Going Deep in the “Magic South”
By Rien FertelOctober 6, 2015
Deep South by Paul Theroux
South Toward Home by Margaret Eby
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE SOUTH that drives us there? That tells us about ourselves, and how we live? It is a place overflowing with stereotypes: of potholed roads and potbellied racists; of gun-toting misfits at the end of every unpaved highway; of a region choked in kudzu. A place brimming with fried and smothered and barbecued foods that can and will kill. Maybe it’s the region’s rich history, which often appears to live in the present. Or perhaps, like the tourist bureau tells us, vacationers simply come to the South for its warm climes and friendly folks — its pristine beaches and diverse cultures.
In antebellum times, Huck and Jim mistakenly traveled south in search of freedom, while Frederick Law Olmsted came with a purpose: to examine and find fault with slavery. In the next century, Henry Miller worked his way around an unreconstructed, unrepentant South, finding much to recommend. Some time later, V. S. Naipaul discovered much to dismiss. While some came searching for the realness of history, others came to find something more mysterious, mythical, and, often, undefined. Kerouac, the master of the American road trip, sends Sal and Dean yakking, bopping, and screaming into the “magic south.”
Literature is the first place many turn to find it. “There is no popular category known as Northern literature,” Margaret Eby reminds us in South Toward Home, her travelogue of tracking down the lives of 10 Southern writers.
South Toward Home features the shelf of suspects you’d expect: mononymed heavyweights like Faulkner and Flannery, Welty and Capote. And for every writer included — Eby acknowledges that her list is a personal one — there’s an equally obvious omission. O’Connor over McCullers. Harper Lee over Alice Walker. Unfortunately, John Kennedy Toole will eternally overshadow Walker Percy. Room for Marjorie Rawlings? Nope — relegated to the young adult reading list. Thomas Wolfe? The question begs asking: does anyone still read Wolfe? And where’s Charles Portis? A good question that people have been asking for almost a half-century.
The conceit of Eby’s book is to pilgrimage to the places that defined each of her writers. Eby, an Alabamian turned New Yorker, starts with a stroll and a sniff through Welty’s camellia-laden garden, where she finds “buds as big as bobbins,” as Welty herself once described the flowering backyard outside her Jackson, Mississippi home. There is the prerequisite tour of Faulkner’s stately and sad Rowan Oak, and a strut around Andalusia Farm, O’Connor’s estate-slash-peacock sanctuary in Milledgeville, Georgia (less stately, more sad).
Too often, some of the visits come off as a touch routine. Eby spends more time telling us what others have written, rather than letting the reader experience these places anew, through her eyes. Things pick up halfway through, with a side-trip to Harry Crews’s Gainesville, where he taught in college classrooms by day and brawled in roughneck bars by night. On a drive back to Alabama, Eby even manages to make the Monroeville County Courthouse sound interesting. It was transformed to recreate and celebrate the version seen in the cinematic version of To Kill a Mockingbird, andwas, before the release of Harper Lee’s legendary novel, in rather shoddy shape.
South Toward Home wraps with a bittersweet portrait of the friendship between Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, a pair of curmudgeonly, bourbon-sotted writers living in Oxford, Mississippi. Like many Southern authors who came before and after, Brown found magic in the plainness of the people and the meanness of the region. “Loggers and housewives and children and drunks and farmers and mailmen and lawyers and widowed old ladies and mechanics and cowboys and bums and preachers, every one of them has a story,” he wrote. “And I know now that the little place I live in is full of stories.” But Hannah, doing his friend one better, arguably had a deeper, infinitely more complicated appreciation for the region that provided him with a lifetime of material. “There’s a canned dream of the South that a lot of people get into, and I’ve resisted that stuff my entire so-called career,” he told an interviewer. “Ready-made Southernism just disgusts me, just makes me nauseated. I mean, you can’t see a movie without hearing that goddamned slide guitar. Shit, I’m just so tired of it.”
In Deep South, his 10th travelogue, Paul Theroux manages to cover half the geographic area that Eby does, in what must add up to at least 10 times the word count. Undertaking his first ever turn in the South, the eminent American travel writer sets off with little hope of finding magic there. Promising a glimpse into the soul of America’s “poorest parts,” he goes South to “meet the submerged twenty percent.” Forsaking cities, suburbs, and coastal colonies, he searches for the families and individuals who “exist in obscurity,” those “living in the buried hinterland, in fractured communities and dying towns and on the sidelines.” Regrettably, Deep South reads as disaster porn for those who can’t bother to renew their passports — a Heart of Darkness set in the Southern heartland. Theroux thirsts to walk amid the ruins of American civilization, a.k.a. “Dystopia Dixie,” to find “hunger and squalor and great poverty.”
He finds all three, and little else, in Allendale, South Carolina, a blighted town near the Georgia border with a population of just over 3,000 (mostly African Americans). “No one ever goes there,” Theroux is warned beforehand via information booth, but he drives onward, directed by a local community developer who suggests Allendale after the author requests to see “the poorest” place in the state. He arrives in the fall of 2012, near the start of a year-plus-long journey that meanders, “circular and seasonal,” in his words, bringing him back to Allendale again and again. On the town’s outskirts, along old Highway 301, he finds a theater covered in plywood, alongside abandoned and weed-choked restaurants and motels. Without speaking to more than a handful of residents, the scene is enough to convince Theroux that he has caught “a sight of Doomsday,” a vision that made the whole “effort of travel worthwhile and proved to me that my setting out for the South had been an inspired decision.”
Theroux’s poverty-centric odyssey through the Deep South resembles the documentary expedition James Agee and Walker Evans made nearly 80 years ago. It was their artful account of that journey, eventually published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), that, Theroux writes, initially propelled him southward. But whereas Agee and Walker arrived with a focused objective — to chronicle the poverty-stricken lives of sharecropping families in central Alabama — Theroux’s ramblings, on the road and on the page, come off as half-baked.
Repeatedly, he falls into the trap of reminding the reader that he is a world traveler par excellence, by comparing the South with previous journeys, rather than experiencing the place for what it is. At times, the correlations are enlightening: the cheap, roadside motels at which he often stays are ubiquitously owned by immigrants from the Indian state of Gujarat — “the inevitable Mr. Patel,” Theroux comes to call these synonymously surnamed moteliers. But more often — too many times to count — Theroux compares the rural South to Africa and India. Many Americans are “just as poor as many Africans,” he writes, and “confined in rural communities as many Indians.” A church resembles “the life around a mosque or a temple in India or Africa.” Even an epigraph — perhaps the first in history in which the author quotes himself, from his last published book — makes this point. “On the red clay roads of the African bush among poor and overlooked people, I often thought of the poor in America, living in just the same way, precariously, on the red roads of the Deep South.”
There might be some truth to these comparisons — the Global South is most definitely a global problem — but Theroux’s penchant for parallels racializes poverty, while treating, to paraphrase the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, continents as countries. This tendency reaches parody status when, pulling to the side of the road in the Mississippi Delta, he describes his reaction: “Like Africa, I scribbled in my notebook when I stopped to piss against a tree.”
The South is the nation’s most impoverished region, but poverty can, of course, be found most everywhere in the United States. Even Theroux’s hometown of Cape Cod, which he describes in loving tones at the start of each chapter before setting off down South, has experienced a doubling in poverty levels over the past several years. It’s not until the end of Deep South that Theroux makes a perceptive statement on the state of poverty in the world. Why, he asks a housing activist in Russellville, Arkansas, don’t Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and other champions of international aid raise more money, to do more good, for the South’s poorest? “It really bothers me that Clinton does so little here,” the activist answers, chastising the homegrown president. “I wish he’d help us. He’s in Africa and India […]. We don’t see that money. Don’t they realize our people need help?”
Besides the South’s abject and long-sustained poverty, little else about the region appears to truly inspire Theroux as he travels through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. He fills up on barbecue and biscuits, fried chicken, catfish, and greens, but deems this spread “peasant food eaten by everyone,” and seems uninterested in exploring the history of a culinary culture tied to Africa, the Caribbean, and the indigenous Americas. He attends a couple of church services — described as “the beating heart” of the South — and attends numerous gun shows, noting the prevalence of Confederate and Nazi memorabilia. In one especially odd episode, a wintertime return to Allendale, he unloads a pistol at a stack of old tires with a stranger named Lucky. “I had expected a gun nut with a grievance,” but Lucky, Theroux reconsiders, “seemed to be a reasonably happy man.”
Fortunately, he doesn’t go full-on Southern stereotype and attend a college football game. Though this doesn’t stop him from writing, without any hint of irony, “What made a Sunday in the South complete was a church service, a gun show, or a football game.” (What, no alligator wrestling? Moonshining? NASCAR racing? Banjo strumming alongside your cousin-wife?) For all his effort to rehash the plantation and petticoats image of the South most propagated by Gone With the Wind and the like — “the Old Magnolia South,” he rightly calls it — Theroux parrots often these same old clichés. “The theme in the Deep South,” he writes early on, is “kindness, generosity, a welcome.”
Well bless Mr. Theroux’s grits, he understands us!
Except that he doesn’t even try. Perhaps Theroux could have gained a deeper understanding of the South if he wasn’t so often demeaning the Southerners he meets along the way. In Theroux’s South, he feels it necessary to transcribe a man’s accents as if he were a junior linguist with a dissertation deadline. “Kin Ah he’p you […] in inny way?” asks one of the first strangers he meets along the road, before answering his own question: “Ay mo explain the South to you.” (Thankfully, Theroux quickly abandons this practice, just as most writers did decades ago.)
On another occasion, described in a particularly insensitive passage, Theroux recounts a run-in with an office worker in Eutaw, Alabama. Theroux is 15 minutes late for an interview appointment. His interviewee is upset, perhaps exceedingly so, and accuses the author of exercising the power inherent in his whiteness. “I’m sensitive to white privilege,” she tells him, “as I’m black.” It is surprising that what follows made the book’s final cut, considering the harm it could do to his reputation: “She was not black at all,” Theroux writes. “She could have been biracial, she could have been Sicilian, she could have been — and probably was — part Cherokee or Choctaw. ‘I’m black’ seemed half protest, half boast.”
Did he just negate a woman’s identity? I asked myself while rereading these lines over and over. Followed by: What could Theroux possibly find wrong with using blackness as a protest and boast? Uneasy with disgust, I thought back to the volumes by Theroux, the train-filled travelogues around Asia, Africa, and South America that I cherished in my 20s, when I set off to explore the world. Theroux was my hero. But because I call the “Deep South” home, I couldn’t help but think, Is this what it feels like when Theroux comes to town? When he writes about your little corner of the world? (We now know that this is how the Burroughs, Tengle, and Fields families felt when their lives were exposed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.)
It’s difficult to get at what Theroux likes about driving through the South, or maybe just traveling in general. However, much like Eby, he deeply admires the region’s literature, what he calls “the fantastications of Southern fiction.” He quotes Faulkner liberally, strikes up a cordial friendship with a blind bibliophile, and works to rescue a nonagenarian author from obscurity. He even manages to stumble into a brief and hilarious encounter with Charles Portis, the South’s own genius of a novelist and Salinger-esque recluse.
But on the subject of books, Theroux again manages to come off as a rather callous fellow. “Most of the Southerners I encountered had no more than a nodding acquaintance with books,” he writes, without any mention of the racism, classism, and, yes, entrenched poverty that has provided little to no educational opportunities for generation after generation of Southerners. (The Southerners Theroux meets might be unlettered, but they aren’t illiterate enough, he writes, to occasionally mistake him for that other Thoreau, Henry David — a claim that stretches well beyond the limits of credibility.) It’s nonsense like this that nauseated Barry Hannah — negative assertions, according to Margaret Eby, that inspired the State of Mississippi to hang posters in every airport and private school featuring Faulkner’s face and the tagline, “Yeah, we can read. A few of us can even write.”
Toward the end of his journey, Theroux writes that “the Deep South today is not in its books, it’s in its people,” perhaps the truest sentiment expressed here. “Ignore the books,” he says, “and go there.” With wholehearted agreement, let me be the first to welcome Paul Theroux back to the Deep South, but only with the sincere hope that next time he promises to travel a little deeper.
Rien Fertel is a writer and teacher who lives in New Orleans. His first book, Imagining the Creole City, a literary history of New Orleans, is out now. The One True Barbecue, a personal/historical reflection on race, labor, and foodways in the Deep South, is forthcoming.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Go Set A Watchman's usefulness lies in its push toward self-examination and reflexivity.
Gary Rivlin's "Katrina: After the Flood" argues that "Katrina was pretext for ridding New Orleans of enough blacks … so that whites were once again...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!