Concerning My Neighbors, the Hicks

It’s easy for Yankees to see the South as a swamp, full of evangelist in-breds and Fox-fed yokels, when the media reinforces the stereotype.

A century ago, when people felt the urge to explore some exotic place, they headed off to Africa or India, in search of danger and adventure and, though they might not admit it, a certain refresher course in moral and intellectual superiority. But these days, while some people still head overseas, many have found a destination of choice much closer to home, someplace exotic and dangerous, with a fascinating yet clearly inferior culture—the American South. Indeed, there’s an entire genre of travel writing by cosmopolitans who venture into this heart of darkness, emerging weeks later with tales of strange foods, bizarre accents, wrenching poverty, and, of course, abundant racism. For the sensitive liberal, what could be a better way to spend a summer vacation?

Such adventure was clearly on the mind of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic, who recently spent a few weeks driving around Alabama and Georgia—and lived to tell about it in the Aug. 12 issue of the New York Review of Books. Simic knew what he was looking for, and he tells us up front that he found it. “For years now I’ve been looking at a photograph Walker Evans took in the summer of 1936 in the South,” he begins. The photograph shows a two-story, wooden country store at the intersection of two dirt roads. When he found it, he reports, “It did not appear that much had changed in sixty-eight years.” As quickly becomes obvious, the store is a metonymy for the South writ large—despite great cultural changes in the rest of the country, the South is still the way it was 70 years ago: poor, backward, segregated, and culturally barren. Where there is culture, he writes, “it is compromised by the overbearing, irrational intolerance of fundamentalist Protestantism.” Where there is wealth and civilization, he finds that it exists only because of the lingering repression of blacks by the white landed gentry. The one place where he does find both culture and racial harmony is Atlanta, but, as he concludes with a quotation from a bystander, “Atlanta is not the South.”

Simic can’t ignore all of the South’s cultural legacies, but he does a good job of patronizing and dismissing them.

What’s frustrating about the genre—and Simic’s essay is nonpareil in this regard—is the writers who come to the South looking for intolerance, cultural backwardness, and other liberal bogeymen employ all manner of narrowmindness in order to make their point, in the process proving they too harbor all sorts of unspoken intolerances (though for me Simic’s narrowmindedness was proven best by his unwillingness to sample boiled peanuts, a Deep South treat not to be missed). Simic, for example, spends several hundred words discussing his adventures in Hale County, Ala., the setting of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and still one of the poorest counties in the country. But in order to show that the South is still mired in economic and cultural poverty, Simic ignores (I find it unlikely that he simply missed) the groundbreaking work of the late architect Samuel Mockbee and Rural Studio, a program made up of Auburn University students who design and build homes and public buildings for Hale County communities. Reviewing a recent show of Rural Studio’s work at the National Building Museum, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith writes that Mockbee created “one of the most perfect expressions of local action yielding globally useful ideas.” But for Simic, to recognize such social innovation at the center of such poverty would be to complicate the stereotype he is trying so hard to prove.

Simic can’t ignore all of the South’s cultural legacies, but he does a good job of patronizing and dismissing them. He gives short shrift, for example, to Mississippi’s long and continuing literary tradition; Faulkner, Welty, and Percy—to name a tiny handful of the state’s great writers—are nothing more than the product of southerners’ penchant for being “courteous” and telling “memorable stories.” Simic has a point, however superficial (Faulkner’s greatness had little to do with his ability to tell “memorable stories”), but what’s truly galling is how little he explores the continuing southern literary legacy; he manages to spend a good amount of time in Oxford, Miss., without encountering any members of the current southern literary renaissance centered in the town, writers such as Tom Franklin, his wife the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, William Gay, Brad Watson, Barry Hannah, and John T. Edge. Simic’s worldview can’t accommodate a profuse and widespread southern intellectual tradition—particularly one that is alive and strong—and so he reports as though it didn’t exist.

Instead, he focuses on a letter written to a local paper by a confessed “Jesus Freak,” explaining why God wanted liberals out of government. This leads in to a lengthy discussion of southern Christians (it’s not clear whether Simic realizes that even in the South, “Jesus freaks” make up a pretty small part of the population) in which Simic finds the heart of the southern pathology—namely, that southerners have set themselves apart from the rest of the country, uninterested in democratic values such as tolerance and diversity, favoring the “timeless present” of fundamentalist certainty. But if this intellectual nightmare is what liberals come to the South to find, as a stereotype it’s also what southerners find so frustrating about the rest of the country. That’s because, unlike northerners, they realize that fundamentalism is hardly unique to the South; Christian fundamentalism is just as powerful in the Midwest, for example, and Muslim and Jewish fundamentalism can be found throughout the country. And yet it has become almost a principle of liberal beliefs that religiously inspired intolerance lives on almost exclusively in the South.

To be sure, Simic employs the occasional “but then” to prove that he isn’t taking the stereotype too far. “As if to alert me of the dangers of such sweeping statements,” he writes, “I stumbled on a magnificent exhibition of Baroque art at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion in Jackson.” Yet even here, Simic finds something amiss. Overhearing docents asking people if they enjoyed the show, he patly concludes that “it sounded as if there had been complaints and that they needed confirmation that they were, indeed, taking part in something worthy.” Yes, he is saying, there are cultural beachheads in the South. But they are constantly under assault by the forces of unreason and fundamentalism. This, of course, runs contrary to all evidence, specifically that the Baroque show has pulled in some 100,000 visitors, hardly proof that the South is averse to outside culture or that southerners lack the confidence or sensitivity—or, shall we say, as Simic seems dying to, the brains?—to appreciate art.

Simic’s narrowmindedness comes into full view when he reaches Fairhope, Ala., a snowbirds’ and artists’ community on the eastern side of Mobile Bay. It is a gem of a town, with a lively intellectual scene revolving around abundant art galleries, bookstores, and some of the best gumbo outside New Orleans. But Simic is more interested in Fairhope’s lack of African Americans; indeed, he quickly finds that Fairhope is a town whose “morally benumbed citizenry” is “unconcerned about disparities of wealth and the social apartheid such towns as Fairhope seem to serve.” He reports that he didn’t encounter a black person until he saw several working the tables at a wedding. Simic’s myopia is astounding—Fairhope is hardly indicative of the South, nor is the idea of a wealthy resort community’s being bereft of minorities unique to the region (in the North, I hear, they have entire islands like that). And Simic’s anti-Fairhope attack is a funny indictment coming from a man whose own place of residence, Strafford, N.H., is 98.48 percent white and only 0.14 percent black, according to the 2000 U.S. Census (compared with Fairhope, which is 90.22 percent white and 7.79 percent black). The point is not to defend Fairhope as a paragon of racial parity. It is merely to point out that once one gets past the desire of the northern imagination to project social ills onto the South, one sees that many of the problems it points out in places like Jackson, Fairhope, and Oxford are present around the country.

What’s really sad about Simic’s essay is that it is unlikely to shock, or even interest, the Review’s readers.

The counter to Simic’s portrait of the South is to imagine a southern academic traveling through selective parts of the Northeast. She might visit the Hamptons and see a sea of rich white people, and encounter minorities only through the complaints of locals about the influx of violent “Mexicans and wetbacks” (as I did on a recent trip to Sag Harbor). She might ride the A train in New York and repeatedly be forced to sit through ranting, fundamentalist sermons by subway preachers; she might also take a quick spin through the south Bronx and see block after block of gut-wrenching poverty. (And she would definitely be wary of trying something called “matzo ball soup.”) If she traveled through rural New Hampshire or Maine, she might be surprised to find some of the same conservative attitudes about religion and society, about gun control and liberals, the same addictions to crystal meth and—God help us—country music that she might have encountered in rural Alabama. She might, in the end, conclude that the North is a place full of religious zeal and social inequality—just as Simic did about the South.

What’s really sad about Simic’s essay is that it is unlikely to shock, or even interest, the Review’s readers. Lots will find an affirmation of their own assumptions; they will conclude that Simic has simply verified, like so many others before him, what they have been taught to believe about the American South. They will feel no need to test their assumptions; in fact, it is authors like Simic, full of scary confrontations with the Heart of American Darkness, who will prevent them from ever doing so. And then, when they are done, they will wonder why southerners resent them.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen