Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You've Been on This Shift Too Long


(You may have to live without part two of "The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet"; I'm not sure I'll ever get around to it.)

While doing research for a paper on R.E.M. and the New South a few years ago, I became interested in the relationship between the Old South, the New South, and the railroads, and reading Faulkner's third novel, Flags in the Dust (later edited and retitled Sartoris), has brought that concept back into my mind. Flags in the Dust, as you may have guessed, concerns the Sartoris clan, one of Faulkner's many Southern families who thrived before the war and is now dusty and rotting. John Sartoris, the paterfamalias, had a dream that the railroad would one day run through Jefferson, Mississippi, and bring a new prosperity to the area. It must have worked because his son runs a bank.

But prosperity and technology, as Faulkner fans know, are always double-edged swords. John Sartoris' dream does come true, but it comes more true than I suspect he'd hoped:
John Sartoris had once sat on this veranda and watched two trains emerge from the hills and traverse the valley into the hills again, with lights and smoke and bells and a noisy simulation of speed. But now his railway belonged to a syndicate and there were more than two trains on it, and they ran from Chicago to the Gulf, completing his dream, though John Sartoris himself slept these many years unawares.
That line to Chicago brings the accoutrements of modern life to Jefferson, it is true--and when the line goes into Alabama, it allows Birmingham (the birthplace of the modern South) to ship its coal and steel northward--but it also takes some piece of Mississippi back north, and when enough of these pieces are shipped away, Mississippi no longer exists the way it did for John and Bayard Sartoris. Such is modern life. I can't see a difference between I-85 in Georgia and I-95 in New Jersey--medians look the same the world over.

But let's not forget how important the railroad was for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Atlanta is the capitol of Georgia chiefly because it was a railroad hub during the 1850s and 1860s, and when General Sherman made his March to the Sea, his men were sure to pull up the rails. The railroads, then, so instrumental in the southern attempt to maintain an antebellum way of life, ended up killing off the Old South for good.

Of course, the railroad as an abstract idea was not long for this world, either, as R.E.M. makes clear in their classic single "Driver 8":
The walls are built up stone by stone
The fields, divided one by one
And the train conductor says, "Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We've been on this shift too long

And the train conductor says
"Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We can reach our destination
It's still a ways away"

I saw a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm
The power lines have floaters so the airplanes won't get snagged
The bells are ringing through the town again
The children look up
All they hear is sky-blue bells ringing

And the train conductor says
"Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We can reach our destination
It's still a ways away"

A way to shield the hated heat
A way to put myself to sleep
A way to shield the hated heat
A way to put myself, my children sleep

He piloted this song in a plane like that one
She is selling faith on the Go Tell Crusade
Locomotive 8
Southern Crescent
Hear the bells ring again
The field to weed is looking thin

And the train conductor says
"Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We can reach our destination
It's still a ways away"
"Driver 8" is obtuse in the way that only early R.E.M. can be, but it also marks the point at which Michael Stipe moved from the sheer poststructural nonsense of Murmur and Reckoning into a genuine attempt at storytelling and social commentary. The song makes a point that I've not heard any scholar make--the railroad is a tragic hero, paving the path for its own destruction.

The song opens with a vision of the industrializing New South of the Reconstruction, with buildings popping up and even rural areas gaining more modern farming techniques. Our hero is the noble engineer of Locomotive 8, who flies through the landscape at what seem like impossible speeds, noticing only brief and hazy images of the world around him. (Driver 8's speed accounts for the opacity of Stipe's lyrics, and presumably also for the singer's opaque delivery, best demonstrated in the hysterical Hootie and the Blowfish cover, in which Darius Rucker gets nearly half of the lyrics wrong.) The engineer has a goal in mind, presumably (given the images of progress around him) the emergence of the South as an economic powerhouse and as a modern region, and he flies toward this goal at breakneck speed.

The images become more modern in the second verse. The engineer sees high-rise apartments in major metropolitan areas (treehouses, as it were, on the outskirts of town) and electric power running through every stop on his route. He even sees, in the bridge, air-conditioning, "a way to shield the hated heat." (And if you've ever lived without central air in Georgia in the summer, you understand exactly what "a way to put myself to sleep" means.)

So in this college-radio single from 1985, we've got an antiquated image of speeding modernity, the engineer trying desperately to bring his homeland into the modern age. But the conductor knows better. "Take a break, Driver 8," he says. "We can reach our destination, but it's still a ways away." Perhaps he means that the future is decades away chronologically, or (more likely, in my opinion) he means that it's a world away spiritually, psychologically. The new world, the world that Driver 8 tries so hard to create, is of a wholly different character--it is the world so despised by Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and all the other Southern Agrarians. It is a world of airplanes, of country clubs and high finance, of a Charlotte that might as well be Boston. It is what I term the "New New South, and it is a place wholly inhospitable to the age of the locomotive. Driver 8, in helping to create this world, plants the seeds of his own destruction, and in this he is another figure of the Old South, which after all created the New South to stay alive and ended up dying.

I wonder, then, when the New New South (and the homogeneous superstructure around it in the rest of the country) will destroy itself and make way for whatever comes next (for good or for evil). I wonder, in fact, if the recent Wall Street collapse isn't evidence of that. And I wonder if the Old South laughed when the railroads died the way the Southern neo-Luddites I know are chuckling under their breath about AIG and Lehman Brothers.

Good morning, America. How are you?

3 comments:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Darius Rucker? Isn't that Hootie?

I'll admit that most of my familiarity with the Old South is through Faulkner on one hand and Gone with the Wind on the other, but I will say that, as an outsider looking in, I think it stinks. I don't like the way its advocates pretend that race was not a factor there and then, how they lionize hereditary aristocracy and patrician magnanimity, or how they play Harriet Beecher Stowe-caliber emotional strings to try to evoke sympathy for pooah Scahlet.

I suppose that's why I've never really latched onto the Crunchy Conservative movement. (Well, it's the stink of the Old South plus the wretched human beings I've known who are also Crunchy Cons.) They hold up this lovely organic version of community life but never get on to mentioning why some people were as ready as hell to get out of it.

I'm not saying that Bush-era Athens consumerism is much better, but I suppose I like my utopias Greek more than Dixie.

Michial said...

I don't really romanticize the Old or New Souths, although I'd never go so far as to say either of them "stink." History's flesh and blood, and if the Old South wasn't a utopia, it wasn't the worst time in the world either--just as our current time period is neither.

For my part, I do not understand the folks who hold onto the Civil War. I understand interest in the Old South, but I have a harder time understanding how someone could have such an intense emotional attachment to an era that her or she never lived in. (That being said, I romanticize the pre-1968 Academy, so go figure.)

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Fair enough. I really don't detect the romanticizing instinct on your part, but I do see the same on the parts of the Agrarians and their Cruncy Con descendants.