The University of the South is an actual place in Tennessee, although its oft-noted resemblance to Hogwarts might make one wonder. It is officially Sewanee: The University of the South, and the combination of its mountaintop location and Gothic architecture is crazy cool, but that’s not what I am referring to today.
Instead, I am thinking about my education in “The South.” I was born and raised in, shaped and influenced by, and commissioned to leave from and welcomed to return to The South. It is once again both my heritage and mailing address.
I do not have a romanticized vision of The South, though tempting at times, but neither do I focus only on its shameful parts. I attempt instead to see it as it is, warts and all (which is surprisingly not an original Southern phrase!).
None of this is specific to The South. Every place can be both resplendent and repulsive if you look from just the right angle. What makes The South special to me is that it is mine.
If put to an answer for my favorite novelist, I would go with Jesmyn Ward, who has been compared to William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I am a white man, and Ward is a black woman, so although we grew up in the same region, we grew up in different worlds. Ward matriculated to Stanford University and later the University of Michigan and went on to wild success as a novelist. She could live and work anywhere in the world, but with mixed feelings she chose to return home to The South. Last summer she answered the question why in an essay for TIME magazine. She described her dilemma and then, in her own beautiful way, shared that she, too, has a dream:
I like to imagine that one day, I will build a home of cement, a home built to weather the elements, in a clearing in a piney Southern wood, riven with oak and dogwood. I’d like a small garden where I could grow yellow squash and bell peppers in the summer, collards and carrots in the winter, and perhaps keep a few chickens. I wish for one or two kind neighbors who will return my headstrong bulldog if she wanders off, neighbors who I can gift a gallon of water in the aftermath of a hurricane. I like to think that after I die, my children will look at that place and see a place of refuge, of rest. I hope they do not flee. I hope that at least one of them will want to remain here in this place that I love more than I loathe, and I hope the work that I have done to make Mississippi a place worth living is enough. I hope they feel more themselves in this place than any other in the world, and that if they do leave, they dream of that house, that clearing, those woods, when they sleep.
I have received many lessons in the university of “The South” and have apparently returned to continue my education.