TURNED PAGES: Reading about the South

Way back when yours truly was a young southern man, I moved to the Pacific Northwest to live and work. Let me make a disclosure here: My father taught me to take nothing for granted and to make sure I understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. After several months on my new job, the boss, not for the first time, expressed frustration about my questions. 

We had our usual chat about just doing the work, and then he made a statement that has stuck with me. He said, “I just don’t understand the southern mind.” The comment startled me because it had not occurred to me that minds in the South were any different than minds in any other place. I could not help him to understand, but since then, I have come to recognize he was over-attributing a personality trait to the influence of culture. He had little, if any, curiosity and did not ask questions or wonder why his boss wanted something done. He just did what his boss told him to do.

In a recent column, I described a request from a friend seeking recommended reading to help him understand the South. His southern parents had moved to the Northwest when he was a toddler. In the column, I requested suggestions from Smoke Signals readers. And you responded.

My hearty thanks to each of you who sent your recommendations. Unfortunately, I cannot include every one of the books here, but I did try to respond to each of you personally. I have terrible clerical skills, and if I missed responding, please accept my apology.

If I had not believed it before, your responses have convinced me it will take my friend a lifetime of reading to meet his goal. The South today is not the South of the 1960s when his parents moved. Although each place in the South has much in common with the others, Georgia is not Mississippi, and neither of them is Virginia. The same is true of North Alabama as opposed to Southern Louisiana, and the residents of the Coastal Carolinas do not live like the hill and mountain residents to the west.

The differences described above also apply to other states and regions.

It may not have been openly acknowledged in the 1940s, 50s or 60s, but in the South, life was different for African Americans and whites, and the wealthy and the working class and the poor. In short, my friend’s question is too big to answer in one or two (or maybe even 100) manageable sized volumes. One person cannot give voice to a region, but many try. Even more troublesome is trying to pin down the exact geography of where the South starts and ends. And it is the “New South” still “The South?”

There is much that ties southerners together, and those ties make us of one ilk. There is no question that the lasting impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction shaped the South of my and my friend’s parents and the generations before and after them. The boll weevil, the depression, industrialization, and the mass migration of millions to the urban north are only some of the larger influences on my parents’ generation.

To go any deeper here would be to attempt what I have just said can’t be done. However, it is important to note that compared to urban areas populated with people from multiple nationalities, the thinly spread population of the agricultural South was more likely to adhere to ancestral folkways, especially when almost all the neighbors were of similar ancestry.

Reader responses to my plea were wide-ranging. I appreciate those of you who identified yourselves as transplants from the North and identified books that you found helpful. Some people recommended humorous books, while others recommended the Bible or academic histories. Some of you focused on fiction, others on non-fiction. Some readers went so far as to group recommendations by state.

Almost to a person, you asked me to share the responses. Please see the accompanying article for a list and some commentary.

Ken Reynolds is Smoke Signals’ Books Editor. He is addicted to books and to questioning why things are the way they are. Email kreynolds@bigcanoenews.com.