Southern Charm

This summer I embarrassed my Brooklyn-born girlfriend at a wedding in South Carolina. I had dragged her down to Charleston to meet some friends from the University of the South, two of whom were walking down the long aisle into holy matrimony. She was leery: Southerners and New Yorkers usually mix like Scotch and tonic. But her reservations melted as she watched my charming Southern buddies in action: shag dancing rather than doing the humpty hump, and opening doors for their dates. Yes, they might spill beer on her heels from time to time, but there would always be an apology with a light touch on the small of her back.

All was well, in other words, until I embarrassed her in front of a bow-tied old Southern gentleman. He (tipsy) and I (more so) had been talking politics when I accidentally let a burp slip out between syllables. The man was kind enough to play it off. "Nice belch," he said, and I thanked him. My girlfriend was mortified, however. All these well-bred folks at a black-tie reception, she said angrily, and here I was behaving like a subway bum. I conceded that the faux pas, but I pointed out that in such a crowd, there is no stigma attached to drinking. Drunking (and burping), yes. Yet still, a man just might get away with an errant burp if he'd been trained in some of the other arts of Southern gentlemanliness.

Luckily, I had. Like many folks at that party, I went to the University of the South. Spectacularly set atop a Tennessee mountain, it's a veritable factory of what Tennessee Williams might have referred to--drawlingly, with a cigarette dangling--as "gentlemen and women of substance." The school goes by any number of affectionate aliases (The Mountain, The Domain, Sewanee) that speak to the proudly Old World feeling that pervades the campus. It's the sort of place where you sign the honor code, and ever after leave your car, dorm room and bike unlocked. I took tests at home, unsupervised but without cheating. Elsewhere in the country, students attended class in flip-flops and pajamas; we went in coat and tie. We didn't have bars, decent fast food or cable TV in our rooms, but we had America's second largest campus to explore: a sprawling forest of lakes and caves, with a glorious Gothic chapel directly in the campus's center. Southern-fried hip-hop boomed in the mid-'90s, but we were too busy searching for a good New Orleans jazz band to notice.

Shakespeare and strong drink were not mutually exclusive in some quarters, and that could include classrooms. Some professors invited students to have a tipple during the last class of the semester. A visiting playwright, fond of lecturing with a can of Bud in his hand, once asked me if I drank when I wrote. I said I did, and he nodded. "I was thinking," he said, " 'I bet Ness tosses a couple back'." With a few exceptions, I've seen the most brilliant minds I've known red-faced. Not one of them ever betrayed the least embarrassment about it.

My class on William Faulkner, for instance, was taught in front of a crackling fireplace in my professor's living room. It was without doubt the most brutal intellectual exercise of my life, full of heated debate. As a group we agreed about very little, particularly one remark from "The Sound and the Fury": "At Sewanee they don't even teach you what water is." We argued the veracity of the statement, and what Faulkner's opinion ought to mean to the university.

We certainly didn't drink any more than average American undergrads. (Though we recognize now that that American average is atrociously high.) But we were a breed apart in how we did it. At other schools, kids got ready for a football game by painting their chests and swilling beer in a parking lot. On a Sewanee game day, I'd roll out of bed, throw on a tie and a chain-collared cape and take my date to a fraternity house, where we'd talk with other guys in capes (or kilts) and ladies in pastel dresses. Often we never made it to the bleachers. When my friend the quarterback came out drinking that night, he might tell us who won.

Today Sewanee is an increasingly rare bulwark against the relentless spread of McUniversity-style education in the United States. Pockets of culture like this are losing their rough edges everywhere. Homogenized Atlanta is the capital of today's South, not beautiful, decrepit New Orleans or joyously antiquated Charleston.

I explained all this to my girlfriend as we drove back from South Carolina. She maintains that she was right to be embarrassed. OK, yes. But I like to think the old man we chatted with paid more attention to the fact that I called him sir and that I deferred to my lady when she spoke. There are more important, if subtler, sides to Southern gentlemanliness, especially Sewanee gentlemanliness, than whether or not one burps. That's what they taught me, anyway.