MAXWELL:  There’s no place like the South

3/24/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The South is America. The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country _ fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.

_ P.J. O’Rourke

My recent travels through rural Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia reminded anew that no matter how hard the South tries to resemble the rest of the nation, the Land of Cotton endures as a unique place.

It has a special view of the nation’s history, a special ethos of religion, a special regional pride, a special fixation with football and car racing and, unlike any other area, a lasting shame.

Out of this brew of sentiment and obsession has come a group of highly quotable people _ politicians, entertainers, coaches and ordinary folks. No other region can match the South for its wisdom, its simple insight into human nature and its ironic humor. After all, you have to be smart and have a sense of humor if you are born and raised in a place that is home to Elvis, televangelism, Delta blues, grits, boiled peanuts and the seersucker suit.

Following are some of the written and spoken comments about the South I collected on vacation. Some of these gems are from books and magazines, official brochures, restaurant menus, conversation. One was a bumper sticker, and another came from a bathroom stall.

Southern fathers pride themselves on giving sage advice to boys, especially their sons. Novelist Tony Earley’s father said this to young Tony after he committed the worst sin of deer hunters: “Boy, don’t you know better than to crap under your tree?”

Blues great Big Bill Broonzy, after years of on-the-job training, offered this advice: “Boy, don’t let whiskey and them women make you break up your happy home.”

Novelist and University of Florida creative writing Professor Harry Crews listened to his father: “Daddy always say if you give a man a white shirt and a tie and a suit of clothes, you can find out real quick how sorry he is.”

Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to his Crimson Tide stalwarts: “It’s a lot better to be seen than heard. The sun is the most powerful thing I know of, and it doesn’t make much noise.”

My favorite wise words are those of Memphis native Sputnik Monroe, who wrestled during the 1950s: “Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if they take you out, leave tearing down the ring.”

Exactly who are Southerners? Are they still beknighted, gravy-slopping rednecks who would rather fish than work?

Writer Blanche McCrary Boyd: “My sister says Southerers are like other people, only more so.”

Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell: “Southerners can never resist a losing cause.”

Writer Jonathan Daniels: “We Southerners are a mythological people, created half out of dream and half out of slander.”

Novelist and musician Clyde Edgerton: “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West, or the Central Plains, I would be a human being.”

Writer Marshall Frady: “The Southerner has always tended to believe with his blood rather than his intellect.”

Because of the War of Aggression (one of the South’s names for what others call the Civil War), no love is lost between Southern whites and Northerners (“damned Yankees”). I have never met a Southern white man with anything good to say about the North.

One of my favorite Yankee-haters is Harry Crews: “As a general statement, I don’t like Yankees. I’m as polite as I can be, but I don’t like their behavior. I’ve had occasions to tell some Yankees that they wouldn’t stay alive two days in the counties I come from, acting the way they act, talking the way they talk, shoving people out of the way. You can’t do that.”

The Southern drawl, viewed by most Yankees as a sign of inferior intelligence, always produces heat. For many Southerners, the drawl is often a source of mirth.

Writer Doris Betts: “If you are going to be underestimated by people who speak more rapidly, the temptation is to speak slowly and strategically and outwit them.”

Most Southerners see fast-talking Yankees as self-absorbed tormentors.

Cultural observer Julia Reed: “The deep-dyed fear that lives in the heart of every Southerner, myself included, is that a Yankee is putting us down.”

Clever Southerners know how to cultivate and maintain the region’s beloved coarse image.

Social commentator Hal Crowther: “As long as a popular culture persists in presenting them as incestuous hillbillies, church-burners, mule-beaters, and randy evangelists, Southerners will dip snuff and fly Confederate flags just to make New Yorkers wince.”

Although the great war was lost, Southerners never let a chance pass to portray Dixie as superior to the North.

In this light, humorist Roy Blount Jr. offers this bit of seersucker witticism.: “The North isn’t a place. It’s just a direction out of the South.”