The Dying Oral Tradition (Southern Gothic Edition)

Although my brother had not been born when the incident occurred, he has heard the retelling so often that he swears he witnessed it, that he remembers the alligator snapping as it scuttled in the shallow water of the tub. I, myself, aged two or so, who shrieked there naked in that linoleum bathroom, have no recollection of the incident at all, though I, too, from multiple retellings and my from own renderings, can see the events unfold on my mind’s drive-in movie screen, see the climax of the tale, a red-haired 24 year old mother and her red-haired toddler at bath time encountering a baby gator that Daddy had deposited in the tub before departing to continue his revelry. Of course, the best retelling was the duet of Mama and Daddy counterposing their split screen roles in the Gothic comedy. The pre-story, Daddy and his pal Tea hitting juke joint after juke joint, taking a propitious gator-discovering ditchside piss, the mighty hunt and bagging. Meanwhile, Mama out somewhere with me and then back home impatiently shelling peas on the porch in the humidity. Their mutual laughter in the telling declaring that they’re glad it happened. It made for a great story.*


*Of course, now in my role as mandatory reporter of child abuse and neglect, I’d probably have to call DSS if one of my students shared a similar story with me, perhaps resulting in the child’s removal from the home and replacement into foster care to live with someone wholesome like Michelle Bachman.

I probably perfected my version of the tale over the years at work, but storytelling has disappeared from our workplace, partly because we share no common space and partly because the pinging of emails and the flashing of voice mails demand too much of our attention. I have a colleague who in years past regaled us with her forlorn trips back to Barnwell where, in the shadow of the “Atomic Bum Plant,” she’d celebrate what she called “a Tennessee Williams Christmas.”

As a storyteller, she possesses the Chaucerian talent of individualizing a type. Her mother, the dowager, going Compson in the slow decay, but with her own unique identity, the drawled zinger, the hawk-eyed fault finding. Add a maiden aunt, the clutter of knick knacks, darkened rooms, the smell of cedar – and you’ve recreated a palatable world. I’ve been there, though I have never set foot in that house.

We’re both the descendants of Flannery O’Connor, perverse, reveling in the grotesque, living the nightmare and finding it funny.

Alas, I fear that raconteurs like my friend are a dying breed – not only that – but that the old eccentrics are dying out (or being rendered bland by homogenization). Of course, hoary headed malcontents have been bemoaning modern ways since Socrates complained that writing would ruin language, that reading would silence words, remove the oracular from the narrative, render the dactyls mute, transform the communal experience into a solitary one.

Now some fear that reading itself will disappear, replaced by easily processed images, the hungry eye not patient enough to bother with decoding, needing the quick fix of quick-cut rat-a-tat editing.

However, I, for one, doubt that movies will ever supplant poetry and prose as the chosen vehicles for our highest narrative art, whether we’re reading those words in leather-bound books or on Kindles.

Ah, but the storyteller – where is he to go to tell his tales? In neighborhood bars with those massive screens that draw your head away like a hypnotist? On the screened porches of the Ion neighborhood? From the pulpits of Baptist churches in dying., congregation-starved towns like Branchville or Eloree?

Despite its endangerment, I suspect that the oral tradition will never really die completely out, even in suburbia, because people naturally love to hear a good, well told story. I can attest to this: PowerPoints for all their snazzy transitions and striking images are for students the bane of contemporary education. Fire one up and hear the groans.

Last year, when I was teaching Tennyson’s “Marianna,” I gathered my tenth graders around our table and told them that today we were going to have story time. I told them the story of Measure for Measure, with all of its hilarious shenanigans – disguised dukes, horny puritans, self-righteous sisters, and trickster sex, and a few days later, I heard these iPhone addicted 15-year-olds say, “When are we going to have story time again?”

So who knows?