One reason that I veered off the academic career path and into my own intellectual no man’s land was that I don’t enjoy theory . . . I’m a literary guy, relatively smart, and in general, I get it. I have the academic background— a bachelor’s and master’s, though not a Ph.D. I’ll admit that reading works of theory takes me a minute and some effort, though I don’t know anyone who breezes through. Also, I do have to look up some terms, since academic theorists like their big, heady terms, but by the end of the reading, I usually understand the scholar’s or critic’s point(s) . . . . I just don’t enjoy it.
So, it was with some measure of chagrin that I realized (too late) that South to a New Place was a collection of theory essays. I don’t know if I didn’t read the description carefully or whether I got so excited in my book-buying that I quit paying attention to what I was putting the cart – this does happen – but I bought it, so I wasn’t going to not-read it. I decided, after a heavy sigh, that I was going to read theory essays and that I was going to do it with a good attitude, but I was also going to let myself off the hook by skipping the essays on fiction and fiction writers. This project is focused on nonfiction, after all, so I would clear my conscience that way. Writing and reading fiction, and writing about fiction, are certainly valid ways to way to explore the culture of the South, but for right now, I’m sticking to what’s at hand.
I also hadn’t realized, when I bought South to a New Place, that its apt and appropriate title is a play on Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place. I’m particularly fond of Albert Murray, having come to his work through a collection called From the Briarpatch Files, and also since he’s from Alabama, my home state. Murray is the topic of one of the essays I did read, so I’ll get to him in a moment.
One common thread I’ve noticed in my reading so far is the notion that we’re truly living in a new South now. While the old problems with poverty, race, and backwardness linger, new cultural features are emerging, most obviously post-Civil Rights politics, urbanization, and technology. (It’s hard to imagine Jason Compson as a suburbanite in a recliner watching Tucker Carlson on Fox News or to picture Caddy texting her boys to come and meet her.) Perhaps less obvious among the new features are Sunbelt image-making, the commodification of Southern-ness, and new conceptions of who is Southern. (Can you really be a considered Southerner if neither you nor your parents were raised in the South and you moved down here as an adult?) What we’ve got now, in the South, is a region that looks more and more American, with greater racial diversity and more tolerance for outsiders, especially ones with money since we’ve learned to appreciate economic development.
The essays in South to a New Place – the ones I read – interrogate those kinds of issues. Beginning in Richard Gray’s “Foreword,” we get the fundamentals. The concepts of “region” and “regionalism” are rooted in an us-and-them frame of mind: national being the norm “at the center,” while regional is particular and thus peculiar. Gray then moves quickly into his discussion of “what it means to be southern,” hitching a ride with Margaret Mitchell on his way to a heavy assertion: “the South decidedly never was.” Instead, Gray, a Southern studies scholar who lives and teaches in England, lays his foundation in another idea: “To be southern could always mean many things,” and that’s even more true today “as the pace of change has accelerated and cultural pluralism (and, not least, our perception of that pluralism) has steadily grown.” Here is the perspective that “the South” has been invented and also “conscious of its own marginality.” The meat of Gray’s contribution, then, is derived from four points he wishes to make: that the North is seen by Southerners as “more successful in getting its story told,” that Southern “regional self-definition” is not “simply fake,” that the South “has never not been made up of a number of castes, classes, and smaller communities,” and finally, that there is “potential for southern self-definition offered by recent social and economic change.” I willingly concede all four of those points.
Gray also spends a good bit of energy connecting language and community, which I also agree with. In the South, we notice people’s accents immediately, and we spend a fair amount of time discussing our euphemisms and expressions, past and present, with a reverential attitude and sometimes even with a sense of superiority. You’ve never heard that before, we’ll readily ask. Gray writes that “language and communal ritual” are a “validation of oneself.” I agree again.
Flipping past the half-title page, Gray is in the rearview mirror and we get to the “Introduction” by editors Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith. After realizing that Gray was a Brit, I looked at the bios of the two editors and realized that Monteith is writing from across the pond, too. Their introductory message is what one might expect, mostly rattling off the contributions one by one and remarking briefly on each. I was glad to see that such a book about Southern new-ness included essays about Southern Culture on the Skids, “Queer Transformations,” and Southern Living magazine. Though I was less-excited about reading theory, the topics sounded good. (In addition to reading these intros for information, I also like to scour them for books I’ve never heard of, since editors almost always write “According to [name] in his book [title]” several times. I was glad to find a few new titles for my ongoing wish list.)
“Part I: Surveying the Theory” opens with Scott Romine’s “Where is Southern Literature?” As the author of books like Narrative Forms in Southern Community and The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction, Romine is a biggie for a project like this one (on Southern narratives), and in this essay, he asks not what Southern literature is, but where? This leading question points to the concept of place. Romine remarks on his very first page that a place is not just “geographically different” but “qualitatively different,” then adds on the next page:
Traditionally, “place” has signified a nexus of is and ought, a describable outside metonymically associated with a network of imperatives, codes, norms, limitations, duties, obligations, and relationships. [ . . . ] “Sense of place” has usually signified a positive orientation toward that determinative texture: place located you, told you who you were, and did so in a way that provided comfort and security (if occasional restlessness). At worst, “place” is what you were alienated from, what you loved and hated simultaneously, with the love running just a little bit deeper.
After that introductory discussion, Romine cascades through an array of critics, historians, and works: Allen Tate, Michael Kreyling, Donald Davidson, John Dollard, Fred Hobson, Louis D. Rubin, Robert Penn Warren . . . all in a dense, well-supported, and structurally sound argument.
One of Romine’s quoted passages that I want to allude to here isthis: “the sense of place takes on a role better played by the sense of self”— a notion that we Southerners substitute that regional “collective unconscious” for significant internal examination. As a life-long Southerner who has “loved and hated simultaneously” this home region of mine, I can attest to the veracity of this quote that Romine used and that I’ve highlighted. So much of Southern culture does rely on because-it’s-done-that-way, even though a general awareness of why it’s done that way is often absent, possibly just assumed, or simply not-discussed. I’ve long looked around me and thought, “Why?” and have been met with resistance at least, antagonism at times. To be a Southerner who questions the South is a precarious position to occupy.
Moving on, Barbara Ladd’s “Dismantling the Monolith” follows Romine. Ladd’s essay, which is somewhat shorter than Romine’s, hits on several subjects and questions as it moves across the intellectual landscape of its main point: “The experience of a place remains dynamic and vital. It is the theorizing of that place that is problematic.” The South is not a “monolith,” to use her term, but is actually like all places: shifting, changing, and affected by memory. She writes about the Civil War as the central event in Southern history, but notes that that doesn’t mean that all stories/memories/understandings of the South are the same. She even goes so far as to ask out loud, what if we “decenter the Civil War”? After acknowledging the many narratives of the ever-changing South carried by groups and people within this entity/region, she surmises that the South won’t die anytime soon, though it will continue to change.
Third on deck is Carolyn M. Jones’ discussion of “Race and Intimacy,” whose subtitle claims a focus on Albert Murray. However, the essay is about more than Murray’s South to a Very Old Place. It also brings in Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, bell hooks, and the Uncle Remus stories . . . to explore the complexities of this apt statement: “The color line – the boundary on the South – is not a solid line but a porous one: the site of numerous relationships.” Jones ties this idea to the concept of “home,” which has a particular meaning for African-Americans, since the South can be both the location where terrible racist atrocities occur and the location where family and formative years are rooted and centered. Though, after these introductory forays into the broad issues, she does get down to Murray and his “blues idiom.” Murray was a product of early twentieth-century Alabama, and his “blues idiom” came from this notion that life would necessitate “improvisation” – a combination of knowledge and cunning – on a constant basis, especially for black people. Jones then reminds us of Murray having no use for “stock tunes,” his metaphor for ways of living that unquestioningly go through the motions in expected ways. Ultimately, Jones writes that Murray’s “blues idiom” is about “recognition, reframing, and reinforcement of the roots,” and thus:
That journey is a journey into the past, yes, but it is also the journey into the future of a very cool blues man who links, converts, exchanges, preserves, and creates— who takes the old and makes the new out of it.
If I’m reading this right, Jones is saying that Murray sees a South that inevitably changes as it improvises its way from what-has-been toward what-will-be.
Leaving the broader subject matter at the front of the book, I only read three of essays within the heart of it: Jon Smith’s “Southern Culture on the Skids,” Amy J. Elias’s “Postmodern Southern Vacation,” and Diane Roberts’s afterword “The South of the Mind.” The rest of the essays were either about fiction or about the South’s connections to other parts of the world, and for my purposes, I chose to limit my reading to those works that I regarded as most directly relevant.
Closing out Part I, Smith’s examination of the cultural milieu surrounding the kitschy Southern-punk band Southern Culture on the Skids was one of the first to catch my eye when I scanned the table of contents. I’m not a huge fan but the band has played venues around where I live, including the Old 280 Boogie in Waverly, so I’m familiar. Thankfully, lacking a degree of fandom wasn’t a problem in reading the essay, since the points I took away from it were less about the band than about Southern identity. And, as I was reading some passages, I was thinking, “Man, he’s exactly right.” Among them was this portion near the beginning of the essay:
First, far from liberating white southerners from, say, the alienation and homogeneity of northern US culture, several clichés of white southern identity – the sense of community, place, and history – have more often tended to reinforce particularly crippling forms of narcissism. Second, particular models of white southern self-representation (i.e., as “southern”) have operated as kind of fetishism. [ . . . ] [and] a third, more hopeful conclusion: that various punk-influenced white southern subcultures have served healthily to negate the fetishism implicit in traditional iconic representations of white southernness, even as they offer new problems in white southern culture’s ongoing negotiation with the past.
What this says, in academic language, is: identifying as southern is to some extent just navel-gazing done to give one’s self a personal kind of joy or pleasure, and artists like Southern Culture on the Skids call it out by exaggerating it. But wait, there’s more! In the middle of the essay, Smith then goes after the Southern-dudest of all Southern dude symbols: the pickup truck.
When middle-class white male Southerners adopt the pickup truck to signify identity, however, more is at issue than southernness. Historically, the pickup is, like Elvis, an emblem of particularly working-class male white southern identity, as the teddy boys’ accoutrements were of working-class white male British identity. But the adoption of the pickup – to focus in on that icon in more detail – in middle-class southern white male culture reflects something different from what the codings of working-class Englishman do: an attempt to alleviate a bourgeois sense of having no (masculine) identity at all. There has never really been a viable middle-class southern white masculine identity – the middle class is the great unmarked signifier in the South even more than in the rest of the United States – so that class has been forced to ape the signifiers of those above and below it.
Heavy stuff. Smith is theorizing here that, as a group, middle-class white Southern men lack definable cultural markers and are thus left to imitate, piecemeal, features of the poor and working class and features of the upper classes as they’re able. I had to think about this for a bit after I read it, and I believe that Smith has a point. Just go out this evening or this weekend and see all the middle-class white guys who’ve come from affluent suburbs in massive (and expensive) four-door pickups, and who are wearing beards, trucker hats, plaid shirts or t-shirts, jeans, and boots. It’s a hodge-podge identity built into a myth for guys who are simultaneously the low and the high: a lifestyle like the white-collar professional melded with the image/appearance of the working man. Crazy, I’d never thought about it . . . But I guess that’s what makes them the middle class.
Moving on but staying on the same subject too, Amy J. Elias’s essay on Southern Living magazine might explain to us how we get here, to the South as a middle-class commodity. Elias spends the early parts of the essay explaining why Southern Living has been so successful: by not only emphasizing but completely isolating the positive aspects of the South. The magazine is not going to dredge up race or poverty or social ills or failing schools or any of that for any reason. No, it’s a “hall of mirrors created by profit-driven media venues.” Just a few pages in, Elias puts it really well:
. . . the southern lifestyle in Southern Living is a worry-free zone that reflects identifiable market choices based on an upper-middle-class consumer model: what food one eats, how one decorates one’s home, one’s choice of garden products. This applies to vacation advertising and promotion in the magazine as well. Editorials and advertising for southern vacation destinations must conform to one rule in Southern Living: they must show a positive image of the South.
While that’s nice, it’s fine – this is the South you can sell – but there’s also a problem here and Elias remarks on it: this is a “market-driven definition of authentic southern place.” Authentic? Let me lay this out there— you can’t be 100% positive and “authentic” when talking about the South! You can make a lot of money claiming to . . . but can’t actually do it. Elias mentions later in the essay that the magazine’s editors say that it’s written “by Southerners, for Southerners,” but its market is really national. Southern Living has done a lot to improve upon the South’s image as a “benighted” place, but their myths and narratives are still questionable. (It may seem like I have a problem with the magazine— I don’t, but I will say that Southern Living is as emblematic of the South as those photographers who make a living selling black-and-whites of crumbling barns. Sure, that’s one part of it . . . )
Finally, South to a New Place closes out with Diane Roberts’ intelligent and readable ten-page “Afterword.” Roberts’s writing credits include the aforementioned Southern Living as well as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Southern Exposure. She begins by reminding us that, throughout the South’s history, it has always been supposedly going away or dying. The way she puts it, “The South as an ideal can only exist on the edge of extinction, can only be valued as a sacred and valued location when it might be extinguished altogether,” then she reminds us that the effort to preserve or save that South “is largely a project of the white establishment.” Soon, we get to the fact that white Southern men have always been good at this kind of mythmaking, claiming both “exceptionalism and endangerment” and ultimately leading themselves to the notion that they’re the ones who are truly persecuted. I was glad to see, though, that Roberts makes mention of “pockets of progressivism” within the largely conservative culture of the South, since a majority can often be mistaken for totality when discussing the region’s beliefs and narratives. No, there are alternative voices and counternarratives, too, existing less prominently than the mainstream ones whose myths overshadow so much truth.
Part of me feels like I shouldn’t make a final assessment of South to a New Place since I read less than half of it (eight of the twenty works). Though I’m not so keen on theory, I did learn something new from every essay that I read. It has been comforting to see so many agreed-upon points in my readings, but I also expect to encounter some unique and original ideas, too. In that regard, South to a New Place delivers.
While discussions about whether the South is “dead” may go on, the notions that it has changed are indisputable. In this era of cultural studies, American studies, and other institutional programs, we’ve got scholars out the wazoo digging up and organizing new details for us to consider. New conclusions are flying in every direction, and if you get among these smart folks for very long, somebody will have an -ism or a post-something theory they want you to replace your old ideas with. Instead of getting bogged down in all of it, I try to take this proliferation of new ideas in stride, considering that this thing Richard Gray says never really existed sure does have a lot of people talking (and writing) about it.