A shal­low jour­ney through the Deep South

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - by Jack Hitt

In Paul Th­er­oux’s new book, “Deep South,” the su­per­fi­cial stereo­types pile up at once. In the first scene, it’s a “hot Sun­day morn­ing” in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and there’s men­tion of snake-han­dling and talk­ing in tongues, poverty, holy-roller churches, a black bar­ber­shop, gun shows, col­lege football, the req­ui­site Faulkner quote (“The past is not dead . . . ”) and even a sassy black lady (“You lost, baby?”). So far, I haven’t left the first page.

In pur­suit of these and many of the South’s other molder­ing cliches, the au­thor makes ob­ser­va­tions wor­thy of a fresh­man so­ci­ol­ogy ma­jor: “A church in the South is the beat­ing heart of the com­mu­nity, the so­cial cen­ter, the an­chor of faith, the bea­con of light, the arena of mu­sic, the gath­er­ing place, of­fer­ing hope, coun­sel, wel­fare, warmth, fel­low­ship, melody, har­mony, and snacks.”

Look. The South is a com­pli­cated place be­cause of slav­ery and race, and riv­et­ing be­cause the re­al­ity of our past was built on epic bru­tal­ity and the history of that past is built on

epic myth. The cause of the Civil War was slav­ery, and many blacks and whites in the South are still strug­gling with a bar­barous poverty that has plagued the re­gion since the plan­ta­tion econ­omy was right­fully smashed by force of arms. Racial fury, in one form or another, has post­poned any de­cent eco­nomic re­cov­ery for a cen­tury and a half.

Any­one with a pass­ing ac­quain­tance with the Deep South knows these are givens, not dis­cov­er­ies. They have been for decades, and it seems un­con­scionable that any­one, es­pe­cially Amer­ica’s premier travel writer, would burn up thou­sands of words and gal­lons of gas to ex­pe­ri­ence so many tram­pled epipha­nies.

It’s as if Th­er­oux con­sulted the clas­sics of the South— the works that es­tab­lished many of the cliches: James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Fa­mous Men,” the sto­ries of Wil­liam Faulkner, the pho­to­graphs of Mar­garet Bourke-White and the nov­els of Ersk­ine Cald­well— and then went to find ex­actly what he ex­pected to see. He regularly asks old black folks about dis­crim­i­na­tion in the 1960s, school seg­re­ga­tion or Klan vi­o­lence sev­eral gen­er­a­tions ago. With whites, he seeks out those lo­cales where one would most likely find some­one re­sem­bling a su­per­nu­mer­ary from “De­liv­er­ance.” When he vis­its Charleston, S.C., he tells us that old pretty ar­chi­tec­ture bores him, while Mayor Joe Ri­ley’s 40-year reign of bril­liant ur­ban plan­ning holds no in­ter­est, nor does a culi­nary re­nais­sance driven by mas­sive shifts in de­mo­graph­ics and cross-racial re­la­tions. In­stead, he goes to a gun show and, not so sur­pris­ingly, finds him­self chat­ting up anti-gov­ern­ment para­noiacs, con­spir­acy the­o­rists and Nazi-mem­o­ra­bilia col­lec­tors.

Early on, the au­thor gives us a clue as to why he donned such a tight-fit­ting set of cul­tural blink­ers. “Yes, I had been to Patag­o­nia and the Congo and Sikkim,” but “I had not trav­eled in the Deep South.” Th­er­oux ex­pends a lot of ver­biage to tell us how well read he is about the South (and ev­ery­where else), par­tic­u­larly the works of Faulkner, Eu­dora Welty, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Por­tis, Thomas Wolfe, Wil­liam Sty­ron, Tru­man Capote, Car­son McCullers, Alice Walker and Derek Wal­cott (the high-lit name drop­pings, by my count, add up to nearly 35 canon­i­cal au­thors). And these names get dropped for any old rea­son. When he en­coun­ters lots of peo­ple liv­ing in the same house, it seems like “the sort of story peo­ple call Chekho­vian.”

He’s read the great clas­sics as well — Chaucer, for ex­am­ple — and is amused that peo­ple liv­ing in ru­ral out­backs didn’t spend their col­lege years in Mid­dle English sem­i­nars. At one point he is talk­ing to a black cler­gy­man who in­tro­duces him­self as Bishop Palmer. Th­er­oux says: “I think of a palmer as a pil­grim, bring­ing a palm from the Holy Land. Like the line in Chaucer.” Bishop Palmer seems con­fused, so Th­er­oux says: “Can­ter­bury Tales. ‘Palmers for to seken straunge stron­des.’ ” Th­er­oux whis­pers to the reader, “He smiled as peo­ple some­times do when hear­ing an un­in­tel­li­gi­ble lan­guage brazenly spo­ken, or a dog with an odd bark.” Af­ter at­tend­ing Palmer’s church — which was a big af­ter­noon of singing and preach­ing, fol­lowed by a lun­cheon spread — our trav­el­ing Yan­kee notes, “It was touch­ing to see how some se­ri­ous tin­ker­ing with Scrip­ture could lift peo­ple’s spir­its.”

Th­er­oux sus­tains this pos­ture of ex­alted con­de­scen­sion for all of his many, many pages. Af­ter mak­ing an ap­point­ment in Eutaw, S.C., to talk to a very busy black woman (whose iden­tity or pur­pose he con­fus­ingly never ex­plains), he swans in late and gets chewed out by this “older woman scowl­ing un­der a mass of wild cork screw curls,” and a few poorly edited lines later, he repet­i­tively notes that her “wild corkscrew curls gave her a gor­gon-like as­pect.” When she ex­plains that he was in a po­si­tion to call but didn’t bother, she adds, “I call that ‘white priv­i­lege.’ ” Th­er­oux prac­ti­cally threat­ens her with his Bic Ex­cal­ibur: “I took out my small notebook frommy shirt pocket and clicked my pen. ‘White priv­i­lege,’ I said, writ­ing slowly. ‘Hmmm.’ ”

When she says she’s “black,” Th­er­oux con­fides to the reader: “She was not black at all. She could have been bira­cial, she could have been Si­cil­ian, she could have been — and prob­a­bly was— Cherokee or Choctaw.” Hmmm. His big dis­cov­ery is that the poor ar­eas of the Deep South are heart­break­ingly poor— which is true, and was true when Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Ap­palachian tour, Walker Evans’s pho­to­graphs, the Na­tional Emer­gency Coun­cil’s 1938 “Re­port on Eco­nomic Con­di­tions in the South” and even Har­riet Beecher Stowe’s memoir “Pal­metto-Leaves” brought at­ten­tion, in their own ways, to the ar­du­ous lives of Dixie rus­tics. To that end, Th­er­oux joins the pa­rade of visi­tors who look in hor­ror, but mostly pity, at this fierce strug­gle.

In any of these books, there is some metaphor for the degra­da­tion of il­lit­er­acy and dip­ping wells and ig­no­rance and dirt floors. For Th­er­oux, it is Africa. A con­ver­sa­tion about hous­ing de­vel­op­ment for the very poor uses “bu­reau­cratic jar­gon” that “I had heard in Africa.” Allendale, S.C., is “like a town in Zim­babwe,” although a few pages later it is “rem­i­nis­cent of an up­coun­try farm­ing town in Kenya that had gone to the dogs.” But 200 pages later, when he re­turns, the metaphor has set­tled down and Allendale “could have been in Zim­babwe.”

In Tuscaloosa again, Th­er­oux en­coun­ters Crim­son Tide football ma­nia and, pith hel­met down be­low his eyes, dis­cov­ers the “en­larged italic of the Alabama A on cars and clothes and of­ten show­ing as a bold red tat­too.” The football cel­e­bra­tion is a “ri­otous hoot­ing tribal rite” in which “some men have the A tat­tooed on their neck, and some women on their shoul­der.” You know what Tuscaloosa re­minds him of? So many things, but among them “jun­gle-dwelling war­riors fit­ted out with pig tusks and nose bones” and “the fa­cial scar­ring of a Su­danese Dinka.”

When a woman in Greens­boro, Ala., says her son had left for Zam­bia to vol­un­teer for com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment, Th­er­oux strug­gles with “sup­press­ing a mock­ing laugh” be­cause “so much here bore a dis­tinct re­sem­blance to places in Zam­bia I had seen.” And, hi­lar­i­ously, when some­one else is late for a meet­ing with Th­er­oux, he mut­ters to the reader, “If this had been Zim­babwe, which it much re­sem­bled, I might have said: This is ur­gent. I don’t know when I can come back.”

There is a quixotic qual­ity to Th­er­oux’s read­ing of literature about the South. He has filled his head with the sweep­ings of oth­ers’ ob­ser­va­tions and en­er­get­i­cally blinded him­self to any­thing that might con­found his pre­con­cep­tions. The book is a chron­i­cle of end­less tilts at James Agee’s wind­mills. In the last para­graph on the last page, Th­er­oux writes his last sen­tence: “Be­cause the para­dox of it all was that though I had come so far— miles more than I ever had in Africa or China — I had never left home.” Hmmm. Paul Th­er­oux should get out more.

The South is riv­et­ing be­cause the re­al­ity of our

past was built on epic bru­tal­ity and the history of that past is built on epic myth. These are givens, not dis­cov­er­ies.

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