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Apologia Pro Pedibus Sua
I reckon I buy more socks than any man in Arkansas. I have to purchase a pack or two every other month because my dog Peanut is addicted to them. Between the dryer and the pooch, I can’t seem to keep a pair. The last dog I owned had a fondness for wall plaster and table legs, so I can testify that a mutt on a diet of Golden Toes is preferable to one who prefers the taste of hardwood. It isn’t clear to me why he finds my socks alluring. I would like to believe that it is because they smell like me, and that he finds consolation in my scent. However, I suspect that it has less to do with the fact that they smell like me and everything to do with the fact that they smell at all. But it’s late in the Summer now and poor Peanut is about to starve. His primary food source has all but disappeared. I slip my socks off around Easter and try not to pull them back on until first frost.
The proper term for this state of dress (or undress) is “barefooted.” Although Yankees will tell you that the correct word is “barefoot,” you should never trust someone on this matter whose feet have seen less sun than Mother Teresa's thighs. With all due respect to John Greenleaf Whittier, "Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan," is fine, but it isn't nearly as good as Grandmother's "that boy was barefooted as a yard dog." The Southern expression is full-bodied; the feet are both more pronounced (at least an entire syllable’s worth) and more grounded (the -ed represents the toes). Dixie’s podiatrical lexicography is sound.
Barefootedness is also the difference between “naked” and “buck naked” since you can’t be “ buck naked” with your socks on. These distinctions are important, mind you.
Not only is barefootedness acceptable in the Summers where I am from, it is expected. How else will we reinforce the sagging back of a decrepit stereotype? Being good sports, Southerners took the stereotype and ran with it (barefooted of course), transforming it from a potshot into a beloved literary trope.
Carson McCullers writes of twelve-year-old Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding, “The sole of her foot was…pitted with ragged whitish scars, as every summer Frankie stepped on many nails; Frankie had the toughest feet in town. She could slice off waxy yellow rinds from the bottoms of her feet.”
Augusta J. Evans, the first Southern author to ever make a hundred thousand dollars from writing alone, spoke of “bare feet that gleamed like ivory.”
In The Water is Wide, a poor girl is ashamed to come into a classroom because she has no shoes. “Folks thinks it’s trashy to go ‘round barefooted,” she says. So Pat Conroy tells the entire class to take off their shoes and to wiggle their toes to put the girl at ease.
But undoubtedly the greatest champion of barefootedness in Southern literature is William Faulkner–
“…moving at a shuffling shamble like a mule walks in sand, without seeming effort, his bare feet hissing, flicking the sand back in faint spouting gusts from each inward flick of his toes.”
“…the print of his daughter’s naked feet where she had squatted in the mud, knowing that print as he would have known those of his mare or his dog.”
“The earth immediately about the door. …had a patina, as though from the soles of bare feet in generations, like old silver or the walls of Mexican houses which have been plastered by hand.”
“…her bare feet were pale coffee-splashes on the dark polished floor.”
Lena, in Light in August, didn’t want to wear out her shoes or get them dusty, so when folks aren’t looking she walks barefooted into town.
A recently bereaved man in Go Down, Moses walks down a dirt road over prints of “unhurried Sunday shoes, with somewhere beneath them, vanished but not gone, fixed and held in the annealing dust, the narrow splay-toed prints of his wife’s bare feet.”
Thomas Sutpen, in Absalom, Absalom!, is turned away from a plantation house’s front door because, being a tenant farmer’s boy, he is naturally standing there in his “splayed bare feet.” Resentment of that moment drives him for the rest of his life.
Faulkner wrote and golfed barefooted, and could regularly be seen in all his splay-toeded glory in public. Apparently, this is the kind of unrespectable behavior that will get a fella saddled with a Nobel Prize if he ain’t careful.
Despite the stereotypes and the stigma attached to our denuded pedal extremities, Southerners still run around barefooted. Some may justify it by citing recent studies praising its health benefits, but the truth is that we just like the way it looks and feels. Few things are as nice as feeling grass beneath your soles as soft and thick as goose down. Or the sensation of sunshine pooling between the little pig who went to market and the one who stayed home. Or the relief that comes when you dip a parched heel into a cold mountain stream for minnows to tickle and nibble. And there is nothing more beautiful than a newborn’s wiggly toes fresh from the womb, pink and wrinkled, as yet untouched by either corrupted man or this groaning earth.
Like any good Arkansan, I own shoes–but they do not own me. Peanut will just have to wait until Winter to get his mouthful of wool.