A Southern Enigma: Essays on the U.S. South
The American South is full of paradoxes—a land, by turns, the most hospitable of places and the least hospitable, with a people the most innocent but also the guiltiest of crimes against humanity. One historian has written that the South is a repository of all the virtues and vices of the rest of the United States, except in the South those virtues and vices are writ large, are carried to extremes not seen elsewhere. That may be less true now than it once was—the era of racial segregation and lynchings and other racial violence is, for the most part, behind us—but the South is still the home of a fundamentalist religion and reactionary politics that often seems to defy reason. The essays that follow are one man’s impression of various aspects of life, past and present, in Dixie, and the essays cover much of the spectrum—race, politics, religion, literature, and other cultural manifestations. Some of the essays are biographical: I am particularly attracted to figures such as H.L. Mencken, Gerald W. Johnson, James McBride Dabbs, and Louis Rubin, social and cultural critics who have done a particularly good job of exploring the mind of the South, as well as to creative writers such as Richard Ford and Mary Mebane who have explored still other Souths. I conclude with two personal essays—two explorations of the lives of two of my family members, one my great-grandmother, the other my great-aunt, whose own stories reveal much about the South in their own particular times and places.