Still Vikings, Still Hobbits
In a previous essay about American Gnosticism, we drew attention to the differences between the North and the South and how this influenced the relationship between the two. Since both continue to reside within a common (forced) union, and since both continue to antagonize one another, it is a good idea to explore further why those differences exist and what they portend for the future.
Deep within the Past
In order to rightly understand both Yankees and Dixiefolk, we need to study the origins of both peoples. Though there has been a large admixture of other kin-groups since their original colonial births, those foundings set the patterns that have continued to the present: New England being settled by immigrants from East Anglia and Essex in England and the South by immigrants from Wessex and elsewhere in southwest England. New England’s forefathers of the east coast of England, having received a fair amount of Vikings/Scandinavians into their society over the centuries, developed a different way of looking at the world than the other English peoples round about them. To properly trace the contrasting worldviews of Essex and Wessex, we need to go to the very beginnings of the recorded history of each kin-group.
The pre-Christian Scandinavian mind of Essex/East Anglia has left a number of works available for study. And what they show is an intense preoccupation with man’s interaction and struggle with the gods, and most notably with Ragnarök, the violent cataclysm at the end of time that will destroy the whole cosmos. For these reasons we may say that the East Anglian worldview is predominantly eschatologically oriented. The Scandinavian ‘Voluspo’ provides a good glimpse into this mindset. Here is only a small part of it:
40. The giantess old | in Ironwood sat,
In the east, and bore | the brood of Fenrir;
Among these one | in monster's guise
Was soon to steal | the sun from the sky.
41. There feeds he full | on the flesh of the dead,
And the home of the gods | he reddens with gore;
Dark grows the sun, | and in summer soon
Come mighty storms: | would you know yet more?
42. On a hill there sat, | and smote on his harp,
Eggther the joyous, | the giants' warder;
Above him the cock | in the bird-wood crowed,
Fair and red | did Fjalar stand.
43. Then to the gods | crowed Gollinkambi,
He wakes the heroes | in Othin's hall;
And beneath the earth | does another crow,
The rust-red bird | at the bars of Hel.
44. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.
45. Brothers shall fight | and fell each other,
And sisters' sons | shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.
46. Fast move the sons | of Mim, and fate
Is heard in the note | of the Gjallarhorn;
Loud blows Heimdall, | the horn is aloft,
In fear quake all | who on Hel-roads are.
47. Yggdrasil shakes, | and shiver on high
The ancient limbs, | and the giant is loose;
To the head of Mim | does Othin give heed,
But the kinsman of Surt | shall slay him soon.
The combination in the soul of the Essexmen of the belief in angry, warlike, and deceitful gods who ruled mankind rather harshly and the nervous energy created by the foreboding of Ragnarök would go on to form the basic characteristics of the modern New England Yankee, which we will look at in more detail shortly: rejection of divine authority, war against God, and the desire to control nature and history themselves in order to thwart fate. This created a rather grim sort of man – cold-hearted, miserly, judgmental, narcissistic.
When one examines the earliest literature of the pre-Chrstian Anglo-Saxons outside the east coast of England, something quite different meets the reader. Theology and eschatology are mostly muted in favor of more mundane things: a jilted wife, gold, funny riddles, the hall, and so on. The divinity in their worldview seems rather distant and impersonal. The ordinary, the expected, the traditional is thus the dominant theme in the Wessex mindset. The customary has been elevated to quasi-divine status: For instance, it is referred as ‘Saint Use’ in the traditional Englishman Maurice Hewlett’s long poem The Song of the Plow (published in 1916).
Here are two examples of the Wessex soul from early English literature to illustrate all of this. The first is from the elegiac poem, ‘Wulf’:
Prey, it’s as if my people have been handed prey.
They’ll tear him to pieces if he comes with a troop.
O, we are apart.
Wulf is on one island, I on another,
a fastness that island, a fen-prison.
Fierce men roam there, on that island;
they’ll tear him to pieces if he comes with a troop.
O, we are apart.
. . .
--The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, Oxford UP, New York, 2009, p. 59
The second comes from a set of maxims after the coming of Christianity to the English. However, one will note the calmness and restraint present in the invocations of Christ and God, as set over against the violent, intense interactions with the gods of the Scandinavians, as well as the focus on the earthly, the contentment with the ordinary, of the passage:
Wind in the air is swiftest,
thunder sometimes is loudest, the glories of Christ are great,
fate is strongest, winter is coldest,
spring the frostiest – it is cold the longest –
summer brightest with sun, sky is hottest,
autumn most glorious – brings to men
the fruits of the year which God sends them –
truth is clearest – treasure is dearest,
gold to everyman – and an old man most prudent,
wise with distant years, who has experienced much.
--Mark Atherton, Complete Old English (Anglo-Saxon), McGraw-Hill, 2010, p. 64
From this comes the typical Southern gentleman, whose concern is mainly with what is here below, women, war, family, farm; ready to entertain kin and kith at his table laden with the fruits of the earth, living intimately and happily with the cycle of the seasons - ‘at nature’s pace’ as the saying goes, in no way at enmity with God and his creation.
We have jumped from the beginning to the end, however. There are still some gaps that need to be filled in to show the continuity of thought of these two peoples.
The Colonial Settlements
For the sake of shortness, we will pass in silence over the upheaval of the Great Schism, the Norman Invasion, and all the chaos that followed upon them.
The next time period we will examine, then, is that of the colonial era, when the Eastern English settled New England and the Southwestern English settled the South. It is noteworthy that the character of the two peoples did not change appreciably even over this long and tumultuous era, as we will now see.
The coming of Calvinism to England in the 16th hundredyear completed the Yankee character. After his forebears absorbed John Calvin’s teaching of the wrathful Father-God and double predestination, his career as self-ordained savior and re-creator of the world was set. But the traditional ways inherited by the Southern gentlemen would be defended and retained by the high-church Anglican (and at times Roman Catholic) establishment. A good representative of this latter is the Anglican priest Richard Hooker (1554-1600), who was born in Devon County (which lies in southwestern England). It is his disputations with the Yankees’ immediate predecessors, the Puritans, that developed into his book Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. And it is there, in that book, where the continuity of both Northern and Southern types may be clearly seen.
The Puritan he describes in all his self-righteous, narrow-minded delusion:
The Book of God they notwithstanding for the most part so admired, that other disputation against their opinions than only by allegation of Scripture they would not hear; besides it they thought no other writings in the world should be studied; insomuch as one of their great prophets exhorting them to cast away all respects unto human writings, so far to his motion they condescended, that as many as had any books save the Holy Bible in their custody, they brought and set them publicly on fire. When they and their Bibles were alone together, what strange fantastical opinion soever at any time entered into their heads, their use was to think the Spirit taught it them. Their phrensies concerning our Saviour’s incarnation, the state of souls departed, and such-like, are things needless to be rehearsed. And forasmuch as they were of the same suit with those of whom the apostle speaketh, saying, “They are still learning, but never attain to the knowledge of truth,” it was no marvel to see them every day broach some new thing, not heard of before. Which restless levity they did interpret to be their growing to spiritual perfection, and a proceeding from faith to faith. The differences amongst them grew by this mean in a manner infinite, so that scarcely was there found any one of them, the forge of whose brain was not possessed with some special mystery. . . . Their own ministers they highly magnified as men whose vocation was from God; the rest their manner was to term disdainfully Scribes and Pharisees, to account their calling an human creature, and to detain the people as much as might be from hearing them (Preface, ch. viii, 7, https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hooker-the-works-of-richard-hooker-vol-1).
Nonetheless, he does not leave the reader without a description of the traditional Englishman’s view of the orderly world held together by various goodly laws to which all should submit. And to do this, he uses a subject that is humorously altogether fitting for the homely English/Southern man, food. Part of the passage reads,
For the better inuring therefore of men’s minds with the true distinction of laws, and of their several force according to the different kind and quality of our actions, it shall not peradventure be amiss to shew in some one example how they all take place. To seek no further, let but that be considered, than which there is not any thing more familiar unto us, our food.
What things are food and what are not we judge naturally by sense; neither need we any other law to be our director in that behalf than the selfsame which is common unto us with beasts.
But when we come to consider of food, as of a benefit which God of his bounteous goodness hath provided for all things living; the law of Reason doth here require the duty of thankfulness at our hands, towards him at whose hands we have it. And lest appetite in the use of food should lead us beyond that which is meet, we owe in this case obedience to that law of Reason, which teacheth mediocrity in meats and drinks. The same things divine law teacheth also, as at large we have shewed it doth all parts of moral duty, whereunto we all of necessity stand bound, in regard of the life to come.
But of certain kinds of food the Jews sometime had, and we ourselves likewise have, a mystical, religious, and supernatural use, they of their paschal lamb and oblations, we of our bread and wine in the Eucharist; which use none but divine law could institute.
Now as we live in civil society, the state of the commonwealth wherein we live both may and doth require certain laws concerning food; which laws, saving only that we are members of the commonwealth where they are of force, we should not need to respect as rules of action, whereas now in their place and kind they must be respected and obeyed (Book I, ch. xvi, 7, https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hooker-the-works-of-richard-hooker-vol-1).
Once Puritan and Anglican settled their respective territories in Massachusetts (1620) and Virginia (1607), the character types of each section crystalized quickly. One of the South’s ablest defenders, Richard Weaver, did an excellent job of contrasting the beliefs and ways of the two peoples in his essay exploring the diaries of William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia (1674-1744), and Cotton Mather of Boston, Massachusetts (1663-1728), entitled ‘Two Diarists’ (In Defense of Tradition, ed. Ted Smith III, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Ind., 2000).
Prof Weaver details the traits of New England by way of Mather. There is severe narcissism, the belief that God has great plans for them (pgs. 723-4). Because of this chosenness, they felt they were permitted to press others into the mold of their way of life (p. 727). Relations with other people are marked by ‘anxiety, fear, and self-accusation, along with the imputation of the spirit of lying to others’ (p. 730). There is also ‘the almost total indifference to nature’ (p. 730). ‘The great sensible world loses its office of mediation, . . . nature was not regularly suggestive of God; . . . the way is open for the prying, experimenting, and controlling which come to their fruition in modern science’ (pgs. 731-2). Summing up, Prof Weaver gives the New England worldview the name of demonism: ‘Demonism is definable as that habit of mind which judges everything and apperceives nothing. . . . The demon has one view of the world, and according to that he must make his will prevail’ (pgs. 732-3).
It is otherwise with William Byrd and the South. In them, Prof Weaver sees a balanced appreciation of the role of physical things in man’s life, ‘Places, persons, the weather, . . . food’ (p. 738). ‘ . . . he almost never indulged in censure or blame. . . . he was more concerned to explain than to condemn’ (pgs. 738-9). ‘ . . . he was an observer of nature in an affectionate way . . . . It is a recognition of another presence and it is a restraint upon egotism’ (pgs. 740-41). ‘Byrd thus appears in all his doing and thinking as a man who has come to terms with the world. . . . There is a right way to do things, but we must not expect either nature or man to be brought under complete control’ (p. 745). ‘Byrd’s outlook . . . derives from an acceptance of stasis and status. He was conscious of no driving imperative to change the forms in which things had come from their maker. . . . There was a Providence, and it was discovered through things; else why were they there? . . . Man was an incarnation, which represented a meeting of the natural and the supernal. The natural and the divine were thus seen together in a body, and this vision set bounds to the idea of dominion’ (p. 747).
In the New Union
Thus Yankeedom and Dixieland had their birth here in North America, and thus they continued in their development even after the upsetting influence of the War for Independence from Great Britain. We find once again two men who epitomize their countries in the era of the new Union. The Yankee representative of never-ending revolution is Ralph Waldo Emerson of Concord, Massachusetts (1803-82), while Dixie may be mirrored in Senator John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia (1773-1833), the stalwart adherent to tradition.
Some of Mr Emerson’s memorable lines in this regard come from his speech ‘The Transcendentalist’ (1841-2) (printed in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson, The Modern Library, New York City, 2000) and are as follows:
‘Mind is the only reality. . . . Nature, literature, history, are only subjective phenomena. . . . His [the transcendentalist’s] thought—that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.
‘ . . . The height, the deity of man is to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force. . . . Everything real is self-existent. . . . All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are, the perpetual creation of the powers of thought, . . . let the soul be erect, and all things will go well. You think me the child of my circumstances: I make my circumstances. . . . I—this thought which is called I—is the mould into which the world is poured like melted wax. . . . You call it the power of circumstance, but it is the power of me.
‘ . . . the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own.
‘In action he easily incurs the charge of anti-nomianism by his avowal that he, who has the Law-giver, may with safety not only neglect, but even contravene every written commandment’ (pgs. 83-4).
Set against the Yankee imperative of the emancipated mind to endlessly destroy and recreate is the Southern mind wedded to old ways. Dr Russell Kirk, in his fine volume The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (7th ed., Regnery Publishing, Washington, D.C., 2001 ), quotes the aforementioned John Randolph, during the Virginia State Constitutional Convention of 1829-30, to the following effect:
‘Mr. Chairman, the wisest thing this body could do, would be to return to the people from whom they came, re infecta. I am very willing to lend my aid to any very small and moderate reforms, which I can be made to believe that this our ancient Government requires. But, far better would it be that they were never made, and that our Constitution remained unchangeable like that of Lycurgus, than that we should break in upon the main pillars of the edifice. . . .
‘It has been said, than I am capable of saying it, that the lust of innovation—for it is a lust—that is the proper term for an unlawful desire—this lust of innovation—this rerum novarum lubido—has been the death of all Republics. . . . Recollect that change is not always amendment. Remember that you have to reconcile to new institutions the whole mass of those who are contented with what they have, and seek no change—and besides these, all the disappointed of the other class. . . .
On December 30, 1829, he opposed the insertion of any amending-clause in the new constitution, any invitation to the “maggot of innovation,” any suggestion that might arouse the tinkering passions of the next decade or the next generation. Change comes soon enough without paving the way for it. “Sir, the great opprobrium of popular Government is its instability. It was this which made the people of our Anglo-Saxon stock cling with such pertinacity to an independent judiciary, as the only means they could find to resist this vice of popular Governments. . . . A people may have the best form of Government that the wit of man ever devised; and yet, from its uncertainty alone, may, in effect, live under the worst Government in the world.”
In almost his last remarks at the Convention, Randolph spoke of “a principle which he had learned before he came into public life; and by which he had been governed during the whole course of his life, that it was always unwise—yes—highly unwise, to disturb a thing that was at rest” (pgs. 166-7).
What a vast chasm separates these two peoples, North and South! One preaches perpetual change, and the other preaches change nothing.
After these two, Emerson and Randolph, the pattern is more or less set. The two nations continue to go on in their established ways, being reinforced in them from time to time by the appearance of articulate spokesmen of their respective creeds, whether Walt Whitman in New England or Donald Davidson in Tennessee, etc.
In closing, let us remark how amazingly well the great English poet, linguist, and mythmaker J. R. R. Tolkien captured the two mindsets heretofore described in his works (though he was not writing about New England and Dixie). In the Two Towers, Mr Tolkien has Treebeard say the following about wizard-turned-fiend, Saruman:
He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. . . . I wonder what he has done? Are [Orcs] Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil! . . . There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days. . . . Many of those trees were my friends . . .; many had voices of their own that are lost forever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves (The Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass., 2004 , pgs. 473-4).
The prying, restless, merciless, willful Yankee is easy to see here.
In another book of his, Mr Tolkien describes the hobbits:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. . . . it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors. . . . The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
. . . – what is a hobbit? . . . They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along . . . . They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it) (The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass., 2001 , pgs. 3-4).
The outlines of the content, guileless, earthy, warm-hearted Southerner are not difficult to discern.
It is for this reason that we say, echoing Donald Davidson’s Still Rebels, Still Yankees, that Southerners are still hobbits and Northerners are still Vikings. And yet the delusional attempt to keep them together in peace under one highly-centralized, elected governmental roof goes on. No peace will come of this arrangement, as their history together has borne out and continues to bear out. Neither people is wholly good or wholly evil; both have virtues and vices. But how much better would it be for both were they allowed to go their ways in peace.