Portraying the South

Nashville’s own Clay Risen offers a thoughtful critique of “Down There on a Visit,” a kind of travel essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic that appeared in the August 12 issue of the New York Review of Books. Simic braved the wilds of Georgia and Alabama for a few weeks in a car this summer and on the basis of his trip felt he could capture the essence of the region. Naturally, as Risen says, the area came off as “poor, backward, segregated, and culturally barren.”

Risen alleges that “writers who come to the South looking for intolerance, cultural backwardness, and other liberal bogeymen employ all manner of narrowmindness in order to make their point, in the process proving they too harbor all sorts of unspoken intolerances.” He concludes:

What’s really sad about Simic’s essay is that it is unlikely to shock, or even interest, the Review‘s readers. Lots will find an affirmation of their own assumptions; they will conclude that Simic has simply verified, like so many others before him, what they have been taught to believe about the American South. They will feel no need to test their assumptions; in fact, it is authors like Simic, full of scary confrontations with the Heart of American Darkness, who will prevent them from ever doing so. And then, when they are done, they will wonder why southerners resent them.

I’ve never seen these truths enunciated more elegantly.

I was slightly aware of the Northeastern attitude toward the South when I lived in Florida, but I sort of thought my Mississippi relatives were exaggerating. Here in New York City, though, I see it all the time. People at certain cocktail parties seem to regard me as a trick pony because I manage not to slobber down the front of my dress and can string words into complete sentences although I went to a state university in the South instead of Harvard, Yale, or Oberlin.

Many of my friends here are southerners or Texans, whose U.T. at Austin or Emory or Tulane degrees might as well have been pulled from a Cracker Jack box for all they’re worth in these parts.

As my family members are fond of pointing out, I’m not really southern. It’s true that my dad hails from Mississippi. And I was born in Mom’s home state of Texas. Until my teens, I rooted for the Cowboys and wore t-shirts that said “on the eighth day God created Dallas.” But I grew up in Miami, a/k/a the sixth borough. So although I persisted in saying “sow” instead of “saw” until I was fourteen, I lost the major markers of my accent early and worked hard to eradicate southernisms from my speech.

With friends, it was “you guys” rather than “y’all,” “yeah” instead of “yes, please,” “sweetie” instead of “sugar” or “darlin’.” The transformation of my vocabulary persisted through high school, when “I don’t give a rat’s ass” became “I don’t give a shit.” I spoke slowly, editing as I went.

The changes weren’t limited to my language. I sought to erase all vestiges of my southern roots, repudiating country music, denouncing hicks. I was too polite, too reserved, for south Florida, but nobody could say exactly why I was different except that I “talked too slow” and was “too fucking nice.”

It was only after moving here that I started to let the Texanness out, to use the phrases I’d always had in my mind but had learned not to say. I think I started to do it in defiance of all those people at parties who looked me up and down and said, “but you don’t sound southern. You don’t seem southern.”

But I digress. Here’s a thought, New York Review of Books: next time you’re going to have someone write about the South, why not ask Clay Risen?


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