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What’s a Southern Sensibility Today?

Alan Jacobs on the editorial change at The Oxford American [1]:

But you know, the South remains its own place, with its own distinctive take on the Human Comedy, and on the various human tragedies as well, and I hope it will continue to punch above its weight, literarily speaking. I think is this is going to happen the Grit Lit thing will need to be overcome, or at least to become just one of the punches it might throw at any given time. The ordinary middle-class Southern existence hasn’t had a true recording angel since Walker Percy; I’d sure like to see another one. (Garden and Gun [2] is fine as far as it goes, but Southerners have more, and more varied, stories to tell.)

I’d love to see the new Oxford American stretch the intellectual boundaries of Southern culture, and push into new territories of writing. I wish Roger Hodge well as the magazine’s new editor.

I’ve never subscribed to TOA, though I might do it to see what Roger Hodge does with the magazine. TOA has always been a magazine I’ve admired, but rarely read, and I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I’ve always felt out of step with its portrait of the South, and Southernness. It’s been so long since I’ve seen an issue that I’ve forgotten why, to be honest. I seem to recall that there was something too self-consciously Southern about it, in an English-major way. Anyway, I’ll reacquaint myself with it under the new editorial leadership, and hope for the best.

We subscribe to Garden & Gun, which I like, but I’m not really the right demographic for that magazine either. But I got to thinking in the middle of an e-mail exchange with Alan yesterday: What kind of magazine of the South would hit my personal sweet spot?

I suppose it would be part TOA, part G&G, but also feature serious writing about ideas in contemporary Southern life. I got to thinking further about this, and wondering what, exactly, defines the South today? What is a Southern sensibility? Twenty-five years ago, the late Walker Percy had this exchange with an interviewer [3]:

INTERVIEWER: Can we discuss the “Los Angelized” and re-Christianized New South? Is there anything new in the way the South is developing in the 1980s or in the way you read the South or your own relation to it?

PERCY: The odd thing I’ve noticed is that while of course the South is more and more indistinguishable from the rest of the country (Atlanta, for example, which has become one of the three or four megalopolises of the U.S., is in fact, I’m told by blacks, their favorite American city), the fact is that as Faulkner said fifty years ago, as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon line, you still know it. This, after fifty years of listening to the same radio and watching millions of hours of Barnaby Jones. I don’t know whether it’s the heat or a certain lingering civility but people will slow down on interstates to let you get in traffic. Strangers speak in post offices, hold doors for each other without being thought queer or running a con game or making a sexual advance. I could have killed the last cab driver I had in New York. Ask Eudora Welty, she was in the same cab.

I think that’s still true — that there is something distinct about the South, even today. But what? You still know it when you’re here and not there, but why?

I don’t think it makes much sense to say that there is a single Southern sensibility, but rather Southern sensibilities. Florence King famously distinguished between the South of horses, tobacco, and Episcopalians, and the South of mules, cotton, and Baptists. Black Southerners, obviously, have a different view on things than white Southerners, and there are class and regional variations among those groups. The race issue is still very real, though it’s significantly different than it was in the 1960s. Even here in my town, there are people whose experience of the South are rather distinct. For example, the hunting club South is not the same thing as the golf course South, though some men may partake of both. Northerners tend to have this idea that Southerners grow up knowing all about the Civil War. I live a stone’s throw away from my town’s Confederate soldier monument, but I don’t know much about the Civil War, and I’m pretty sure most people of my generation don’t either. For better and for worse, television and mass culture washed away a lot of our particularity.

And yet, things are different here. I’ve said in this space before that one thing I noticed when I left the South at age 25 and moved to Washington, DC, is how my Southern friends and I would get together at bars or parties and start telling stories about back home, and our pals from the West, Midwest, and Northeast would listen in astonishment, assuming that we must be making it all up. But we weren’t, or if any of us were, the stories were entirely plausible. We had all seen it before.

I’ve taken pleasure in every place I’ve lived in the US, but the older I grew, the more I found myself feeling like a displaced person. I never imagined that I would move back to the South, but I thought about the South a lot. I loved it sometimes and I hated it other times, but I couldn’t get it out of my system. Here’s the thing: I could list the things that I missed about the South, but what I really missed about the South was not the sum total of that list. But what was it?

I think I finally figured it out today, when thinking about why, even though I’ve lived in many good non-Southern places, none of them really felt like home. I never quite got used to the literal nature of the people among whom I’ve lived in other parts of the country. Don’t misread me: that’s not a criticism, but it is a distinction I’ve observed. The Southern mind is so much more poetical. Southerners don’t expect 2 + 2 + 4 to add up to 8, at least not all the time. And that’s okay. It’s a violent region, and a region of great poverty. But it’s also a region of intense humanity and powerful grace. Life here seems so vivid, like something you’d read about in a story. With Midwesterners, what you see is what you get. Not with us. The mystery and dream logic of life here appeals to me, though I wonder if I would love it so if I hadn’t been raised with it. Anyway, I fit in that world, and in that worldview, in a way I didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

We had a lovely thread here a while back in which New Englanders talked about the things they loved about their region. Though I’ve never lived in New England, and scarcely even visited it, it was a pleasure for me to read people who have writing about their passion for the place. If Southerners want to do that here, that’s fine by me. But what I’d really like to know is what Southerners today think defines the sensibility of our region. Is there some unifying thread tying together the various sensibilities? I know this is a difficult question; there are distinct differences between the people from northern Louisiana and the people from southern Louisiana, and they don’t all have to do with the Catholic vs. Protestant thing. Still, nobody would mistake any of us for Minnesotans. What do you non-Southerners notice about the Southern people you know and spend time around? I’m not talking about politics (so please don’t!), but more general aspects of their character and way of thinking and moving through the world. Help me figure out what makes Southerners in 2012 distinct from other Americans.

To repeat: I’m not interested in reading people’s complaining, but rather in thoughtful critical analysis. If you just want to take cheap potshots at the South or Southerners, don’t bother.

46 Comments (Open | Close)

46 Comments To "What’s a Southern Sensibility Today?"

#1 Comment By Major Wootton On December 5, 2012 @ 8:29 am

I hope a relevant tangent is okay, and that is, that we could get some comments, particularly from Southerners, about the novels of Madison Jones — A Cry of Absence, An Exile, Passage Through Gehenna, Herod’s Wife (to name four I have read) and others.

I know nothing firsthand about the South; but this author is, for me, one of the most exciting discoveries of the past 20 years. I suppose Sigrid Undset and Dostoevsky would come to mind as authors for whom his work has some affinity. But what’s your take on him as a Southern writer? So far as I know he always lived in the South and always wrote about people in the South. He was a friend of Flannery O’Connor, by the way.

#2 Comment By Thomas Andrews On December 5, 2012 @ 9:01 am

Oh, that’s easy.
The food.
Also, subtlety.
Rod, most of your readers from anywhere north of, say, Virginia, don’t get it, but the subtle forms of insult are one of the true delights of Dixie and in which you frequently indulge.
“Dear, Bobby-Sue, why, the man-trouble that poor child has had, bless her heart….”
In Ohio would mean exactly what it says.
When my aunt in just outside Atlanta says it, the sweeter and kinder it comes out, the sharper the real meaning comes into focus:
“That two-bit ***** got exactly what she deserved, honestly, I’ve met females dogs in heat with more discretion and better taste.”

Oh, and did I mention the food?

#3 Comment By Will Hinton On December 5, 2012 @ 9:05 am


Love this question. I have given this a lot of thought over the years, though I’m not really sure that I have many answers.

I’m a 5th generation native Atlantan. Some people would say I’m not really a true Southerner being from Atlanta. On one hand I get this critique; when I went to college at Auburn, I felt a bit out of place since I hadn’t grown up hunting/fishing/camping like so many men in the South. On the other hand, Atlanta was still a Southern town when I was growing up and my father and grandfather both grew up in an Atlanta that was very much the South. Like you, I’ve had the advantage of living in some other regions of the country, which has helped me gain better perspective on the South.

I’d say the South is full of contradictions and that we are more willing than most to embrace the mystery of those contradictions. I think that permanence, family, place, and tradition are more valued in the South and all of these can manifest themselves both positively and negatively. We can be highly competitive within our culture (college football) yet have a strong sense of “Us vs Others” that causes us to rally around and support those like us. We can lay on the charm and manners better than anyone yet are usually willing to be direct when the situation calls for it.

The difficulty with this question is that it can’t be answered in prose. I think it would take an epic tragic book of poems to adequately describe what it means to be Southern.

#4 Comment By Clint On December 5, 2012 @ 9:12 am

America has lost much of it’s parochial and regional charm due to the homogenizing effect of elements such as universal media , cookie cutter chain store business economy , etc.

#5 Comment By Sam M On December 5, 2012 @ 9:13 am

I wonder if we are asking a magazine to do too much. Has a single pulbication EVER been able to nail a regional sensibility? Something like the New Yorker comes to mind, but that’s obviously a pretty narrow slice of New York. Esquire in the 1960s faced the same limitations.

Generally, magazines are aspirational at best and help define a certain culture to people who are not in it. They simplify. Sure, the New Yorker is for New Yorkers in some sense, but it’s more for people from outside of major metro areas who are trying to keep up with that sensibility. Written by people who have an interest in steering it.

Which is why it’s hard to make a magazine that speaks for, to and about something like flyover country, at least in a literary way. Women’s Day and other magazines like that do the speaking “to.” But people like you and me don’t value that as literary, so we don’t use them as a way to learn “about.”

It’s the same reason it’s so hard to write a novel about “the suburbs.”

#6 Comment By Elijah On December 5, 2012 @ 9:44 am

“The Southern mind is more poetical.” I think you’re right, but I also think it’s simply more open to ideas and thoughts and feelings and many other things – perhaps that’s a function of the essential grace and general good-nature of Southerners. It has always seemed to me that grace was natural because it was a natural outworking of a powerful Christian faith. Manners, etiquette, respect for others – these are very hard to pull off in places where there is not some shared framework or heritage. I think for Southerners that foundation is traditional Christianity. Things – almost anything – can be discussed and written about and even joked about as long as there is a standard, an objective basis, for examining those things.

I think New Englanders had their own version of that poetical mind once upon a time, but somehow everything there has devolved into politics. So many subjects, attitudes, and ideas have become taboo, so completely off-limits, that all people do any more is argue about political positions. It’s like the one time I went (with a friend) to a Unitarian “church service” – everyone just argued about politics the whole time. Hard to even recognize the poetic in that type of environment. How can you when it’s practically out of bounds to even notice the difference between sexes? What do you do with that?

#7 Comment By The Nebraskan in Exile On December 5, 2012 @ 9:56 am

Rod wrote: “With Midwesterners, what you see is what you get.”

Speaking as a lifelong Midwesterner (with Southern roots), I was taken aback by this idea that Midwesterners are really transparent. I would describe us as the most indirect region of the nation after the South, capable of all the implication that Thomas Andrews describes at 9:01, if with less poetry. You’ll have heard of “Minnesota nice.”

That said, I do think we have a frontier pragmatism that cuts back on the mysticism and weirdness of the south. We are a plain people, if one that makes indirection a mode of life.

#8 Comment By Old Rebel On December 5, 2012 @ 9:58 am

Every culture adapts to its times and circumstances. No one accuses Jews of “living in the past” or of mythologizing their identity just because they’re no longer the desert nomads they once were. Like any other ethnic group, they’ve preserved their identity as a people not in spite of changing, but because they’ve changed. It’s the same with Southerners.

In “I’ll Take My Stand,” Stark Young asserted, “The South changing must be the South still.” He was right. And as the red-and-blue electoral map testifies, Southerners are still a unique people.

#9 Comment By T.S.Gay On December 5, 2012 @ 10:09 am

I’ll take a shot as a total yankee. My son-in-law and daughter are military. He went to North Korea for a year and a half, we lived with daughter and grandchildren in North Carolina piedmont region.
The main thing is life revolved around church. And we gained weight. I would go to the sunday night service with social meal afterwards saying to myself that I would only try a very small amount of each “covered dish” and dessert. But the uniqueness and deliciousness of the variety to my tastes overcame my restraints. I’ll only mention things I never really had before- pork with chocolate, pork barbeque vinegar based, meatloaf creole and greek combo, meat pie, of course southern fried chicken the right way, shrimp po boys, grits with bacon, spinach, mushroom, frogmore stew….and sweet potatoe dessert, lemon chess pie, of course pecan pies, humingbird cake……I mean I’m leaving a lot out. OH, and there was men’s prayer Breakfast( capital B) every Saturday morning.
The backbone of my kid’s church was the older folks, not the middle aged or youth, although there were more of them than I was used to. Now, almost invariably, the older folks had a background that involved their growing up during the 1930’s depression. They had all come out of poverty that was more significant than what my elders in the north experienced. I think that is significant in being less tolerant of people today trying to slide by relying on government, or family, or even church for existence. And they are more theologically aware of the differences in Christian theologies- reformed, catholic, baptist, methodist, orthodox, pentecoastal, anabaptist….I think it’s significant in passing on cores to the younger, I think the younger southerner is in some way immunized by their elders from being blind-sided by secularism. And they are competitive. I don’t know where that comes from, sort of an ethos that is from an intuitive loyalty ethic to group(see Jonathan Haidt).
My most unfavorable comment is on racism. The church I’m referencing as center to southern life had people of all races, and you know that they truly loved each other. And it would freak me out when I’d notice that in truth there still is an underlying racism on all sides in that culture. I mean they all have this under the surface dislike for the culture of the other. I’m trying to be creative to describe it, it’s hard to describe, but it is very real. I guess it really boils down to I’m not as culturally driven as them. I melt easier, lean toward progressive more, not as stickiy to tradition as them. And I say we and them, because I am not as comfortable in that climate as I am in more northern ones.
Just one more thing….. being retired, when it was time to move back north, the people of the church knew we could have stayed south if we chose- and they truly wanted us to.
So I would describe to them the many reasons they should come north with us. Almost invariably they instinctively went “Brrr”.

#10 Comment By stillaninterestedobserver On December 5, 2012 @ 10:17 am

I’d say what I notice most is a combination of genteel approaches to life (not gentility per se in some snobbish sense, more like the fact that, for instance, one dear friend up in Shreveport once described herself as hillbilly when frankly she could hold her own with anybody in English royalty — and is now married to a UK immigrant, for that matter!) and spines of steel. It’s very rare, in my experience of Southern life, friends and relatives, to see one without the other, and if you somehow cause the latter to break in someone, reaping the whirlwind will be the least of your worries.

#11 Comment By Jason Reese On December 5, 2012 @ 10:28 am

Sin. When I hear people from other parts of the country talk about the loss of American innocence (which always seems to take place roughly when the speaker was a teenager), I smirk. We were never innocent and know it. I think this is much of the root of the cult of courtesy. I forget who, but there was a Russian monk or theologian or writer who said to be kind to whomever you meet because you do not know what demons they have been fighting that day. We have internalized that, I believe.

#12 Comment By Sam M On December 5, 2012 @ 11:12 am

Interesting that Old Rebel brings up “I’ll Take My Stand,” as it illustrates a lot of the complications in play. Is that book “Southern”? Of course. But it’s clearly representative of a peculiar and limited version of Southernness.

Either way, recall this from Rod, in a comment from the other day:

“My sense is that when people start to think of childbearing as a conscious choice, as opposed to The Thing We Do Without Thinking About It, fertility plummets. Same with religious belief and practice.”

Take out “childbearing” and “fertility” and insert “southernness” or “regional character” more broadly, and it’s equally valid. As soon as you define something and begin poking at it, it seems to evaporate. Southernness is what Southerners do. Culture is as culture does. When you package it and sell it in the New Yorker or Gun and Barrel, it ceases to be culture and becomes just another consumer choice on the menu.

That is, Anchor Steam is not longer a San Francisco beer. It’s a beer that you either like or don’t like, which you drink or don’t drink wherever you are. So Southernness becomes something more like Southiness, Inc.

But perhaps its the intractability that has allowed it to survive? If it were distillable in a magazine, devoid of contradictions (even hypocricy) it could be effectively packaged and marketed and sold. But so far at least, you can’t buy “Southern” in Minnesota. You can only buy Southiness.

#13 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 5, 2012 @ 11:34 am

My experience with southerners is not typical, university professors, a retired admiral, that sort of thing. And they always struck me as tending to be a bit more formal, but being much older than me that could simply have been a difference in generations. One thing I did notice, is that they never seemed to have gotten over the little visit my great great great grandfather paid to them with Uncle Billy, and there was always the smell of burning plantation hanging over them.

On the other hand the woman from Louisiana and I had great fun making up funny war stories about our respective ancestors and puzzling the hell out of everyone around us whose relatives washed ashore too late to be part of the fun.

#14 Comment By Rod Dreher On December 5, 2012 @ 11:36 am

Take out “childbearing” and “fertility” and insert “southernness” or “regional character” more broadly, and it’s equally valid. As soon as you define something and begin poking at it, it seems to evaporate. Southernness is what Southerners do. Culture is as culture does. When you package it and sell it in the New Yorker or Gun and Barrel, it ceases to be culture and becomes just another consumer choice on the menu.

That’s an insightful point, and speaks to why I am really interested in Southern stuff, but turned off by most things sold to me as “Southern.” The quantum state of Southerness: to measure the thing is to make it cease to exist.

#15 Comment By Noah172 On December 5, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

Raised in NYC suburbs; live in Georgia; wife grew up in upstate South Carolina (almost all her family live within an hour’s drive or so from one another).

As David Hackett Fisher tells us so expertly in Albion’s Seed, the culture of the American South is an amalgam of the cultures of its early British settler groups: Cavalier gentry from the south and west of England and their indentured servants; and the “borderers,” more popularly known as the Scotch-Irish, from far north England, lowland Scotland, and Ulster. Add to that mix, of course, the African slaves. The South has been able to maintain a distinctive culture and strong local attachment among its natives for so long because, until recent decades, the region lagged the rest of the country in economic development, thus proportionately fewer non-natives (domestic and foreign) moved in seeking employment. The areas of the South that are the least culturally Southern — south Florida, Atlanta, Virginia’s DC suburbs, etc. — are the areas in which descendants of the aforementioned groups are greatly outnumbered.

Since the 1960s or so, economic growth in the South, bringing in migrants from elsewhere, as well as the homogenizing effects (as other commenters have mentioned) of mass media, education, chain-stores, and the like, have really undercut the South’s distinctive culture, for good and ill.

Some things that I have noticed about the South (not complaints necessarily, observations):

— A greater relative degree of parochialism than other regions. Non-southerners are not at all immune from this phenomenon, nor is it always a negative.

— A relatively greater sense of “we’ve got something to prove” (resentment is perhaps too stinging a word, though it applies to some individuals). White Southerners (the blacks less so) are sensitive to outsiders’ presumed negative perceptions of the region — poor, backward, stupid, racist, Bible-thumping, you know the litany; nowadays, much of this sentiment is fueled by the politicized culture wars.

I have known many a southerner who is quick to assure the non-southerner that he or she (the southerner) is not like “those people” (stereotypical rednecks), whereas I have rarely if ever seen a New Yorker/New Jerseyan feel the need to distance himself, while in the presence of someone from middle America, from the negative perceptions of his region. (And when I have seen such a thing, it has been really more ethnic than regional: a secular Jew distancing herself from the Orthodox “those people”; “not every Italian is in the mafia”; that sort of thing. Maybe Jersey Shore and those Real Housewives shows have changed this, forcing people from my native area to defend themselves to outsiders; I don’t watch enough TV to care.) People from NY/NJ generally don’t know what people from Mayberry think about the NY/NJ region, or don’t care.

— Religion. Historically, there was not a great gulf in religiosity between North and South; if anything, Puritan New England was much more fervent in its Christianity than the South, much of whose planter elite was Deist, Unitarian, and nominal Anglican (contrast the “God and country” high-church Federalists with the low-church/unchurched, French-Revolution-sympathizing Jeffersonians). Now of course the Bible Belt mostly overlaps with the South, and it shows. A respect for and deference to a certain type of Christianity is definitely part of the Southern sensibility.

— Indirectness. Southerners often will not say what they mean or mean what they say. At times, this politeness or tact can be refreshing to one weary of the ****-you New York attitude; at other times, it is maddening (“stop smiling and tell me what you really think!”).

#16 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On December 5, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

Bless your heart, Mr. Dreher.

#17 Comment By CW On December 5, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

Midwesterners, what you see is what you get. Not with us.

Wow, that is not at all true. Outsiders who move to Minnesota really don’t understand when they are disliked or excluded. I know of one woman from the east who worked at a Minneapolis law firm and thought she was sure to make partner. Everyone loved her. A Minnesota-born friend had to take her aside and explain that she was actually disliked. She had no idea.

Chicago may be different, but my experience is that Midwesterners are not particularly direct. Niceness in the Midwestern sense is not as formal or warm as Southern politeness, but it is not direct or confrontational.

As for the south, I don’t think of it as being more poetic, instead I see a greater cultural focus on narrative and shared storytelling. I also think of southerners as having a warmth with strangers that sometimes seems charming and other times phony. Southern politicians and preachers smile more, which is a bit offputting (this isn’t a partisan thing, I’m thinking of Clinton and Jimmy Carter in this mix).

#18 Comment By em On December 5, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

I’m from the most northern states of the midwest and northwest. Southern men I’ve known have seemed to be just the same as men anywhere, equally gentleman or scoundrels as anyone (and I am very fond of men in general). Southern women I’ve had a harder time figuring out – I’ve known what seem to be two different classes of them, one exhibiting everything I really dislike in women, and the other all the things I most love.

The nice ones have some way of making me feel as if I am family, nearly instantly – they adopt me and stick by me with loyalty I have found few places throughout all the world. Their very good manners are never uptight or self conscious feeling, as often up north, where many manners are also simply left off (but people do not intend rudeness, it is just the way). My husband has visited for work Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and swears he will never return to the south for any reason – but he is extremely reserved in personality and culture. I would love so much to visit; I have known big hearted, wonderful people from everywhere, but there IS something warm and special from southerners.

#19 Comment By Rich On December 5, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

Thomas Andrews mentioned subtlety and I think that is a huge one. I married into a family of Canadians and New Yorkers. They seem almost congenitally unable to detect subtext. The entire Southern lexicon with its multiple layers and alternate meanings is lost on them.

Many times my wife has said to me “Don’t say it in Texan – I don’t know what you mean”.

Religion is another big one. Flannery O’Connor was certainly correct in calling the South “Christ-haunted”. I’ve really been surprised at the reactions to that I’ve seen from non-Southerners over the years. I’ve more than once heard shock (and a couple of cursing rants) when they’ve seen the number of churches here, and I once saw a young women have what seemed like a panic attack brought on by a prayer at a charity event.

#20 Comment By Len S On December 5, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

In 2004 I had bright purple hair. Here in Minneapolis I would get one or two comments a day, the comment usually being “Now what sort of job do you have that you can have hair that color?” (IT, of course.) On a brief trip to New York I got at least one comment an hour as I walked around Manhattan, people would even shout across the street or down the block “Look at that!”

But when my wife and I took a 3000-mile two-week road trip through the south, mostly on back roads but also going through major cities, I only received one comment about my hair. I’m not sure what this says about the south.

We had a great time and met a lot of people and heard a lot of stories, but I guess everyone was too polite to mention the hair.

#21 Comment By Andrea On December 5, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

I had an English professor in college who was from the South who often talked about the Southern propensity for story-telling and Southern Gothic. He didn’t think North Dakotans or Midwesterners in general had enough tolerance for flamboyance. He was probably right; I thought he was a touch too flamboyant. He was a friend of Eudora Welty and I believe we also read Flannery O’Connor in his classes.

Southerners I’ve known do tend to have a touch more drama. There’s also what you’d probably call the “Bless her heart” insult. North Dakotans are also rather indirect, but we tend to insult more through understatement: “Well, isn’t that different” or giving the cold shoulder to someone who has violated one of the unwritten rules of the town by putting on airs.

#22 Comment By Mary Russell On December 5, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

What’s unique about the South?

The accents, to state the obvious. I grew up in California, where people speak with a bland uniformity. I went to university at a relatively unaccented place in the South, then followed a guy down to rural North Carolina, where everybody had a thick “country” accent. It just blew me away that people actually talked like this. It’s hard to overstate what an impression Southern accents have on people from other parts of the country, and I think most Southern people are pretty self-conscious about it in a way people from other regions are not.

A friend of mine with a big North Carolina accent recently took a job as a travelling nurse. Her first assignment was in a hospital in Rhode Island. I joked with her that there would likely be mutual astonishment at each other’s accents. (RI accents are the thickest in New England.) But to her this was no joking matter: she was really nervous about the impression her Southern accent would make on her coworkers and patients. And she’s right that having a Southern accent seems to carry a stigma that having a New York or New England accent doesn’t carry. New Yorkers don’t really care what other people think about the way they talk, but (in my experience) Southerners can be quite sensitive about it.

#23 Comment By RB On December 5, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

My husband grew up nearly living with his grandmother, who grew up in the South before coming west to marry Grandpa, scrape a dairy farm out of the Eastern Washington sagebrush.

The most salient difference in his upbringing was that he grew up in the 80’s, but was raised by his father and grandparents in the 50’s, if you see what I mean.

I figured that was because husband and FIL grew up country, with all the social stereotypes that entails, but when husband and I moved to the Gulf Coast with the USAF, it seemed to my northern, western, Japanese-american eyes like the region was the USA, but fifty years younger than the one I’d grown up in.

When I read Albion’s Seed–which I can’t recommend enough–it was like I was reading about my husband’s family. The descriptions especially of the legacies of Border Scots and Northern England in Southern culture, with the emphases on clan/kinship ties, property rights, and a general anti-authoritarian attitude.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Grandma married Grandpa, who wasn’t Southern, but who did grow up in a Wyoming colony founded and peopled by the same rugged English/Scottish ancestors who initially settled the South.

I love reading your posts about life on the South; they often seem to describe what I love about rural life up here in the inland Northwest–the old fashioned manners, the deference to elders, the hunting. Substitute shrimp for salmon and pecan orchards for apple and sometimes it really doesn’t seem too different.

#24 Comment By RB On December 5, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

sorry about the terrible sentence structures above. I shouldn’t combine posting with homeschooling.

#25 Comment By Andrea On December 5, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

Religiosity is probably the other obvious difference that I forgot to mention. North Dakota has the second highest number of church-goers in the U.S., after Utah, but you aren’t going to find many people here asking “Are you saved?” or “Are you a Christian?” etc.

I’ve had Southern Baptists ask me both those things and seem to be of the opinion that someone who was raised Catholic wasn’t really a Christian. Native North Dakotans wouldn’t bring something like that up in casual conversation, though they may mention going to church or some church activity they are part of in passing.

I have the impression that the worship style may be quite a bit different, too, in Southern Baptist churches, both in terms of informality and people calling out during the service or being uninhibited, though that may be more true of black churches. We have a predominantly black church near the air base with a choir that performs at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. I think many of those people are base people who are from the Southern states. Good people, beautiful singing, but culturally quite different.

#26 Comment By Anderson On December 5, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

“What’s A Southern Sensibility Today?”

As a Mississippian, I would venture to suggest that a Southern sensibility might include astonishment that George Zimmerman is standing trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

#27 Comment By VikingLS On December 5, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

The south isn’t just a culture but a collection of cultures. Even within one state they can range pretty broadly. The Carolinas and Tennessee range as broadly culturally east to west as the Alpine north of Italy and the Mediterranean south.

The deep south has the remains of a high culture one rarely finds in the rest of the south or only in small amounts. (The planter culture should neither be over romanticized nor overly vilified. )

Generally working class lowland Southerners aren’t that different from highlanders, but the wealthy upper class of the deep south has no real parallel in the mountains. (There are some very wealthy people in Appalachia, but the balls and cotillions ect, aren’t there.)

What I’d say sets the South apart from the rest of the US is a sense of tragedy and a weight of history. Perhaps another parallel to Italy? 🙂

#28 Comment By PSL On December 5, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

Life-long Southerner here.

There are those who are self-consciously Southern who wake up every morning trying to dress the part of a Garden and Gun photo shoot and then there are those who don’t think about what it means . . . they just “are”. They go to work, drink sweet tea, live with diabetes, struggle to survive, go to church, sit in front of the TV and then start it all over the next day. The first group talks about the philosophy of sitting on front porches, the latter group actually does it until the mosquitoes start biting their legs.

The irony of blue-blood Southerners listening to Johnny Cash and buying million dollar “distressed” hunting camps is always a humorous thing to watch. So I think there is a difference between what is marketed as “Southern” and what really is. The market carries an element of truth but it ain’t the whole truth.

I think Southern writer Rick Bragg captured this:

“If I have to hear one more penny loafer-wearing, pink-jowled, bow-tied geek who doesn’t know how to pronounce his r’s talk about how his “mutha” grew up in the Big House in “Jaw-ja,” I will bust. We may sound like trash, us up-country peckerwoods, but at least by God you can understand what we’re saying.”–Rick Bragg, All Over but the Shoutin, 268.

#29 Comment By JonF On December 5, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

I would say that there are at least three Souths: Ms King’s horses and tobacco South, running from South Maryland and the Delmarva peninsula along the coast as far Savannah. It fills much of Virginia but shrinks as one progress down through the Carolinas– Charleston belongs to it; Columbia does not.
Then there the cotton and Baptists south– the old Black Belt lands and their penumbra, stretching down to northern Florida and the Gulf, and west as far as Houston.
And finally, the Upper South of mountains (Apalachians and Ozarks) and rivers (Ohio and the mid-Mississippi), which also takes in the southernmost counties of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and extends west to Tulsa (as least).

Maybe we can descry a little fourth South: the Creole and Cajun parishes of Louisiana (including New Orleans).

#30 Comment By km On December 5, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

As a midwesterner teaching at a southern university, two things immediately jumped to mind when I thought about this question:

1. An extreme deference to authority, of any sort. I find it very difficult to get my students to question what I say, no matter what it is. I can say something that completely contradicts the worldview of the students, and they will dutifully write what I said back to me on the exam, even though I *know* they don’t believe it. It’s taken me years to find ways to get the students to feel ok with thinking for themselves, with questioning what I say and what they read, with using multiple viewpoints to question/complement what they already know. Part of this is the hideous high school systems in the south — in many ways even the brightest students simply aren’t equipped to think intelligently for themselves — but a big part of it is an (unhealthy, if you ask me) unquestioned respect for authority. While I often appreciate this more than know-nothings spouting off at the mouth, which you find in most all other parts of the country, it gets a bit frustrating.

2. A completely lack of irony. The big strive for authenticity that I found among young people in places like Chicago and New York (at least 10-15 years ago) just doesn’t exist here. No one will grow an ironic mustache here, or listen to music that they actually don’t like. The country kids are the country kids and the suburban kids and the suburban kids. They don’t strive for city affectations, nor do many of them feel as though they have to apologize for their upbringing or way of life. I think if some Brooklyn hipster spent a week here his head would explode.

#31 Comment By Fred On December 5, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

Unfortunately, this is behind the New Yorker’s subscriber’s wall. But this week they profile Paul Finebaum – Alabama football radio talk-show host:


The article is titled “King of the South”. I grew up on the beaches of Southern California, went to college and graduate school in New England, and have lived in New Orleans for the last 20 years. New Orleans, of course, is not part of the South, but is the northernmost outpost of the Caribbean. But I married into a rabid LSU football family, and have been tailgating up at Death Valley for a long time. That is where I have encountered “the South”. The New Yorker article is a fun/fascinating look at SEC fandom – a significant southern subculture.

#32 Comment By RB On December 5, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

km, part of your comment reminded me of a bumper sticker I recently saw: “Who are you to tell me to question authority?” I mean, by not engaging with you in the way you’d prefer, aren’t your students actually defying you?

Not snarking. I just enjoy recursive humor.

#33 Comment By Jack On December 5, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

I grew up in Massachusetts, lived for almost a decade in Minnesota, also lived a few years in the South, currently reside again in southern New England, and have lots of family in North Carolina. Before moving to the South I wondered about “southern hospitality”. In my experience it struck me as something more akin to protocol than hospitality. I don’t mean to suggest that it completely lacked sincerity, but it wasn’t quite what I expected. So I left the south thinking that a heightened respect for protocol was a southern thing. Back in the 1990’s I went to a wedding in NC. There was a reception at a lovely home in Greensboro. The kitchen staff was all black women. The servers were all black men. And of course the wedding attendees were all white. This would never happen up north. But I didn’t process it as racism. It just struck me as protocol. But could it be argued that racism is actually about protocol and if a heightened respect for protocol is southern, could this be a reason why a certain form of racism has a persistence or expression in some parts of the South that is not quite the same as racism up North? Just a thought. I always chuckle when I remember something my aunt said many years ago. She has lived in the South for almost 40 years but she is from New England. For a long time after moving to the South her southern friends would always call her a Yankee. But this aunt was a first generation immigrant off the boat from Italy. So one day she said to her friends: “You know, I am not a Yankee. My roots are in Italy. It is you Southerners who are the real Yankees and you don’t even know it!”. She is a real cracker.

#34 Comment By Bethany On December 5, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

I think the “weight of history” is really key. I feel like I am forever explaining to my Midwestern friends how recent the past is — how “the past is not even past,” to borrow from Faulkner. My father went to segregated elementary school, and I am not yet 30. That kind of thing is the unspoken everywhere backstory in the South in a way that is inescapable.

I also think Respect for Elders is more of a value in and of itself, whether the respect was earned or not. You may disagree, but you rarely contradict.

#35 Comment By brians On December 6, 2012 @ 1:23 am

“If you just want to take cheap potshots at the South or Southerners, don’t bother.”

I had some great jokes lined up till I read this line. Geez.

#36 Comment By pilgrim On December 6, 2012 @ 9:24 am

My thought is that southerners have a greater acceptance and appreciation for the particularity of reality. They rejoice in it. This makes them better poets than scientists, maybe better sinners than saints, therefore the rich opportunities for the colorful playing out of grace.

#37 Comment By vlewell On December 6, 2012 @ 10:12 am

The best source for all things Southern–esp. questions about What is the South?, cultural persistence in our rapidly changing world, and Southerners as an ethnic group–are the many works of UNC sociologist John Shelton Reed.


#38 Comment By Nick On December 6, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

Native Kentuckian, current Chicagoan…

I’d like to think the difference is a value system that places people, relationships, quality of life etc. over profit, quantity, rushing, striving, hustle and bustle. Think about the Southern disdain for the industrialized, bustling North, the carpetbagger, the greedy politicians in Washington, the refusal to “modernize” in many guises and you will find a mindset that says,”Yes, I see you have come up with a way to make things faster, to do more, more and more, ways to scramble ahead while walking over your fellow man…but what is it all worth, if you don’t have time to think, to laugh, to sit and talk with friends and family: in short, to savor life?”

#39 Comment By GCR On December 6, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

I moved to Virginia from Maryland this year, and I still can’t get used to all the things/places named after Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis (even in the D.C. burbs).

Nine years ago, right after I graduated from college, I had an internship at a decent-sized, mainstream newspaper in Alabama. On my very first day, without even knowing I was a Christian, my co-workers asked me, “What church do you go to?”

The fact that members of the “evil godless liberal pro-gay anti-Christian media” would ask that definitely says something about the South 🙂

#40 Comment By sanderson On December 8, 2012 @ 1:18 am

As a Southerner from N.C. who has lived in various places (currently China), I loved this article and reading the above letters. I have read The Oxford American off and on for years, and usually enjoy it. (The Food Issue” is always great). I am also looking forward to seeing upcoming issues, with the new editor at the helm.
No, the South has not totally disappeared – it is still a quite distinct region. I think many native Southerners love to ‘revel’ in their ‘Southerness!’ We lived in Michigan for a few years and were amazed at how people were generally very friendly to us, and how everyone would go out of their way to express some ‘relation’ they had to N.C. or S.C. (“my dad’s people are from there” or my brother is working down in Charlotte now!’)
One other point: the South is around 1/4 of the country; please don’t think we are all exactly the same! If you visited one little area and didn’t like it, go to one of the other states and you may love it.

#41 Comment By Paige On December 8, 2012 @ 10:04 am

Mr. GCR,

If you had grown up in Maryland a few more decades back, you would have found nothing odd about Virginia’s Confederate nostalgia. Maryland was a Southern stronghold well into the late seventies, when the central part of the state started to be settled by Northeasterners looking for work in DC. But after whom do you imagine Lee St. in Baltimore was named? And are you unaware of all the Confederate monuments in Baltimore and liberally scattered all over the state? Maryland was occupied territory during the Civil War, but many thousands of Marylanders fought on the Southern side. And to the east and west of the DC-Baltimore corridor, if you go far enough, you find yourself back in a world where the accents and the manners are distinctly southern.

I bring this up for no particular reason, except to note how fluid regional identity is at the borderlands.

#42 Comment By EngineerScotty On December 9, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

The obvious difference between the South and other regions of the United States, is that no other region has attempted to violently secede from the whole. One hundred fifty years hence, many of the scars there have yet to heal, on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.

And while I hope this question isn’t taken as a “pot-shot”, I must ask it:

How much of the observations made herein–the article, the linked sources, and the comments–apply to the South as a whole, and how much apply to the white South? I’m pretty certain that region’s African-American population isn’t building monuments to Lee or Davis (particularly the latter), and many other things considered quintessentially “Southern” (NASCAR, for instance) seem to be the mainly the province of Southern whites. (NASCAR, to its credit, is [6]–why this is the case, I have no idea).

Other things often considered Southern–old time religion, good manners, good food, a love of football, a strong devotion to military service, and that wonderfully ambiguous phrase “bless your heart” (which can mean anything from “God bless you” to “f*** off and die”, it seems)–unite black and white (and other ethnic groups that have moved to the South).

And be careful quoting Faulker: You might get sued [7]. (Unfortunately, this sort of outrage is not confined to any region of the country, or even to the US).

#43 Comment By LesliePR On December 9, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

I live in Southwest Louisiana, but I grew up in Alabama. There are definite differences between the two places, some of it having to do with the Catholic v. Protestant aspect, and some of it not having to do with that. For example, in Alabama, there were instances when friendships nearly broke up over a thank you note not being sent, or not being sent in a timely manner. People would sugar coat the truth a lot more, which I hated at the time, but appreciate more now that I am older. If someone didn’t like you, he would often be nice to you anyway, and people often waved to you from their cars or trucks if you were out walking, even if they didn’t know you. Someone visited from D.C. told me they thought this was a “veneer,” but I think it is just common decency. You don’t have to know or particularly like someone in order to be friendly or kind to them. I love the Catholicity of Southwest Louisiana, and the fact that people think a little more outside the box politically, but are faithful to the Church. People here are not as in love with the GOP, even though they are prolife, etc. Many people here don’t seem to be as into social conventions such as being places on time, or showing up at all, even after you say you will be there. Thank you notes don’t seem to be as important here, but if you are in need, people will show up with the food, big time.

#44 Comment By Rev. Dennis H. On December 10, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

Dear Author,
From a old baptist preacher,

I grew up in Indiana and in 1971 we moved to Florida when I was 15. I noticed immediately the difference in the people. I accepted Christ at age 15 in Indiana. My heart was so full of love, and one day walking down the sidewalk of our Indiana town smiling: I said hello to this person or that one. Only one lady smiled and responded hello. All the many others ignored me or put their purses on the other side of their person. As a kid I was hurt. What’s wrong with these people I asked God? When we got to Florida the first thing was to seek out the beach. I couldn’t believe it? Not only did people say hello back, they would stop and talk to you. I told one man my story of Indiana and the difference I saw on the beach. He said, “That’s Southern Hospitality; if you like it, pass it on.” I’ve been passing it on ever since. I like to consider myself an amateur sociologist. I’ve read many books and have studied people all my life. I’ve studied the question of the South and its differences as well. I’ve come to believe that the South has nothing in itself that’s so special to make better than others. But what it has it the continuing existence of Christian Chivalry and the influence of Christian values upon life’s belief systems. Yes, It’s still the Bible Belt but waning more all the time. At least this is true here in central Florida. It’s better in other places in the South. No people have anything more in themselves than other people. No people are so much better than others. We all fall short. BUT, to the degree we (personally and THEN collectively) allow the influence of Christian values to motivate us in our heart and lives will be to the degree to which we find a truly good and great culture, not to mention a great people.

I could tell you many stories of this if you like. You may write.

#45 Comment By hammersmith46 On December 10, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

The “South” today is something more in the mind of northerners than in reality. But Yankees and others seem to need it from time to time to prop up their own identity crisis or sagging morality.

#46 Comment By Marc Smirnoff On December 20, 2012 @ 9:28 pm

dear Rod

I often enjoy your very spirited writing–but when you write about The Oxford American (at least when it was edited by me), you always flounder.

I’m sorry but the following cultural criticism is way too glib:

“TOA has always been a magazine I’ve admired, but rarely read, and I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I’ve always felt out of step with its portrait of the South, and Southernness. It’s been so long since I’ve seen an issue that I’ve forgotten why, to be honest. I seem to recall that there was something too self-consciously Southern about it, in an English-major way.”

I mean, imagine how you would’ve reacted if I had written:

“Rod Dreher has always been a writer I’ve admired, but rarely read, and I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I’ve always felt out of step with his portrait of America, and Americaness….”

(Bang! Writer dismissed.)

You are judging depths through the use of surfaces (barely remembered surfaces) and then using unfamiliarity to damn…as if unfamiliarity can’t stop you from judging a thing’s essence because, well, you have special powers. (The comic-book equivalent would be Captain Osmosis.)

I’m sorry but such laziness parading as “criticism” wouldn’t be acceptable in a high-school book report.

If you want, send your mailing address to the e-mail I’ve listed and I’ll ship a copy or two of The OA from when I ran it. That way you can see or judge the thing for what it was in truth and not have to rely on an admittedly vague memory.

By the way, we just posted my analysis of New Oxford American Roger Hodge (and of a New York Times hatchet-job that cut up Carol Ann Fitzgerald and myself) on our Editorsinlove.com website.

It might be pertinent to this discussion.


Marc Smirnoff, founder, The Oxford American