I’m sure some readers of these letters are tired of hearing what a special place the South is. So I’ll warn you: I’m going to say it again. And I’m going to quote all sorts of other people who say it, too. Come back next month if you can’t take it.

The South is a very special place. For starters, it’s special because Southerners like to believe that. In a forthcoming history of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Richard Adler is quoted as follows:

For the past twenty-five years I’ve been, on and off, coming into this state, and one thing particularly I’ve learned: that I’ve never yet been in a state . . . where there is as much state pride as North Carolinians feel about North Carolina. And this is to me—coming now from two eastern states. New Jersey and New York, where they are pretty blase about things like this—something to really feel and be a little bit envious of. . . . I wish we had a little bit more of it where we come from.

And well he might. It’s a precious resource.

A few years ago, when my colleague Glen Elder and I asked a bunch of Southerners what they liked about their region, most talked about the land. They seemed to agree with William Faulkner, who said once that the South is lucky that Cod has done so much for it and man so little. A lot of them sounded something like Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who put it this way (in an interview with William Price Fox):

I tell you something else and you can mark this down as a prediction. You give this country twenty or thirty more years, everybody’s got any sense is going down South. Now you take it down there in the Carolinas, and over to Louisiana and then down into Florida. Why, it’s like a garden. That’s where a man can live. Hell, you want yourself some fish, you just walk out your back door and stick your pole in the river and you got them. That’s when they’re good—fresh like that. Then say you want yourself some fresh vegetables—I don’t mean none of this frozen mess they’re throwing at you nowadays. I said fresh vegetables. Like you want yourself some collards—you just go out in the backyard and just reach down and get them. ‘Cause they right there. Then say you want some turnips or some rutabeggers with them collards, why you just reach down and scratch around and you get them, too. And maybe you got a bean vine whipping around the poreh to keep the dogs cool. Why you just reach out and pick them right there.

A good many of the people Glen and I talked to mentioned something else, though, something besides the climate and the soil and the open spaces. They said, one way or another, that they felt at home in the South. Woodrow Wilson (no less) said much the same thing, speaking at the University of North Carolina in 1909:

It is all very well to talk of detachment of view, and of the effort to be national in spirit, but a boy never gets over his boyhood, and never can change those subtle influences which have become a part of him, that were bred in him when he was a child. So I am obliged to say again and again that the only place in the country, the only place in the world, where nothing has to be explained to me is the South. Sometimes after long periods of absence I forget how natural it is to be in the South, and then the moment I come . . . I know again the region to which I naturally belong.

For all the homogenization, massification, and other ugly-ations that have gone on since 1909, Southerners still claim to understand one another better than other Americans. They still don’t need to have things explained to them in the South.

In I’ll Take My Stand, Stark Young wrote of experiences that bring tears to one’s eyes because of the memories they evoke of some place. “That place,” he wrote, “is your country.” For many of us, the South is our country, and we just can’t help it.

The South isn’t unique in this respect, even among American places. I know New Yorkers and Midwesterners and even Californians who feel something similar about their “countries.” But certainly the South has a remarkable grip on many of its children’s affections and imaginations. Some unlikely Southerners have testified to this. Listen to a friend of mine, a self-styled Marxist who teaches at Atlanta University. Returning last August after a summer in California, he wrote me from El Paso: “Frankly I’m ready for home, i.e., the South—with all of its [illegible] which I bitch about but always return to.” (I really can’t figure out what the garbled word is; it seems to me he bitches about nearly everything.)

I remember well a New Year’s party in London, 1978. We bought Jim Beam at $15 a bottle, tracked down greens and field peas in the West Indian market, and made do with some good English ham. Somebody’s mother sent Kentucky pecans for the pie. A half-dozen Tennesseans and North Carolinians and a few bewildered Londoners drank, I recall, “To the liberation of our country.” Fred Powledge, in his fine book Journeys Through the South, tells about the similar party he has every year in Brooklyn Heights; I wish I’d known him when I lived in New York.

I’m going to tell a story that I’ve never told before—maybe shouldn’t tell now, but what the hell. Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called The Enduring South. It argued that there were still many cultural differences between the South and the rest of the United States. A couple of years after that, I was at a sociological convention, coming down on a crowded hotel elevator, when one of the other passengers read my name-tag aloud, and exclaimed “Why, you wrote The Enduring South!” When I allowed that I had, the man told me (and the rest of the elevator) that he had read the book while teaching in California, had asked himself “What am I doing here?”—and had thrown over his job to go back home to Louisiana, to teach in a small college there.

This was heady stuff for an assistant professor. Indeed, I believe it’s rare for a sociologist of any rank to be told that he has changed somebody’s life. Of course I was flattered—also somewhat embarrassed, and virtually speechless. In my confusion I didn’t get the man’s name, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him again.

For over a decade, I’ve kept this story to myself Even now, it seems grossly immodest to tell it—and, besides, I’m not sure anyone will believe it. I find it pretty unbelievable myself But I’ve thought about that experience a lot, and the other day it came to me (at last) that the story says less about my book than about the book’s subject.

You see, The Enduring South didn’t move that man. It’s good journeyman work, not bad for a graduate student (which I was when I wrote it). But it’s not really evocative; indeed, it’s mostly statistical tables. That man wasn’t moved by the book, but by what he brought to it: his love for the South, for his country, for the place where nothing has to be explained to him. The book only triggered a process of recollection. A plate of grits might have done the same.

James Dickey said once that he’s more proud of being a Southerner than of being an American. I don’t know how many would go that far, but a lot of us are just as glad that Southerners haven’t had to choose between those loyalties since 1865.