The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia

by Preston Jones

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Themes and Meanings

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The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia has a bald, insistent theme: An organization rooted in past traditions, unable to adjust to change, can only degenerate and die. From their peak in 1939, marked by a convention in Tulsa, the Knights of the White Magnolia have been reduced to a ragtag remnant. With the exception of Colonel Kinkaid, the members are a sorry bunch of “good old boys,” petty, mean-spirited, and ignorant. All are in some measure failures, clinging to an old lie because it offers them a barren dignity that in other circumstances would be merely pathetic but, because it is bigotry, is too vicious to engage much audience sympathy. These are men sorely lacking in human decency.

The worst of what they are is apparent in their arrogant treatment of Ramsey-Eyes, the amiable, obliging custodian who takes their abuse with admirable equanimity. The accommodation that once characterized race relations in the South, still evident in Colonel Kinkaid’s kinder treatment, has given way to the feckless invective of Red Grover, who perceives Ramsey-Eyes as nearly subhuman. Colonel Kinkaid, his values and much of his mental growth arrested in World War I, views Ramsey-Eyes as a “good soldier.” It is Ramsey-Eyes, not one of the lodge members, to whom the Colonel has entrusted the lodge’s book.

The older values of the Colonel are a luxury affordable only to Bradleyville’s elite citizens, those, like Floyd, who can insulate themselves from the Civil Rights movement by footing the initiation fee and monthly dues at private clubs. For Skip Hampton, a service-station attendant without prospects, there is only stupefying drink, dominoes, delusions of heroism, and racial bigotry.

Skip, Red, and the others are devoid of the residual values based in antebellum principles of noblesse oblige. Unlike the Colonel, they are without honor or respect not only for Ramsey-Eyes but also for one another and themselves. Racial myths aside, these men lack conviction and simple kindness. They fall to mocking one another with cruel indifference to the pain they inflict. Blind to the irony involved, Red, the bar and package-store owner, ribs Skip for his alcoholism. Skip, a Korean War veteran who never got near the front lines except in his imagination, is vicious toward Colonel Kinkaid, a legitimate veteran of trench warfare. Even L. D., who as the last of the true believers has the most at stake in keeping the lodge together, joins in the abuse of Milo, the long-suffering victim of an overbearing mother.

Paradoxically, then, even their racial bigotry is not strong enough to hold these men together. It has drained them of the trust and friendship essential to any fraternal order, so that their lodge’s demise is as inevitable as death itself. They, too, are victims of their bigotry.

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