifted orators, was set with the beginning of Reconstruction after the Civil War. While the north and the South were now considered united as states, they were still polarized as regions, with each maintaining opposing views regarding the meaning of “northern money”, “the new south”, “tradition” and “The South”.

In the eyes of many Southerners, the northern idea of integration for the South focused on conceptualizing its image as one of a utopia, a convenient fiction with the power to persuade, at the expense of minimizing the South’s history and the elements which established Southern identity, as one of greater constancy, stronger endurance, kinship and a more pragmatic approach to life, in comparison to the north. 

Professor Donald Davidson, Vanderbilt alumni, as well as Poet, essayist, literary critic, author and founding member of Nashville, Tennessee’s circle of poets known as the Fugitive Poets and Southern Agrarians, has written well about the role of of many orators after the civil war. In an article dated September 10th, 1960, he offers credible perspective regarding the difference in honoring the tradition of history versus washing over it with power, control, wealth and industry.

To Donald Davidson, the war-winning north’s agenda for the South, promoted by journalist and orator Henry Grady who was a strong supporter of Southern integration as well as industrialization, painted a “moon-light-and-magnolia” version of the Southern scene. Grady’s “Factories blossoming amid scenes of rural peace, blessed cities, vast hives of industry and thrift, streams vocal with whirring spindles, valleys tranquil in the white and gold of the harvest, two races walking together in peace and contentment; sunshine everywhere and all the time…” was an idyllic picture of the Lost Cause of Southern life under a dispensation of industrialism.

More than Southern writers, Davidson felt it was the speech writers who planted and fostered the convenient fiction of a sentimental image of the “Old South”, a stereoscopic image through which the whole country was invited to gaze for a time in fascination and believe in a story that wasn’t true, about an Old South that never was. In contrast, the truth of the South was known by the people whose lives experienced the history, and the South knew all the time that the spectacles of the orators was tinted.

“The old folks of my childhood had precious few evenings to sit in the moonlight and listen to banjos. But now and then they did find time to pass on some information to us young folks. A good deal of it was rather grim. Nothing Henry Grady ever said could ever fool my grandmother, who, in the eighteen-sixties had seen her child-hood friends captured by marauding Federal soldiers and shot in cold blood on the main street of her home town. Multiply these by millions and you get the other side of the “New South” of that period – and of later periods, including the present. Neither did any plantation owner believe that a plantation existed merely for the elegant convenience of sipping mint-juleps on a white veranda, or was fool enough to think that magnolias would shield from pestilence, taxes, the greedy pressures of giant industry and big unions, the every present problems of race, or, above all, the exasperating demands of social missionaries.” (advocates of government subsidizing)

Donald Davidson lived the truth of Reconstruction. So while the pleasant, idyllic pictures of the past painted by skilled orators was influential, it was far from reality. Donald Davidson also understood that it served no one to “change history” for the sake of satisfying the agenda of those in control. He understood quite well that solutions to problems, every one of of them, would take an intentional effort. And his statement below spoke well to the time period in which he lived. It also speaks well to the time in which we live.

“In an age dominated by the compulsive race for easy solutions, it is well to remember that, if social catastrophe is to be avoided, it can only be by an earnest attempt to wrestle with new problems as they come, without being enslaved by a theory of the past, or by a theory of the future. “

Convenient Fictions are not a phenomenon of days gone by. They are alive and well in the present. We still tell ourselves stories and keep perceptions just as our ancestors did. Choosing to believe stories and hold perceptions may serve to protect us from a painful past, the attending to the problems of which, may feel hopeless. There is no doubt that it can seem that way.

A willingness to respond to problems with intentional effort and an earnest attempt to wrestle them as they come, without being enslaved by theories of the past or of the future, is an invitation. It is an invitation to be present with what is, to honor what is, to care for it and ourselves, and to be open to what might be offered. It is a request to accept that there are no easy solutions. And it is a proposal that at first might seem quite inconvenient, yet it might be the lens through which to see clearly how to respond to life.

Facet for Life: Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling with the mistaken belief that you cannot bear the pain. But you have already born the pain. What you have not done is feel all you are beyond the pain. ~St. Bartholemew

Paulette Jackson 



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