'What the Old South can teach us'

The following was published in 1903, written by Cephas Shelburne:

What the Old South Can Teach Us

SIMPLICITY, CULTURE AND BEAUTY IN COLONIAL AND SOUTHERN LIFE

In this busy, rushing, grasping day of commerce Americans might find much instruction and inspiration, and learn a valuable lesson, if they would turn for a moment once in a while to consider the stately, generous and beauty-loving order which marked the later colonial and earlier national period of our history, particularly in the South. The present owes a real debt to the South of the past and to the early colonial period of our history — a debt that cannot be ignored as long as faith, courage, beauty, culture, and unselfish devotion and hospitality may be reckoned among a people’s virtues. Separated from us by the chasm of the heroic “late unpleasantness” and by four decades of time, both the South and North have entirely put the past behind them, except in so far as both may learn from past history. And the range is now long enough for correct perspective.

Shall we not today find something sweet and sound in the South that will yet be a powerful, conservative influence in the republic? “Will it not be strange,” asks, a distinguished biblical scholar and an old-time anti-slavery radical, “if we have to depend, after all, upon the orthodox conservatism of the South?”

The word “Southerner” carries with it as distinctive traits and characteristics as the words Scotchman or Frenchman. Isolated from the ultra-industrial spirit, undisturbed by “isms” of any sort, “born of a stock that planted itself with like vigor and purity nowhere else outside of its island home,” it was bred under separate and unique conditions. And, though the old South is a thing of the past, a new era of freedom has set in, and we are one people and inseparable, the South has left a legacy and memory invaluable to this
generation.

The old Southern life and civilization was full of power and inspiration. At no other time perhaps in the history of America do we find a period so fraught with sincerity, openness and frankness of manner, charm and graces of cultivation. It was a time of simple faith, honesty, and open simplicity. The voice of the scoffer at religion was seldom heard and never heeded in the Southland. There were no disintegrating influences of modern skeptical thought. The conservatism of the South refused to pipe to the mad dance of the times.

While this cultured generation is elsewhere framing artistic prayers to an “eternal not ourselves” or asking unanswerable questions of the “Unknowable’
and puzzling itself over “Two Isaiahs,” everywhere in the Southland there were, and are, earnest men and women reverently thanking God for sunshine and rain, seedtime and harvest, and “into every corner of whose homes shines the light of God by day and by night.”

The old days in the Sonth was a time of faith, of reverence, of simple honesty. In every land but the South good and wise men are mourning the decay of reverence, of the religious spirit. Reverence is the need of our time, of all times. As long as a healthful reverence for the beautiful, the good and true, for God and the manifestations of God, in man remain, we are safe, let creeds change as they may.

Now while this religious revolution is working, some land, some people must stand out as a light, must bear the ark of the covenant. In our boasted industrial and commercial supremacy, in our mad rush for the dollar — when we are forgetting that there are stars in the heavens, flowers in the fields, and beauty in the landscape, and virtues of soul — it is well that some land and people stand a beacon-light, content to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present evil world, and to remember that the kingdom of God and of man is not altogether “meat and drink, but righteousness, joy and peace.”

A thriving, pushing, hustling Northwesterner, just returning from a trip into Old Virginia and the South, in the course of which an “immense ennui” possessed him, remarked, “Oh, the South is behind the times, out of date, a back number.” By which he meant that the material, commercial and industrial interests of the South were not in keeping with that of the Northwest. “But,” he added, “the ‘New South’ is manifesting some life, and is coming up to date.” And by the “New South” and “up to date” is meant that the South of today, the new industrial South, “has joined the procession,” and has turned her mind to the development of her resources, to business, to enterprise, to money-making. By the “New South” is meant the South of today, busy developing coal, timber and mineral lands, drilling oil wells, building factories, towns, cities, railroads, forging to the front — bringing herself up to date.

This is all very well in its way, but to the thoughtful observer it is inadequate, one-sided, unsymmetrical. Along certain finer lines of development, such as beauty, culture and refinement, we are sadly lacking. Our machine-shops, factories, labor-saving tools, railroads and other means of communication, such as the electric telegraph and telephone, and electrical appliances generally are not matched by a mental, spiritual and esthetic progress. The activities have outgrown the finer things of life. The body has out-flourished the soul.

The course taken by our civilization since the war has been toward developing and perfecting the material contents of life; whereas the culture, the mind and heart, the esthetic and ethical nature of our people themselves have by no means progressed in the same degree. It has been a vulgar struggle, a spirit of plutocracy, in which, by slangy phrase, we are told to “join the procession,^’ to “be alive,” “hustle,” “catch on,” “get there, Eli.”

What was finest and best in the old Southern, colonial regime has been eliminated to make room for the materialistic spirit, and a very disagreeable atmosphere has been created for people who value the higher things of life more than money and vulgar display. We have drifted into materialism, a mere struggle for wealth. Money, the almighty dollar, is the circle within which everything moves, the center around which everything revolves. This is our aristocracy, the altar at which we bow, the purpose for which we are educated and live. All else, we are told, is mere sentiment, romance, impractical, “a back number.” Inventions, machinery, the forms of commerce and of finance, industrial training — all these forms of life have developed to an unprecedented degree; yet no one will assert that the mind, the soul, of our people has been thereby correspondingly refined, uplifted and spiritually enriched. The real refinement of living does not go along with this mad rush — certainly has not kept pace with it.

The refinement, manners and culture of today cannot compare favorably with those of former times; and it is certain that intellectual and social life generally has not reached so high a level as in the old colonial and old ante-bellum days. The American genius for beauty, culture, refinement and the fine arts has not kept pace with the advance of a mighty material progress.

Is humanity to be measured by wealth, by power, by material prosperity? We are told to get rich, to fight, to win the game to be smart, to use tact and be up to date. Are these worthy motives? Are the seeds of godlike power in them? There is a sensible debasement of tone, a lowering of our ideals, a marked decline in simplicity, purity and culture as compared with a few generations back. A lit- erary man and student of history gives it as his conviction that “our immediate generation has been sinking of late to meaner ideals, to coarser ways of life, to more vulgar types of literature and art, to more open craving after wealth, and to a more insolent assertion of pride and force.’ “Take the decade which closes the century,’ says Frederick Harrison, ‘can anyone pretend that it equals in power either of the middle decades of the century (1840-1860) in poetry, in literature, in science, in philosophy, in religions, and in manners?”

There needs to be a general awakening and revival along certain finer lines of thought and life. There never was a time in the history of our country when we needed so much to encourage a spirit of beauty, culture and refinement. We need to look to a greater dignity of citizenship, a larger and more fruitful culture, to the best that has been thought and said by the wise and great, and lived by the most refined and cultured. Something yet higher in pitch, and larger in scope, and finer in quality and tone, than this ultra-material progress, is needed to express the fulness of the American life, to voice the aspirations and thought of the American mind, and to perpetuate the memory and glory of American history. Let us pause in this busy rush to look backward once in a while. Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.

Lord, God of hosts, be with us yet. Lest we forget, lest we forget.

Published in Home and Flowers Magazine, March 1903

2 thoughts on “'What the Old South can teach us'

  1. So much words of wisdom, I pray for the Dear South, and I would have loved it very much if The Confederate States had been triumphant, alas, we can’t live in the past, but we can take a lot from it, for a brighter future for the good people. Not being an American myself, I really do care about The South, I feel that, along with England, my blood flows with the two. I have always felt this way, always will. Your bogs are very interesting and ring so true. Thank You Sir.

    Like

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