Mar 7 2016

SONG OF THE SOUTH: manhood, hunters, and hucksters

bookbread typewriter

In his book How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), Rod Dreher talks about a childhood family hunting outing in rural Louisiana gone wrong:

I froze in horror. I had killed many squirrels before, and some were not fully dead when they fell from the tree. I would pick them up by their tails and bash their skulls against a tree to put them out of their misery. It was unpleasant but no big thing…. I looked up from the ground at my father and my sister. Ruthie burst into laughter. Daddy screwed his face up in disgust and growled, “You sissy.” [1]

Upon rereading this passage, it reminded me of an episode in Robert Dalleck’s 2001 biography A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963 that describes one of LBJ and RFK’s first encounters in rural Central Texas:

The logical choice [for a running mate] seemed to be Lyndon Johnson. At a personal level, the Kennedys were not well-disposed toward him. He had said harsh things about Jack and Joe and antagonized Bobby by rejecting his father’s suggestion of an LBJ-JFK ticket in 1956. In November 1959, when Jack had sent Bobby to see Johnson at his Texas ranch to ask if he was running, Johnson, in some peculiar test of manhood or as a way of one-upping the Kennedys, insisted that he and Bobby hunt deer. When Bobby was knocked to the ground and cut above the eye by the recoil of a shotgun Johnson had lent him, Johnson exclaimed, “Son, you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man.” It was an indication of his low regard for the whole Kennedy clan…[2]

Who goes deer hunting with a shotgun?! Nonetheless, compare all of the above to several separate moments in Elmer Gantry (1927) and its rural Midwestern, rather than Southern, take on violence and Christianity:

Though Elmer detested Eddie’s sappiness, though he might have liked to share drinks with the lively young baker-heckler, there was no really good unctuous violence to be had except by turning champion of religion. The packed crowd excited him, and the pressure of rough bodies, the smell of wet overcoats, the rumble of mob voices. It was like a football line-up….[3]

[And Rev. Judson Roberts said to Elmer Gantry:] “You bet, Hell-cat! I’m willing to fight you for the glory of God! God needs you! Can you think of anything finer for a big husky like you than to spend his life bringing poor, weak, sick, scared folks to happiness? Can’t you see how the poor little skinny guys and all the kiddies would follow you and praise you and admire you, you old son of a gun? Am I a sneaking Christian? Can you lick me? Want to fight it out?” …. [4]

“That’s right,” agreed Elmer Gantry. “Say, I had–I was holding a meeting at Grauten, Kansas, last summer, and there was a big boob that kept interrupting, so I just jumped down from the platform and went up to him, and he says, ‘Say, Parson,’ he says, ‘Can you tell us what the Almighty wants us to do about prohibition, considering he told Paul to take some wine for his stomach’s sake?’ ‘I don’t know as I can,’ I says, ‘but you want to remember he also commanded us to cast out devils!’ and I yanked that yahoo out of his seat and threw him out on his ear, and say, the whole crowd–well, there weren’t so awfully many there, but they certainly did give him the ha-ha! You bet. And to be husky makes a hit with the whole congregation, men’s well as women. But there’s more’n one high-toned preacher that got his pulpit because the deacons felt he could lick ’em. Of course praying and all that is all O.K., but you got to be practical! We’re here to do good, but first you have to cinch a job that you can do good in!” [5]

 

NOTES

wood-h-small

[1] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 11.

[2] Dalleck, Robert. A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963. NY: Little and Brown. 2001. p. 269.

[3] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter I,” 17.

[4] Lewis, Elmer Gantry, “Chapter III,” 39–40.

[5] Lewis, Elmer Gantry, “Chapter VI,” 83.