Some people, mostly Southerners and geographers, like to argue about how you can tell whether you’re in the South. This discourse (if you’ll excuse the expression) can be more or less serious. My friend Vince Staten, for instance, once ran up a major phone bill calling restaurants on the Interstate to see how far north you can get grits for breakfast.
But some heavyweight scholarship has been devoted to the question, too. A Penn State geographer named Wilbur Zelinsky, for example, has compiled some great maps that show where people start painting their barns (roughly the same place where they once began to farm with horses instead of mules, just north of the old National Road through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois). Zelinsky has also looked to see where creeks stop being called that (or branches, or runs) and become brooks. (If you see the word “brook” in a Southern place-name, you can be sure the real-estate developers have been at work.)
This game can go on and on, and often does. Literally hundreds of criteria have been suggested, from kudzu to sweetened ice tea. My own contribution has been to look at phone books to see where people name businesses “Southern” or “Dixie” something-or-other. (Turns out there are a lot of hairdressers named Dixie, but I didn’t count them.) My theory, if you can call it that, is that folks outside the South don’t do this much.
The phone-book test works remarkably well, which is to say that it confirms my prejudices—like the one that says southern Florida, northern Virginia, and western Texas are only marginally Southern, these days. If it hadn’t worked, though, I’d have scrapped the technique and stuck with the prejudices. After all, some of us just know when we leave the South.
It seems that, just like folks with acute sensitivity to light or noise, some people have a hypertrophic sense of place. Southerners may be especially vulnerable to this inflammation, but it’s not just another regional malady, like hookworm or pellagra. Here’s an Englishwoman, for instance, Jessica Mitford:
On the train, through Kentucky. There’s already a marked change of atmosphere. The women on the train seem to travel in Sears catalogue dreamy date dresses. One is wearing a beige silk sheath, spangled semi-transparent top, high-heeled simulated glass slippers. She’s a great kidder. The conductor, checking on reservations, just asked her, “Are you Mrs. Jennie Lee Kelley?” She answered, “Can’t you see I am, by my browbeaten look?” Shrieks of laughter from all, especially her fat husband. . . . Lovely pale green, lush country outside. . . . In a Louisville hotel: already the punctuation and spelling are breaking down. A brochure in my room says, “Derby Lounge. Stall’s are named and portray famous derby winners . . . ” and also, “YE-OLE KENTUCKIE BREAKFEASTE.” Why the hyphen? Borrowed from you-all?
This is exactly the sort of alertness I experience from the moment I get off the plane at Newark. All sorts of everyday things take on special significance when they’re northern things. My wife finds this ironic: she says she can move the furniture or get a new hairstyle and I won’t notice for months. Maybe so (I haven’t noticed), but put me in a new place and by God I pay attention.
A while back I wrote that when I used to drive north to college on old U.S. II, chronic heartburn always set in about Hagerstown, Maryland, and it let up about the same place when I headed south. A book reviewer picked that out as an example of my “characteristic exaggeration,” but—as God is my witness—it’s the literal truth. What’s more, my buddy Jake read the review and wrote to say that the same thing always happened to him somewhere around Newcastle, Delaware.
Jake also sent along a photocopied page from The Web and the Rock. As usual, Thomas Wolfe does go on, but he’s worth quoting at length:
George would later remember all the times when he had come out of the South into the North, and always the feeling was the same—an exact, pointed, physical feeling marking the frontiers of his consciousness with a geographic precision. There was a certain tightening in the throat, a kind of dry, hard beating of the pulse, as they came up in the morning toward Virginia; a kind of pressure at the lips, a hot, hard burning in the eye, a wire-taut tension of the nerves, as the brakes slammed on, the train slowed down to take the bridge, and the banks of the Potomac River first appeared. Let them laugh at it who will, let them mock it if they can. It was a feeling sharp and physical as hunger, deep and tightening as fear. It was a geographic division of the spirit that was sharply, physically exact, as if it had been cleanly severed by a sword. When the brakes slammed on and he saw the wide flood of the Potomac River, . . . he drew in hot and hard and sharp upon his breath, there in the middle of the river. He ducked his head a little as if he was passing through a web. He knew that he was leaving South [sic]. His hands gripped hard upon the hinges of his knees, his muscles flexed, his teeth clamped tightly, and his jaws were hard. The train rolled over, he was North again.
Hard and sharp and hot and taut—”Every young man from the South has felt this precise and formal geography of the spirit,” Wolfe claims, “this tension of the nerves, . . . this gritting of the teeth and hardening of the jaws, this sense of desperate anticipation.”
Well, all I feel is indigestion, but the point is that Wolfe gets it right about something physical happening to Southern boys—some of us, anyway—when we leave the South. We’re sort of human dowsing rods for Southernness. If you want to map the region, maybe you could just point us north and draw the Rolaid line.
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By the way, although I think Jake and I respond—OK, maybe over-respond— to real regional differences, something else was going on with Wolfe’s young Southerners. They were reacting not just to real differences—strange accents, strange foods, strange-looking people—but to expected ones, expectations nurtured by their own needs and imaginations. ” They felt they were invading a foreign country,” Wolfe writes; “they were steeling themselves for conflict [and] looking forward with an almost desperate apprehension to their encounter with the city.” (“Desperate anticipation” and “desperate apprehension” in the same paragraph, but that’s old Tom for you.) “They were also looking forward to that encounter with exultancy and hope, with fervor, passion, and high aspiration.”
“Not me,” Jake wrote in the margin. Well, not me, either. But for a certain sort of dreamy young Southerner the north—New York City in particular—has always had a special fascination, from afar. Listen to Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who draws “Kudzu.” A few years ago, when he moved from Georgia to the Big Apple, Marlette felt obliged to explain himself to his Southern friends and neighbors. “New York’s energy, excitement and vitality have always attracted me,” he wrote. ” It’s the show—the cultural vortex of the race, the storm center of human achievement.”
And, he continued, “it holds a special place in the dreamscapes of my youth and the mythic underpinnings of my budding ambition.” Marlette recalled how his image of The City came to be:
As a child growing up in small towns in North Carolina and Mississippi, I visited New York and studied its environs only from television, movies, books, and magazines. The media initiated me into the secrets, mysteries, and allures of the city.
I learned about Macy’s from Miracle on 34th Street. I knew that Rob and Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show lived in suburban New Rochelle. The offices of Mad magazine were located on Lexington Avenue. They made fun of ad-men on Madison Avenue.
Those places and frames of reference were as much a part of the geographies of my imagination as were Judea and Samaria from my Sunday school lessons or Vicksburg and Chancellorsville from my history books. And I imbued those alien landscapes and cultures with a vitality and reality that seemed achingly absent from my own.
Many young Southerners have felt that way, responding less to actual places than to their ideas of those places—ideas that may be little more than stereotypes. But there’s an irony here. When people do that, they can help to create the facts they’ve imagined. New York’s an exciting place, in part, because it’s full of young provincials who have gone there for its excitement. I think of four guys I grew up with in East Tennessee. One is gay, and last I heard was in Los Angeles, doing what I don’t know. Another is a Unitarian minister in a classic New England small town. The third is an avant-garde professor of French at an Ivy League university. And the fourth lives in Marin County, where he sells motorcycles and computers, caters Japanese food, and gives instruction in some heretical offshoot of Rolfing. Notice that by doing what they want in settings where it’s a conventional thing to do, my friends are contributing to the persistence of regional differences: making New England look more like my stereotype of New England, California more like my idea of California. And by leaving the South they have contributed to the relative absence here of gay, sushi-eating, Unitarian post-structuralists.
Incidentally, I don’t know what happened, but Doug Marlette recently moved again, from New York to North Carolina. He’s my neighbor now, just up the road in Hillsborough, and if he has explained that move in print, I haven’t seen it. Maybe he feels no explanation is necessary.
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