How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture
By Peter Applebome Times -- 385pp -- $25
New books about the American South labor under both a blessing and a curse. The region remains uncannily entrancing. The unhomogenized mix of race, commerce, conflict, kitsch, and grace makes it nearly impossible to write a lousy book about the South. But taking the next step--finding a unique and challenging perspective on the old Confederacy--is no mean feat. Accounts from W.J. Cash's insightful The Mind of the South to Lewis Grizzard's confectionary Elvis is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself don't leave many plots untilled.
But the heavy traffic in Southern letters didn't keep Peter Applebome from trying, thank goodness. Applebome, the former Atlanta bureau chief of The New York Times, delivers a nuanced, insightful, and sometimes even affectionate appreciation of the South in Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture. With an astute eye and often painterly writing, Applebome takes us to such places as ultraconservative Cobb County, Ga., dollar-hungry Charlotte, N.C., and the deserted and dirt-poor strand of backwater burgs of the Mississippi Delta, using each visit to tell us something about the modern-day South.
It's paradoxical that the South's uniqueness is what makes it familiar. No region is as racially polarized, yet all regions deal with race. No region has the extremes of poverty and commercial overreaching, yet all regions have each of these, too. In its contrasts and conflicts--black and white being only the most obvious--the South works like a concave mirror held before the nation. Distorted as the reflection may be in the way it expands and exposes certain features, it offers a revealing picture of the essence of modern America.
Some Southerners still refer to the Civil War and the society that died with it as the Lost Cause. Applebome portrays the South as a region of lost causes. He makes a visit to Selma, Ala.--where veterans of the 1965 civil rights march to Montgomery grumble that the town is so unchanged that the same mayor is still in office. In Charlotte, radio announcer Robert Raiford offers a caustic observation on the city's striving to be considered world-class: "Charlotte is 90% foam and 10% beer." The textile mills in Honea Path, S.C., still aren't unionized, 62 years after a general strike in which seven mill workers sacrificed their lives. And in Wilmington, N.C., Williston High School's African-American alumni believe the school where Booker T. Washington once was principal fared far better before integration.
Applebome brings a unique eye to the story. A native New Yorker who graduated from Duke University and has spent his career in the South (in Texas before Atlanta), he offers a detached, intuitive perspective. The book is the offspring of a powerful series he wrote for the Times in 1994, and it gains in wit and pith as Applebome frees himself from the constraints both of the journalist's studied objectivity and the leaden hand of Times editing. His fine observations range from the trivial--"pickled pigs' feet are the opposite of an acquired taste: unless you're born eating it, you never will"--to the profound. "The Delta," he writes, "is a place where even the names of the cities, counties, and streams--Tallahatchie and Hushpuckeena; Issaqueena, Itta Bena, and Yazoo; Rattlesnake Bayou and Quiver River--hang in the moist, hot air like tantalizing, dark riddles."
Like its subject, the book does have flaws. Applebome never quite compels with the notion, described in the subtitle of his book, that the South is driving the American ethos of the 1990s. In pushing this theme, Applebome sometimes confuses coincidence with cause and effect. Today, racial tension in society is due as much to northern urban inequities and such travesties as the Rodney King beating and O.J. Simpson trial as to the vestiges of George Wallace-era segregation. Family-values rhetoric rang out from such places as Huntington, Ind., and Wheaton, Ill., before Cobb County outshouted them. Unions are on the run because of imports and cheap foreign labor, not just Southern right-to-work laws. Gingrichian antifederalism has historical antecedents in the South, but it's California's Ronald Reagan--not Newt Gingrich or his acolytes in Texas and elsewhere--who pushed the issue to the top of the American agenda.
Still, Applebome is correct in his finding that the South's influence is growing. Population, politics, and economic power dictate as much. Everything from cultural conservatism to music is influenced, sometimes almost governed, by what happens down South. Applebome sees bright sides to this. The economic renaissance of such cities as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville can provide object lessons on how corporate activism and political leadership can help cities overcome their limitations. And despite the South's racial history, generations of familiarity do sometimes yield new insights, as people in Charlotte, Wilmington, and even Selma can attest.
In the end, though, the South's very uniqueness may mean that its political lessons are less than universal. Two years after the Gingrich revolution, "it's already pretty clear that the easy answers and repackaged nostrums out of the South's past are as hollow as plastic pipe, and the racial scapegoating and public disinvestment that crippled the South for so long will do the same for the nation," Applebome concludes. It's a warning that should not be ignored.