Vital Signs

The Dream of the South

“Poetry is a northern man’s dream of the South.” 

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Last of the Belles”

In the summer of 1933, Southern Agrarian poet Allen Tate and his friend Marxist literary critic Malcolm Cowley visited various Civil War landmarks in northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky.  After being photographed shaking hands in front of the Confederate monument in a cemetery near Fort Donelson, the two drove home singing such plantation melodies as “Old Black Joe,” “Swanee River,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”  At the end of the trip, Cowley noted somewhat sheepishly, “You know those songs we’ve been singing?  They were all written by a Pittsburgh boy.”

As recently as the 1950’s, when I attended a public elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, the songs of Stephen Collins Foster were part of the official curriculum.  I had first heard about the Swanee River years earlier when my father (who never lived in the South) gave me the first baths that I can remember.  Literary critic James Olney recalls that, when he was a schoolboy in Marathon, Iowa, 50 years ago, he and his classmates sang

over and over again, until they were deeply etched into memory, such songs as “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at...

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