September 02, 2016

✉ Fwd: The Ghost of the General Lee

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: thefeelingsclub <>
Date: Fri, Sep 2, 2016 at 8:30 AM
Subject: The Ghost of the General Lee
To: TinyLetter Forwards <>

Note: at the The Feelings Club, we send out a newsletter every two weeks, and alternate primary authorship of the letters between Sarah and Leanna. This week's primary author is Sarah, which is why this newsletter is about 1970s TV and banana pudding.

Did you know that there's a "Dukes of Hazzard" museum in Nashville, Tennessee? It's right by the Grand Ole Opry, which is also part of a long strip of bars, souvenir shops, restaurants where you can watch catfish swim as you eat fried catfish for dinner, and hotels whose swimming pools overlook the interstate. (If this last observation sounds catty and Bill Bryson-like, it's not meant to be: I love the idea of swimming in a pool, totally peaceful and submerged, the world's sounds reduced to the swish and swirl of water, my dolphin-self coming out, and then breaking the surface to find myself flush against the modern world of car exhaust and semis. I think the sudden shift would take my breath away, and that it would feel, in some sense, uniquely American.)

But anyway, about that "Dukes of Hazzard" museum. It is a fascinating place. I hope you go soon. In it you will find every shred of "Dukes of Hazzard" merchandise that has ever been manufactured (I hope): posters, towels, masks, pajamas, cups, guitars, lunchboxes, board games, curtains, bedspreads, calculators, harmonicas, tape dispensers, trading cards, throw pillows, toy handcuffs...

...and, in the middle of it all, the luckiest boy in the world.

I had never watched an episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard," and, I realized as I walked through the museum, I don't really even know what it's about. As far as I can tell it's about two handsome cousins who managed to have car chases for six straight years. What that doesn't tell me is how the show became not just a media sensation, but the favorite of an enduring fandom, and the subject of a deep and abiding love. Not every TV show has a museum dedicated to it. Not every character is so loved that people want to remind themselves of the world they inhabit with a charm they carry through the world--because the museum, of course, isn't just a museum. It also has a gift shop that can help you carry your memories of the Duke boys with you every day. 

I still haven't watched an episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard," though it's slid into the slot at the top of my list, ahead of all the impossibly depressing prestige series I just have to make time for, according to everyone I know. But, per Wikipedia:
The Dukes of Hazzard follows the adventures of "The Duke Boys," cousins Bo Duke (John Schneider) and Luke Duke (Tom Wopat), who live on a family farm in fictional Hazzard County, Georgia, with their attractive female cousin Daisy (Catherine Bach) and their wise old Uncle Jesse (Denver Pyle). The Duke boys race around in their customized 1969 Dodge Charger stock car, dubbed (The) General Lee, evading crooked and corrupt county commissioner Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke)... Bo and Luke had previously been sentenced to probation for illegal transportation of moonshine; their Uncle Jesse made a plea bargain with the U.S. Government to refrain from distilling moonshine in exchange. As a result, Bo and Luke are on probation and not allowed to carry firearms — instead, they often use compound bows, sometimes with arrows tipped with dynamite — or to leave Hazzard County unless they get probation permission from their probation officer which is Boss Hogg, although the exact details of their probation terms vary from episode to episode. Sometimes it is implied that they would be jailed for merely crossing the county line; on other occasions, it is shown that they may leave Hazzard, as long as they are back within a certain time limit. 
I moved to Atlanta this May to spend the summer interning at the Georgia Innocence Project, and was surprised both at how much I loved living here, and at how shocked my friends and family were about how much I loved it. There is an idea, generally present in the North, that the South is ignorant, backwards, culturally (and sometimes literally) inbred, politically tyrannical, and just plain bad. If Northerners feel disturbed by the direction American government is taking, we will blame the way Southerners vote; if we are alarmed at the enduring presence of systemic racism in our country, we will blame the way Southerners think. It's very convenient. 

I find this behavior interesting for a number of reasons, most of them too diffuse to get into here--and partly because I can't yet fully articulate my experience this summer, and won't really be able to until I start writing about it in earnest. I don't know if it's possible to say if one region is more or less racist, has more or fewer problems, than another. I don't know how fruitful it is to try to make this judgment, rather than focusing on searching for solutions.

As far as the question of racism goes, my insights will always be profoundly limited, and my opinion can only ever matter so much, because I'm white. But I do think Northerners' automatic assumption that the South is just worse--with regards to racism in particular and politics in general--is a very, very dangerous one. If a whole region of the United States assumes that, no matter how abusive our policies are or how much violence our police officers inflict on black citizens, we are still at least better than someone else, this belief can allow us a greater degree of complacency about our own racism, and our own forms of racism. It can also allow us to forget about the work we need to do in our own communities by pillorying others. My experience of the South has driven me to this realization again and again, and I hope it's a realization I carry with me as I journey north in a few days.

Which brings us back to those Duke boys. Why, exactly, do people love them so much? When Northerners try to understand Southern culture, we also tend to vacillate between ain't-it-cute appreciation of anodyne cultural artifacts and sensory pleasures (the mansions! The magnolias! The banana pudding!) (but seriously, oh my God the banana pudding), and the kind of off-the-cuff indictments I described earlier. But the real experience, I have a feeling, lies somewhere in the middle. The Duke boys are a couple of young Southerners who are hobbled by corrupt officials, kept from leaving rural Hazzard county (where, I have a feeling, the economy isn't doing so hot), and locked into a kind of purgatory where they only thing they can do is race the General Lee around.  They're young men who can't make a future for themselves. In other words, they feel like a lot of inhabitants of the rural South felt in the 1970s, and feel today. The system, as far as they know, has done nothing but hurt them. They're outlaws, or at least they see themselves that way (and so does Waylon Jennings, who sings that they're "fightin' the system like two modern-day Robin Hoods" in the opening credits). If Bo and Luke Duke were voting this year (and maybe, somewhere out in Hazzard County, they are), I think they'd be voting for Trump.

The "Dukes of Hazzard" museum is a strange and wonderful place. It sells key chains and autographed photos and model car kits (I bought one, of the ghost of the General Lee, as seen in episode six of season two). But it also sells bumper stickers like the ones you see in this photo. (After all, that corrupt Boss Hogg took Bo and Luke's guns away from them.) There's a lot of love in that little strip mall back room for a story about outlaw pride and autonomy and small-town connection and loyalty. There's also a lot of aggression, and a lot of room for hate. Both these things are true.

Leanna's bits:

1. My favorite barbecue side

There is a roadside concrete block barbecue place between Clemson and Anderson SC that has the best sweet potato casserole: butter drenched, topped with pecans and brown sugar, my mouth waters just thinking about it. 

2. My favorite Southern sensory experience

Sitting outside after dark in the still humid air and being surrounded by bugs and frogs so loud they roar in my ears. 

3. A song that's been resonating with me lately

My brother introduced me to Andy Shauf's Wendell Walker this summer. It is a heart-breaker that sounds just right. The song is melodramatic, tragic story. It captures something about intimacy and time and longing and loss that feels just right to me this summer. 

Wendell Walker was a friend of mine.
we'd stain our teeth in the summertime,
and with lips of purple, the winter would roll
past the boarded windows into our souls
and shake our weary bones.

Sarah's bits: 

1. My favorite barbecue side
Yesterday, at Arnold's in Nashville, I had what the guy at the counter described as "the cadillac of mac and cheese." And [Old Rose voice] it was. It really was.

2. My favorite Southern sensory experience

In the course of this summer, I have learned to love sweat. I could write many, many pages on this subject, but in the end that's all you need to know.

3. A song that's been resonating with me lately

I have been listening to Fleetwood Mac all summer long, but right now my sweet spot is "Tusk," specifically the video of the live version from "The Dance," where Lindsey looks like it's hitting him all at once and Stevie glances over at him with an expression of sheer recognition that I cannot get over, I will never get over, and this is why Fleetwood Mac is forever.

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