Is The New Mind of the South Fact or Fluff?

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Tracy Thompson begins her new book The New Mind of the South by saying, “Being a Southerner is a lot like being a Jew, and every bit as complicated.”

Thompson grew up in Atlanta, but she left the South 20 years ago. Her book, which was published last month by Simon & Schuster, explores that complicated identity and all the ways it's changed since the days when the South was first defined as a place for old-fashioned, agrarian values — a definition largely credited to W.J. Cash’s 1941 book The Mind of the South, from which Thompson’s volume borrows its title.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote a fairly mediocre review of The New Mind of the South, saying that it lacks Cash's deep historical awareness.

It is among the disappointments of Tracy Thompson’s new book, The New Mind of the South, that it leans upon Cash’s title while not coming to terms with his masterpiece at all. Where his book was cerebral and probing, hers is featherweight and breezy. Reading it is like watching someone on a Vespa pull up alongside an Allied landing craft left over from D-Day.

Among Garner’s criticisms are that Thompson treats her subject matter with too much levity, as in her description of important South Carolinan author and clergyman Charles Woodmason as “a kind of 18th-century Frasier Crane.”

But don’t the changes from prosaic to pop-cultural exactly mirror the point of redefining southern identity? Isn’t Roy Blount Jr. more of a clown than Tocqueville could have ever dreamed?

More interesting, I think, is J. Bryan Lowder's review of The New Mind on Slate.com, in which he praises Thompson’s astute analysis of the South’s taboo-laden history, which at times seems to be imbued into the earth itself:

On this diagnostic tour of the South’s kudzu-lined highways, Thompson’s cartographic eye is keen. She notices, for instance, when roads cross the railroad tracks into the black side of town or when they carry her past new megachurches proclaiming a brand of evangelicalism that does not comport with the gentle piety she recalls from her youth. In recounting the experience of feeling singled-out in a Baptist church that should have been welcoming (the day’s theme was about differentiating “true” Christians from poseurs), Thompson notes, with Southern understatement, that “the sermon that morning was enough to make a person wonder."

Thompson also worries about how many roads now pass by Big Agra tracts instead of family farms and through hazy suburban sprawl instead of more sensibly — and sustainably — arranged communities. Most powerfully, she demands we remember that, not so long ago, people traveled in droves down from Atlanta to witness “the spectacle of a human being hacked up into pieces and roasted alive.” Southern roads, Thompson shows us, are haunted by the heat shimmers of the past and potholed by uncertainties in the present — and we must grapple with both if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

In a previous New York Times piece — this one from the ArtsBeat blog — a Q&A with Thompson delves into her perception of Southern identity as an ever-changing current:

Q.
You say that Southerners are conservative, but that not everyone understands why. What’s missing from the common explanation?
A.
Southerners tend to be politically and socially conservative — but what everyone, Southerners included, often fails to take into account is how adaptable we are. We’ve had to be. Between 1800 and 1850, the South went from being a colonial backwater to being a global economic powerhouse, based on the cotton economy. Then there was the Civil War. Then decades of legal apartheid, followed by a transformative civil rights movement — and while all that was going on, you had the “bulldozer revolution,” in which an agrarian region became a region of shopping malls and cities and suburbs. Now we have immigration — not just from Mexico, but a significant Asian influx as well. I think Southerners place so much store by history and tradition because we all have this constant, nagging sense that everything familiar to us is about to disappear. And it probably is.


Maybe the problem with writing a book about the South during a time of flux and change is that it’s hard to pin down any steadfast definitions, instead relying on personal experience and idiosyncratic observations. Or maybe that isn’t a problem at all. It’s what’s made historian-humorists like Blount and Sarah Vowell so popular, after all.

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