October 20, 2019

Red Dead Redemption II and the Decay of the South

Arthur Morgan trods along the countryside in Red Dead Redemption II - Photo from Rockstar

Collin Hall (‘21, Editor-in-Chief)

I grew up hearing family stories about Louisiana’s once-untamed beauty and its inhabitants, people whose intimacy with nature surpasses mine by a mile. My great-great-grandfather, as the story goes, moved out to lawless Sabine Parish to rule over his family with an iron fist while straying from the confines of the law. And rule he did.

Men did as they pleased and the social order operated on a strict honor-shame code. This was a time when dynamite was sold at the general store, water was drawn from wells, and saying ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir’ was not a suggestion, but a necessity for social survival.

That great-great-Grandfather would ultimately meet his end by the end of his stepson’s revolver. That stepson, my grandmother’s uncle, killed him after enduring years of abuse and misery at his hand. That’s just how things went. Life went on, the neighbors continued to smile, and the red clay continued to stain everything it touched.

I saw glimpses of that world when I lived in Converse, Louisiana: population 300. When I was young, the houses up and down the road were full of life. Family visited everyday, men came back from their hunt with prizes, and people considered community and family bonds to be sacred. Now, my great-grandmother’s home two houses down from ours is rotting with moss. A few years later, my aunt Mac’s blue trailer, the one next to our farmhouse, met the same fate. Nobody replaces a dead person in Converse. The town’s character becomes fainter and fainter; in thirty years it will be but a whisper.

Louisiana as a whole would be nearly unrecognizable to my late-kin. Today’s folk still curse Yankees, make no mistake, but the bayou shacks, rural communities and once-flourishing towns have transformed into generic and sprawling American suburbia. The rural towns that remain are crumbling under the weight of a lack of jobs and altogether too many drugs.

What have we lost, and what are we losing? I’ve thought about this question and have tried to answer it. Obviously, there is a lot about the old West and South that is best left to rot. But as I galloped along the Louisiana countryside in Red Dead Redemption II (RDR2), I wished our society had not moved ‘beyond’ nature and its beauty. The game’s cast of outlaws reminisce about the way things ‘used to be.’ When man was free to roam as he pleased and society’s creeping sprawl stayed away from middle-America’s beautiful prairies and bayous.

RDR2 doesn’t romanticize the Old South. It portrays that rough-as-nails landscape with both reverence and disgust. The gang has to deal firsthand with middle-America’s systematic racism; Lenny Summer, a black young man among them, is ridiculed whenever he enters town. Arthur Morgan, the game’s protagonist, encounters the KKK at least once. A side story has Arthur aid a well-off black doctor in retrieving his stolen wagon. “We don’t want your kind ‘round here” was the sole motive of its theft.

But RDR2 at least forces the player to ask: what have we given up with the advent of the technological age? Are our lives richer today than they were in 1899? Can we look down upon ‘simpler’ times because our technology is superior?

What have we lost, and what are we losing? I can’t begin to fully answer either question. But as I kick red clay up from the country roads of RDR2’s Louisiana, I am hit with the same wistful feeling as when I stride down the ghostly roads of Converse, Louisiana.  

My grandmother’s family and all her family before her harvested crops together, sang hymns over late-night fires, shucked corn on the front porch before dinner, ran through the woods, cobbled together hidden forts, and swam in the muddy creeks. The sense of community was so strong that as her brother Oscar’s cancer progressed, the local church caravanned to Houston and back to retrieve the blood he needed to survive.  

It is impossible to go back in time, and perhaps it isn’t useful to wish for it.

RDR2 is a game that celebrates nature and its beauty, and while its characters long for the past, their downfall comes from clinging to a world that has almost disappeared. The Old South was a jagged, flawed place. Maybe we would be better off remembering the beauty we have since left behind.

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