What’s a Southern Gentleman Today?

Washington and Lee’s former SAE House, a lofty white plantation-style mansion on E. Washington Street in Lexington, Va., has stood nearly empty for seven years now. That’s because the chapter was suspended by the national fraternity and by the university after a fatal drunken driving accident in late 2013. The chapter, founded in 1867, has remained “inactive” since the suspensions.

Former SAE house, W&L

The behavior of the driver in the car accident seemed emblematic of the privileged decadence of Greek culture that has come under scrutiny at W&L. Nicholas Perry Hansel, from a wealthy New Orleans family, was driving 10 other W&L students home from a party where his Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers rented a house in the country. He was drunk and so were most of the others piled into the SUV without seatbelts. The car left the road, struck a tree stump and overturned. One female student from Connecticut was killed, and two others seriously injured. One of the injured was in a class I was teaching then.

Nick, the driver, was somehow able, for a while, to get a judge to seal the agreement reached between his lawyers and the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Later, when he was serving a three-year sentence for manslaughter, he was able to get special privileges to come and go from the county jail, where he was somehow allowed to stay instead of in a state penitentiary. As it turned out, the jailer had received political donations of a few thousand dollars and gifts from Nick’s parents and friends. That was just part of the corruption that recently resulted in the jailer being sentenced to more than four years in prison.

I don’t know if SAE is any worse than other fraternities when it comes to bad behavior. I’ve heard that female students at the University of the South at Sewanee say SAE stands for “sexual assault expected.”

Can it be that my father, as I learned just before he died recently at 94, was an SAE at Sewanee? He was not anybody’s idea of a frat boy. He was a poet, a national journalist, a teacher with boyish excitement for what he taught, a jazzman, and someone who seemed instinctively kind, even courtly, to anyone he was with, any race, any age, any caste. Like the novelist Walker Percy, an SAE at Chapel Hill and author of “The Last Gentleman,” my father was a really, really true gentleman.

His death has brought to me a musing curiosity about that kindness, that courtliness. I want to know how much of it came from his father, or his father’s father, or that gentleman’s father, “The Major” or that man’s father, Henry. They were all gentlemen in some old Deep South sense that I associate with vellum-bound books in their private libraries on “well-born” Romans, like those from Plutarch’s Lives.

A few years ago at W&L, some alumni spoke at the ribbon-cutting of a neo-gothic mansion that an anonymous giver had restored and donated to the university. The men reminisced about when they were students in the 1960s and invited to have Sunday tea with a legendary dean who lived there. One of these alumni was an SAE, and he recalled with some irony how being an SAE meant memorizing a sort of mission statement called “The True Gentleman.”

I just looked up that statement online. The True Gentleman “does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements.” He “speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy” and his “deed follows his word.”

Some of the phrases, in the rhetoric taught in Southern universities in the 1890s, seemed to espouse values held by the line of gentlemen that produced my father’s kindness and decency. None of them were in business or sales. Before my father, they all were attorneys, officers of the court, “Esquires,” serving on boards for civic progress and in the Democratic Party of Augusta, Georgia. My father’s father would recite eccentric aphorisms of a privileged lifestyle around those values. “A gentleman does not count his change,” and “A gentleman should die in debt to his tailor.” He wore silk ascots at home, smoked a pipe, and walked on an artificial leg hidden in his well-tailored, ironed and cuffed trousers.

The True Gentleman is one who has “an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies.” It helps to have enough money, unmentioned of course, for a fine but not ostentatious wardrobe, and a loyal servant. The True Gentleman “appears well in any company.”

I couldn’t name it, but there was something rotten in the statement. It wasn’t so much the “acute sense of propriety” or the secret wealth needed to keep up appearances. It was, rather, an acceptance of hierarchy that repulsed me. In a previous world of rigid hierarchy, I suppose it was better, more “gentlemanly,” to act humble and stay silent about one’s higher position than to flaunt it. But silence is no virtue when it is at peace with this kind of ranking: the True Gentleman “does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity.”

Who wrote this? A little more online research revealed that it was a Bridgewater College graduate of 1899 named John Walter Wayland, who went on to get a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and teach history at a variety of Southern universities. But he didn’t write it for SAE. Rather, it was the winning essay in a contest in 1899, appeared in the Baltimore Sun, then fell into obscurity.

It was later discovered by a truly odious political figure from Alabama, Walter Burgwyn Jones. Jones, described in an SAE website as a former “Eminent Supreme Archon” of the fraternity, discovered “The True Gentleman” somewhere, printed it in the Baptist newsletter he edited, and sent it on to the SAE leadership. It became something every SAE had to memorize, a kind of hazing of new members.

I remember that name, Judge Walter B. Jones. He was the Alabama judge who tried to force the state’s NAACP to reveal its membership in 1956 (knowing that every disclosed member would lose his or her job as a result, if not suffer violence). And in a libel suit designed to keep the New York Times from covering the Civil Rights movement, Judge Jones steered the case into his own courtroom by finding the Times did business in Alabama because it hired an Alabama lawyer to defend itself. The Times was doomed to lose in Jones’s courtroom. I was interested to find this same Judge Jones who was involved in these two famous cases was also behind reviving “The True Gentleman.” Both cases were unanimously overturned by two of the most historic decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court – one assuring the privacy of membership in a protest organization under “freedom of assembly” and the other protecting the press from libel suits by public officials in the absence of malice. Judge Jones was a flamboyant white supremacist and nostalgic for the Confederacy.

For me, knowing the connection with Judge Jones has exposed what “The True Gentleman” was really about, once the old hierarchy began to crumble.

What is left of the inheritance my father gave to me and my brothers and sister for being decent and “gentle” human beings? I treasure it, whatever it is. It makes me weep in love to read now the legalese my father signed in his Will more than 20 years ago, appointing me “as successor Executor or Trustee” in hope for “an amicable division of said property.” I recently watched a video of a 1984 lecture he gave on journalism and poetry, and felt weepy again when he spoke of me – as if to me from beyond his mortality – as having “wings of his own.” I have a legacy, and it doesn’t require memorizing a fraternity saying.

Originally published in “Like the Dew.”

About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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