I have a more or less professional interest in Southern regional magazines. Some I’ve written for, others I’ve written about, one or two I’ve cribbed from—one way or another a few subscriptions and the odd newsstand purchase wind up as deductions on my income tax. Whatever else these magazines may be, they’re all part of the image machine that exploits and celebrates and burnishes Southern difference and self-consciousness. Month after month, year in and year out, even humdrum trade magazines like The Southern Sociologist and The Southern Funeral Director say by their very titles that the South exists, that there’s something different (and usually at least by implication better) about it. One reason I follow these magazines is to keep track of what that something is supposed to be.

A few examples and maybe you can draw your own conclusions. Consider, for instance. Southern Living, an extravagantly successful house-and-garden magazine out of Birmingham, this year celebrating its silver anniversary. I’ll have more to say about SL next month; for now, simply note that more than three million subscribers make it not just the most successful Southern magazine, but the most successful regional magazine, period, leaving the West Coast’s Sunset far behind and inspiring imitators that include the recent Midwestern Living. Southern Living has acquired a number of other magazines itself, among them Travel South, essentially an expanded and freestanding edition of SL‘s travel section, and Southern Accents, sort of a Southern Architectural Digest. Southern Accents appeals to a more upscale market than its parent magazine, but the basic message—that Southerners have both a different idea of gracious living and a special knack for it—is approximately the same.

In the interests of science, I read another magazine with pretty much the same view of what the South is about. “The days of Scarlett O’Hara may be gone,” says an ad in Southern Bride (subtitled “The Magazine of Traditional Weddings”), “but that same graciousness and majesty, that same elegance and style so steeped in tradition live on in the Southern weddings today.” No Kahlil Gibran here, in other words, and the magazine’s letters column provides a forum for aggrieved traditionalists like the minister who wrote to complain about a couple who wanted “She’s Having My Baby” played at their wedding.

Regional chauvinism can provide a potent hook for advertising, as it does for the Birmingham engraver who gushes in Southern Bride that “There’s Just Something About a Southern Wedding—Something Only a Southern Engraver Can Capture!” But sometimes the pitch is a little more subtle, like: “Thanks to her grandmother, her hair is red, her eyes are green and her flatware is silver.”

A somewhat less old-fashioned image of the South can be found in Southern Style, a big glossy women’s magazine from the Whittle Communications empire of Knoxville. “The Southern woman stands apart from her neighbors to the north and the west,” the first issue proclaimed. “She is proud, she is dedicated, she is capable and she has the courage to live life, not merely observe it.” (I have no idea what this means. Do you?)

Clearly the editors hope that “the Southern woman” stands apart at least enough to want a magazine of her own. One way she stands apart, they claim, is in what she wants to look like. According to the magazine’s market director, “Editors in New York don’t know [Southern women’s] taste in clothes or hairstyles and they don’t understand their pride in the region.” Before Southern Style came along, many Southern women had given up on Yankee fashion magazines: “They either didn’t want to look like that or it was unattainable.”

Maybe so. Anyway, the attractive women pictured in Southern Style are not the killer androgynes one finds in Vogue—although few are as unandrogynous as Dolly Parton, who graced the first issue’s cover and allowed inside that “I’m always defending us. I’m quick to jump in when somebody tries to make light of the South.” If you’ve ever picked up a magazine only to find all the cents-off coupons already clipped, Southern Style has found the answer: each ad for Duncan Hines cake mix in its special “Salon Edition” (distributed free to beauty parlors throughout the South) is accompanied by a dozen coupons. This sounds tacky, but Southern Style is actually well-edited, pleasant to look at, and surprisingly literate.

When you’ve had as much gentility as you can stand, though, turn for a purgative to a magazine that’s one of my personal favorites: Southern Guns & Shooter. A recent cover shows two pistols superimposed on the Confederate battle flag and headlines an article entitled “The Threat From Up North—They’re Still Trying To Take Our Guns Away.” In the same issue another article reviews the “45 ACP: S–t Kicker of a Gun,” and a regular feature is the “Sheriff of the Month.” This is not some low-budget lunatic-fringe newsletter. At $2.50, it is chock-full of advertising and color photographs with captions like, “Jan likes the feel of a long barrel, something she can get her fingers around and caress like a fine collector’s item.” Eat your heart out, Howard Metzenbaum.

Right now the question of Southern identity, what it means to be Southern and who qualifies, strikes me as up for grabs, and regional magazines offer a remarkable variety of answers, some only implicitly, others more forthrightly. The Southern Partisan, for instance, a fire-eating quarterly out of Columbia, still stoutly maintains the classic “Forget, Hell!” position. The Partisan never apologizes, seldom explains. Its views on current politics could be characterized roughly as New Right, but the issues that really excite it are old ones. Very old ones. Its sections have headings like “The Smoke Never Clears,” “From Behind Enemy Lines,” and “CSA Today,” and its habit of referring to Richmond as “our nation’s capital” lets you know exactly where the Partisan is coming from. Personally, I’d enjoy the magazine more if its editors would stop giving their Scalawag Award to friends of mine, but the Partisan may be valuable the way an old musket is valuable: as a reminder of valor long ago, in simpler times, and maybe still serviceable in a pinch.

For something entirely different, check out Southern Exposure, the organ of a somber band of aging New Leftists at Durham’s Institute for Southern Studies, an organization spun off some years back by the pinko Institute for Policy Studies. The Utne Reader (a sort of countercultural Reader’s Digest) recently gave Southern Exposure an “Alternative Press Award” as “an enduring catalyst for social change in a place defined by tradition”—you get the idea. Southern Exposure is the favorite Southern magazine of non-Southern “progressives,” since it tells them that the South is still primarily about oppression, injustice, and struggle. Occasionally, though, Southern Exposure takes time off from its favorite causes to appreciate the culture of the Southern common folk. Its appreciation is selective (voting for Jesse Helms is not an acceptable folkway), but it has published some good stuff on Southern religion and music, for example.

Oddly, Southern Exposure resembles the Southern Partisan in some ways. For one thing, neither magazine is a barrel of laughs. Exposure is deadly serious, while the Partisan sometimes tries to be funny, but I almost always wish it hadn’t. Both magazines are mostly predictable but occasionally tell you things that you won’t learn anywhere else, some of them even true. Finally, both represent authentic, indigenous Southern traditions. Maybe you can link Southern Exposure to the Populist movement of a century ago, if not to Marse Tom Jefferson himself; at the very least it’s working a field well ploughed during the Depression by the writers and photographers of the WPA and the Farm Security Administration. Southern Exposure isn’t the only remaining outlet for proletarian testimonial and hardscrabble documentary photography, but it may be the only one with ink that doesn’t come off on your fingers.

If the Southern thesis is stated by the Southern Partisan and the antithesis by Southern Exposure, I think a magazine that came out of Little Rock a few years ago can be seen as the late-20th-century synthesis. A book called Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind, by a University of Arkansas professor named Stephen Smith, documented the emergence in the 1970’s of a new and different “myth” of the South (Jimmy Carter had a lot to do with this, and so did Burt Reynolds)—not the Old South, not the South of “We Shall Overcome” either, but rather a down home sort of place that had its problems, but that also offered good music, good food, good people, and good times. That was the South of Southern magazine.

Folks with loyalties to other myths, or vested interests in them, could not have been expected to like Southern, and they didn’t. It quickly earned the Southern Partisan‘s Scalawag Award for an article asking whether the South needs a new flag, and the editor of Southern Changes (a Southern Exposure-like magazine published by the Southern Regional Council) dismissed it as nostalgic entertainment, not serious. But Southern quickly became a quirky, engaging, unpredictable magazine. And a successful one, too, with upwards of 200,000 subscribers.

Southern wasn’t the first general interest Southern magazine (Southern Voices and Southern World each lasted a year or so in the 1970’s), but it was better financed and better edited than its predecessors. Linton Weeks, its editor, enlisted dozens of talented Southern writers, well-known and obscure, black and white, most of them young; he published Lee Smith’s fiction, John Egerton’s culinary essays, Roy Blount’s humor, Florence King on Southern women, Fetzer Mills on stock-car racing. Southern‘s motto was “The South, the whole South, and nothing but the South.” If it was Southern, Southern was interested. This led to occasional false steps (I thought an article on upper-middle-class gay Birmingham was especially ill-advised). But many Southerners of a certain age—roughly, well, thirty-something or a little older—seem to feel that portraying the South warts and all is all right, as long as it’s made clear that Southern warts are more interesting than anyone else’s.

Discerning readers will have noticed that I write about Southern in the past tense. Last summer, it went out of business, but not for any reason that you’re likely to suppose. That story deserves a letter of its own, and will get it next month.

You can read part 1 here.