Follow the Red Dirt Road: Some Thoughts on Being a Southern Writer

My friend, colleague, and fellow native Alabamian, Gary Walker, wrote an excellent USR essay a couple of weeks ago reflecting on being a writer who just happens to be from the South. Despite others’ expectations that he write about red dirt, hunting, fishing, football, the land, and the people, Gary confessed that he doesn’t really feel motivated to write about Dixie-themed topics.

Gary’s admission is a little surprising (after all, his dog’s name is Elvis), but I certainly understand his point. When you grow up in the South, people often have preconceived notions of who you are and how you think. When we southerners meet people for the first time, it’s nearly impossible not to be drawn into a discussion about “back home” because our accents give us away. Whether we like it or not, the conversation inevitably moves to our native region.

The “Ahhh…You’re a southerner” reactions to the first words out of my mouth are as familiar and predictable to me as what I hear when I first tell strangers that I’m an English teacher. They usually say, “Well, I guess I’ll have to watch my grammar,” even though I’m no more interested in correcting their English when I’m not in the classroom than an auto mechanic wants to check my car’s oil when he’s off the clock.

Certainly, if you’re from Brooklyn, New York, or Fargo, North Dakota, your accent may also reveal where you were born, but for southerners, our region confers on us all the rights, responsibilities, stigmas, joys, sorrows, and baggage of a civilization gone with…well, you get the picture. This is true even if we feel proud of–or ambivalent about–the South. As for me, I genuinely like talking to non-southerners about Alabama. I can lay on the drawl thicker than a block of government cheese for the conversational tourists. I do so regularly, with great affectation and affection, because it amuses me. But I totally get that some southerners just don’t feel the joy when they talk about Scarlett O’Hara and Jawjuh peaches.

I’ve found that most of the time, new acquaintances are just being friendly when they comment on my drawl or my southernness. Once in a while, though, I encounter someone who insults me. I still remember an exchange I had about twenty years ago with a young woman from Idaho. When she heard me speak, she immediately rolled her eyes and remarked that I was obviously from Mississippi, Alabama, or “someplace awful like that.” I responded not with the turn-the-other-cheek patience of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird but with the in-your-face snark of the late-great Dixie Carter in Designing Women: “And you’re from Idaho, that intellectual mecca that gave us Randy Weaver, Ruby Ridge, and the potato. My dear, Idaho is where southern white supremacists move when they really become radicalized.” Of course, I didn’t mean any malice toward the people of Idaho, but that gal made me mad enough to swallow nails and spit out a barbed-wire fence.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of folks have a one-dimensional, caricatured view of the South. Despite the quirky and distinctive nature of certain aspects of the culture, southerners are a diverse lot, as Gary and I demonstrate. He grew up middle class, near the Alabama coast, probably seeing big ships leaving Mobile Bay bound for faraway places where people have never even heard of grits and boiled peanuts. I grew up inland, among the yeoman farmers and hillbillies in the Appalachian foothills north of Birmingham. I can write about red dirt and be, as Ulysses Everett McGill said in O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, “bona fide.” During his lifetime, my daddy breathed enough red dust plowing fields and driving a grader for the county road crew that I wouldn’t be surprised if it seeped into his DNA. If you drilled into my skin, you’d probably hit red chert rock instead of bone.

My folks would have been considered the working poor, or lower-middle class—uneducated but honorable, self-reliant people who kept to themselves, paid their taxes from their meager incomes, and believed in the American dream. I was probably five years old before they had saved enough money to remodel the house and install an indoor bathroom. About that same time, they began to move into the ranks of the middle-middle class. It wasn’t some LBJ Great Society program that brought this about but my mother’s job at the chicken plant. Once my family consisted of two breadwinners, our economic prospects began to change for the better.

The red dirt road we lived on got paved in the 1990s, when decades of Democrat-party (Read: George Wallace) dominance at the state and local levels began to diminish and a Republican commissioner got elected. (Sid Martin, wherever you are, my family will be eternally grateful for that fine asphalt.) Nevertheless, vestiges of Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition still survive among Alabama’s hill people. My late father voted for Barack Obama twice. Indeed, despite what writers at the New York Times might say, southerners of any stripe aren’t easily categorized. There are still a lot of Democrats left among the lower-middle classes. The so-called “southern strategy” theory notwithstanding, it was prosperity and wealth that changed the political demographic in the South more than anything. You’ll find more Democrats among my poorer relations than within the ranks of the well-educated, non-native Alabama doctors, lawyers, and bankers living at tony Lake Martin or in the affluent suburbs of Huntsville.

In my own writing, I’d like to give a voice to people like my parents, who in 1963 were too busy scratching out a living from the soil to have the time, energy, or inclination to aid and abet Bull Connor, that asshole in Birmingham. They were troubled by the rabid racism of a neighbor, an Ohio native and the first and only KKK member they ever knew, who wouldn’t let his kids watch Good Times on television. There are plenty of important stories yet to be told about rural southerners and their tenacity and grit. Even the South’s great literary ambassadors like Faulkner and O’Connor haven’t provided a full portrait of its people. The noted Alabama historian Wayne Flynt put it best when he wrote about the poor in my home state: “Although degenerate poor whites appear only infrequently in the historical record, they dominate the fictional accounts of the white bottom class. From the southwestern humorists to Harper Lee, poor whites appear as an object of satire and scorn, characterized by shiftlessness, racism, violence, and demagoguery. Perhaps every society feels compelled to rationalize to itself the presence of so many poor people. What better way that to depict them as receiving what they deserve.”

When Mississippi writer and former Harper’s magazine editor Willie Morris died in 1999, novelist William Styron penned a lovely essay in tribute to his friend. Styron wrote, “What I came to know about Willie, among other things, was that animate and profound southernness was the energizing force in his life. Not that he was a professional southerner—he despised the obvious Dixieland clichés—and he got along well with Yankees…It was just that he felt more at home with southerners, with whom he could share tall tales and indigenous jokes and family yarns that only the South can provide and perhaps only expatriate southerners can enjoy in their cloying and sometimes desperate homesickness.”

I relate to that sentiment. When I left the South seventeen years ago, I was probably a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, believing there was something grand and exciting outside of Alabama. I followed the red dirt road out of my home state to some fascinating destinations, but I genuinely miss the tranquil rhythm of life in the rural South. I could easily move back home now, reassured that life isn’t any more spectacular elsewhere—at least for me. And “back home” is the operative expression. Sometimes my husband gets exasperated when I talk of “going home” to Alabama for a visit. “Your home is here now,” he says. Yet my heart says something different. It’s a common theme in a lot of popular films and music about the South. Reese Witherspoon’s character in Sweet Home Alabama felt it, even though she also said, “People need a passport to come down here.”  Truman Capote even said, “All southerners eventually come home, if only in a box.”

With all due respect to Capote’s romanticism, though, there’s no denying a lot of southern writers like Gary don’t feel the sentimental attachment. Recently, I was reading the submission guidelines for the Southern Humanities Review, published by my old school, Auburn University, and saw the following statement: “Please do not assume from our name that we are interested in southern literature or research topics only; any setting or subject matter is acceptable.” Apparently, even a publication that has featured the works of Joyce Carol Oates and Denise Levertov gets typecast.

I think Gary’s and SHR’s perspectives are important to consider. How much is the South’s culture really changing and becoming indistinguishable from rest of the country? How are the people changing? How many of the old traditions and distinctive elements of the culture dying out, for good and bad? I daresay that aside from a few Gone with the Wind tourist sites, there’s little anymore to identify Atlanta as a “southern” city.  I suspect that even Birmingham will follow suit in my lifetime, or shortly after my next-of-kin plunk me down under the southern sod.

I know Gary will continue to write great stuff that interests him, and I’ll continue to read his work with pleasure. Even still, I only halfway believe him about not being able to write in a southern voice. I’d almost bet my next paycheck that, like Willie Morris, he could compose a great dog story about his adventures with Elvis, that king of canines, who sometimes chases “ne’er-do-well bunnies.” Ain’t nothin’ more southern than that.