03 September 2004

The Mississippi Frontier

Naipaul's chapter on Mississippi is entitled "The Frontier, The Heartland." Until reading him, I had never considered Mississippi to be a frontier state. But it is, at least in part. And I should have remembered from reading Frederick Law Olmstead's The Cotton Kingdom many years ago.
"My mother and father used to tell me about when they would hang people in the courthouse square. Legal hangings, not lynchings. That was when my father and mother were children. And my daddy was born in 1897. And that was just abhorrent to me--and it was to them. These were stories that people would tell you as you were growing up. I think we've come a long way. It seems like people are becoming more civilized, I hope."

The stories told to Ellen as she was growing up were frontier stories; that was how I regarded them. They had echoes of any number of Western films; and it was remarkable to hear them from someone who had just turned sixty. In one lifetime, then, it seemed that she had moved from frontier culture, or the relics of a frontier culture, to late twentieth-century Jackson and the United States. It gave a new cast to my thoughts, and a new cast to my conversation with people....

Ellen's thoughts, just before we separated, were of her father, who had died when she was thirteen. "My father told me you never got ahead by stepping on somebody's back. We all need to come up together."

That had been the great discovery of my travels so far in the South. In no other part of the world had I found people so driven by the idea of good behavior and the good religious life. And that was true for black and white.
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 164.

I must confess a family scandal. One of my great great uncles was hanged as a horse thief in Wyoming (via Texas) in 1878, a fact which so scandalized my maternal grandfather as to cause him to scratch his middle name (which he shared with that uncle) out of the family Bible.

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