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"As we shall see, the presence of one or more specimens of Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus) constitutes the truly catalytic element,"
January 31, 2012 5:51 AM   Subscribe

In his essay “The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills argues:
. . . there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?"
Mills’s convincing textual evidence draws on over thirty authors, but declares Cormac McCarthy ”unchallenged king of literary mule carnage.”
posted by Fizz (35 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Via Biblioklept
posted by Fizz at 5:54 AM on January 31, 2012


trades his mule
posted by thelonius at 6:01 AM on January 31, 2012


Has there ever been a story where a dead mule gets baptized? That would take the cake, I'd think.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:04 AM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


Has there ever been a story where a dead mule gets baptized? That would take the cake, I'd think.

That seems like something you'd find in A Canticle for Leibowitz.
posted by Fizz at 6:05 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


(In real life, endings are sometimes happier. An item widely reprinted in North Carolina newspapers in the spring of 1997 describes a mule being hit, as it stood in the north-bound lane of highway 421 near Sanford, by a 1980 Dodge van carrying fourteen passengers at a speed of 55 mph. No one, including the mule, was seriously injured. Phil Stone Jr., owner of the mule, told the state trooper after the accident that the mule "seemed OK. They just fed him and put him up for the night.")

You know, this quite possibly the first time the town where I was born is mentioned in a Metafilter link, and although I have no memory of living there, I'm pretty sure this is a highly appropriate way for Sanford to make it's debut.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:06 AM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


By way of empirical verification, I might mention that a gentleman named Matt Hollar recently called me to report just having seen an obviously dead mule stretched out in a pasture on the edge of our town, but when I arrived at the scene with camera in hand minutes later, the allegedly defunct animal was walking around eating grass.

Zombie mule!
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:12 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm as Southern as one can get from living in South Florida for 25 years, which is something akin to saying that I'm deeply infused with the mystique of darkest Africa having toured the jungles with Stanley and Livingston, if by "Stanley and Livingston" you mean "Visa and AMEX" and if by "jungles" you mean "shopping malls" but that said I was born in Charleston, SC which does give me a certain amount of birthright, as well as a rather arrogant French nose, and so I feel comfortable with my two points which are first, that saying "Southern Literature" as a descriptive term is an abrogation of the trust of the True South; "Literature" goes with "Southern" rather less than Mint Juleps go with pit-roasted pig: you may have them on the same porch but you do not have them at the same meal which leads directly to the second point, which is that while Dead Mules are a certainly indicative, they're about as useful a test as waiting for the gas explosion to determine whether or not it's time to get out of the coal mine; you need a canary, not a mule, and no canary is more reliable a test for Tales of the South ("Literature" indeed) than the notion of the endless summer, that time of the year when months may last a decade or more, and even spring, with its endless cicadas, and autumn, with its endless fireflies, has a length punctuated only by the subtle desperation of a slight winter chill, and that very real sense of endlessness, or perhaps timelessness, where youth's foolishness and old age's futility seem to merge together into an infinite yet indifferent study of the now (rather like those infinite moments spent gazing into the distance over the end of a branch with a bit of line tied on it and dipped into an eddy) but of course one can't simply hit CTRL-F and search for that, the way one can for mule.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:24 AM on January 31, 2012 [32 favorites]


This is of course different from the litmus-like test of Southerness in music, which is determined by a complicated algorithm of which U.S. state negotiations with the Devil were first entered and which particular string instruments were involved.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:29 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Josh Billings on the mule:

"Tha never hav no dissease that a good club wont heal. If tha ever die tha must kum rite tu life agin, for i never herd nobody sa 'ded mule.'"

There you go. Mules are immortal.
posted by SPrintF at 6:29 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting article, even accepting that there's a a bit of a tongue in cheek aspect to it. I do wonder, however, how we can keep constructing Southernness as not only rural but agricultural in a time when most Southerners don't have a strong connection to agriculture.

My background is about as Southern as you can get; I'm the second person in my family to move outside the South as far as anyone can remember, and I'd be in the first ten to move outside the state of North Carolina on either side. I have all of the appropriate potential life threatening tastes in food; I can tell you all about my ancestor that fought in the Army of Northern Virginia and was held in a Yankee POW camp. But, I didn't grow up on a farm, neither did my father; his father's family owned a farm, I think, but after World War II my grandfather repaired radios for a living.

In short, not only have I never seen a dead mule, it would be honestly pretty weird if I had, and if I were to write based on my experiences as a Southerner, there would be no dead mules and possibly no farm animals of any sort (except pigs, being cooked).
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:30 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Quick! Someone add the 'deadmule' tag to this post!

Data coherency demands it!!

(Also I do)

posted by barnacles at 6:35 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Done.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:52 AM on January 31, 2012


I only just noticed I could have added that tag myself. Errr, heh. Thanks, burnmp3s. The world rests easy today.
posted by barnacles at 6:53 AM on January 31, 2012


Is there any distinction between donkeys and mules in this conceit? Male mules are sterile, so perhaps that's something.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:07 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


"[Any writing] that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." -Flannery O'Connor
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:14 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


In short, not only have I never seen a dead mule, it would be honestly pretty weird if I had, and if I were to write based on my experiences as a Southerner, there would be no dead mules and possibly no farm animals of any sort (except pigs, being cooked).

My Southern grandparents almost exclusively grew up on farms. To my knowledge, I never once heard of a mule being present in their stories or in their photographs of the rural childhoods. Though, my grandmother's brother, my great-uncle, did tell me story about his time in Italy during the Second World War, where Missouri Mules were used to haul supplies to soldiers at the front through mountainous terrain. That count?
posted by Atreides at 7:20 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why do I have the feeling I have dealt with more mules, donkeys, horses cattle and even camels than most of the Southerners responding to this post.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:41 AM on January 31, 2012


There you go. Mules are immortal.

Mules are not immortal. They merely obey the Law of Conservation of Mules, which states "A mule can neither be created nor destroyed, only moved to a different location or piece of fiction." Sometimes a "dying" mule is, by chance" replaced with an "alive" mule, so it looks like they recover. Also, a careful survey would reveal that, as the number of real-world mules decline, the number of fictional mules increases. The opposite is, of course, true.

Is your mind blown? Mules are just like that.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:45 AM on January 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


GenjiandProust, you my friend are awesome. Never change.
posted by Fizz at 8:04 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


"on the same porch but not at the same meal" is my new go-to phrase.
posted by DU at 8:14 AM on January 31, 2012


Keeping this thesis in mind, how different would Winnie the Pooh be with just one small change.
posted by Fizz at 8:16 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


tips hat to the fine gentleman seanmpuckett, strolls away in a leisurely fashion, actual leisureliness belied by the sweat beading my rosy brow and dropping onto my polished oxfords, white linen suit a little too large, twirling cane with nonchalance that is studied and not innate..........
posted by lalochezia at 8:29 AM on January 31, 2012


Is there any distinction between donkeys and mules in this conceit? Male mules are sterile, so perhaps that's something.

Yes. Mules are mules. As in she took the Katy and left me a mule to ride and worked me like a rented mule and mule-skinner blues and I could just go on and on.

Southern donkeys would be used for begetting mules, pulling white children in decorative carts, and living nativity scenes. Modern southern donkeys may also be employed in keeping coyotes away from baby lamas.

Mules and donkeys are entirely unlike in all ways except ears and basic genetic material, which is also describes the gap between me and, say, Courtney Cox.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:43 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind — and that of the minds who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family mule moving out of a tenement or a town.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:50 AM on January 31, 2012


You can't add a mule to Winnie-the-Pooh -- even a dead one dropped off the bridge in a macabre game of poohsticks -- and get a Tale of the South, because the essence of Pooh is that Christopher Robin will, and does, grow up and put down childish pursuits for serious ones; those days of doing nothing are notable, valuable and important precisely because they will not, and do not, last forever; wheras in the South they do last forever and no one ever grows up, they just grow old, and there are no serious pursuits because no one takes anything seriously (with the exception of inter-personal relationships). In Pooh they do these things because they must do them now or not at all; in the South they do these things because honestly: what else is there to do?

In fact, I think this notion of the infinite summer is pinned upon innate knowledge of the inevitable futility, ruin and decay of everything due to neglect, misfortune or simply rot (if you haven't seen a shed swallowed whole by weeds in a year, the true nature of the impermanence of man's gestures against the world may not be as innate to you as it is to a Southerner). Nothing is going to last forever, and if you want it to last longer than a year you're going to have to work HARD at it. (I will not speak of plantation maintenance at this time, nor of malaria.)

I believe that innate knowledge of futility is the basis for the Southern mindset and is the font of true gentility. If everything built in the world is temporary, the only truly permanent value lies in the relationships one forges with one's neighbours. And that is why in the South, the value of a person is not noted by an accountant but instead by an undertaker; it's tracked not in ounces of gold but in the signatures in the funeral guest book (and number of rounds purchased in your honour, and for some the number of heretofore unrevealed mistresses who broke down wailing as the first shovels of dirt went into the grave).
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:24 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I need to make a modest change to my dissertation.
posted by oddman at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am a Yankee by birth, breeding and natural inclination, but one of my darkest fantasies involves moving to the Deep South, perhaps to some little town that died when the slave auction moved on, and planting a huge, prolific garden of things that are grown in New England only with difficulty and intense use of resources- tomatoes, melons, persimmons!- and having a mule.
I love mules, always have, but they are NOT a New England style of creature. They are medieval and Southern. They carried nuncios and Pap. They put up with both characters in their mulish way, with veiled amusement.
If I had a mule, I would ride it to town. We Yankees put up wwith all sorts of idiosycrasies, but mules ain't one of them.
posted by pentagoet at 9:53 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just spitballing here: is the dead mule maybe a Southern lit trope because it's emblematic of the failure of Reconstruction? (i.e. no 40 acres and a mule 4 u)
posted by juv3nal at 10:59 AM on January 31, 2012


The backbone of America is a mule. - Abner Jay
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:01 AM on January 31, 2012


In fact, I think this notion of the infinite summer is pinned upon innate knowledge of the inevitable futility, ruin and decay of everything due to neglect, misfortune or simply rot (if you haven't seen a shed swallowed whole by weeds in a year, the true nature of the impermanence of man's gestures against the world may not be as innate to you as it is to a Southerner).

In this case, we may all thank our strange stars that H.{. Lovecraft was born a Yankee, or he might have written something truly depressing. Possibly featuring a dead (but dreaming) mule.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:17 AM on January 31, 2012


...but of course one can't simply hit CTRL-F and search for that, the way one can for mule.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:24 AM on January 31 [29 favorites]

This is an overly-simplistic and uncharitable view of literary analysis, spoken by one who is wholly unfamiliar with it.

Great comment otherwise, though.
posted by nonmerci at 11:18 AM on January 31, 2012


Yelping with Cormac.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 12:16 PM on January 31, 2012


I just realized one of my favorite passages in literature is about a mule dying, from McCarthy's Blood Meridian:

"The following evening as they rode up onto the western rim they lost one of the mules. It went skittering off down the canyon wall with the contents of the panniers exploding soundlessly in the hot dry air and it fell through sunlight and through shade, turning in that lonely void until it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever of memory in the mind of any living thing that was."


Still gives me goosebumps.
posted by allseeingabstract at 5:20 PM on January 31, 2012


The delegate from Missouri would like to know when mules became a southern thing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:29 PM on January 31, 2012


Probably when Southerners settled the Missouri territory, brought slavery and plantations with them, and central Missouri became known as Little Dixie.
posted by Atreides at 9:19 AM on February 5, 2012


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