There is something about the South that people find endlessly fascinating. From Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth to Guy Fieri’s quest for unusual diners and dives, there has been a feeling that the South has something no other region can match.
Writers are especially susceptible to this feeling. Some, like William Faulkner, capture much of the essence through fiction. In 1941, former newspaperman and book reviewer W.J. Cash published “The Mind of the South,” which has become the definitive nonfiction look at the region.
Some seven decades later, Tracy Thompson set out to explain – or at least illustrate – what it means to be Southern in modern times. A native of the Atlanta area and a former newspaper reporter, Thompson left the region in 1989, but continued to be fascinated by its pull.
“I started out, then, with the idea of writing about this mismatch of history and identity that so many Southerners up through my generation have had, this vague sense of cognitive dissonance that comes with growing up in a world where nothing you see around you quite fits with the picture of history made available to you,” Thompson writes in the opening chapter, titled “It’s Complicated.”
Other chapters are titled “Salsa with Your Grits,” “The Big Lie,” “Shadow History,” “Jesusland,” “The Sorting Out,” “Atlanta” and “Old Times Are Not Forgotten.”
This organization is useful in helping to understand the changes that have swept across the region since the time of Cash and World War II.
Anybody who has spent much time in the South can’t help but see the effects of immigration. While Mexicans and other Hispanics dominate the immigration scene, Asians, too, account for much of the change in our workforces and our eating habits, and Thompson captures that well. Boasts a town so small that it lacks at least one Asian and one Mexican restaurant?
“So what does all this mean for Southern identity in the future? My grandmother had a rueful saying she would trot out when someone inquired after the state of her arthritic knees or how she was recovering from the flu: ‘I’ll live, but I’ll never look as well.’ ”
She also gives one of the most cogent views of the complex forces that drive Atlanta that I have read. “I find it tragic that Southerners, who are so in love with their own history, are so careless and so willfully blind, about which history they choose to love.”
A large part of the history of Atlanta and the South is about race relations. Thompson takes a mighty swing at this, and for the most part does well. But black/white race relations have so many facets that change over time and with hindsight and with media attention that the subject almost defies description.
Much of what Thompson lays out in her chatty style rings true. However, I beg to differ with her assessment that “Politics in the South reflects the increasing national divisions and rancor ….” I contend it is the other way around, that Lee Atwater of South Carolina almost single-handedly taught the GOP how successful the politics of mean can be.
Thompson is at her best when she describes the subtle nuances that shape Southern life, such as this observation: “Class in the South was and is a complex mixture of accent (a coastal drawl, for example, is considered higher-status than a Tennessee twang, and a black person who says ‘ax’ for ‘ask’ has signaled something about his origins), family education, church affiliation and attendance, personal morals, manners, and prison record (although having one of the latter is not necessarily a disqualifier for anything; murdering your wife’s lover might actually be a social asset).”
Kenneth S. Allen, a former reporter and editor for The Charlotte Observer, is editor of Greenville Business Magazine and Columbia Business Monthly.