Book review: ‘The New Mind of the South’

New York Times News ServiceApril 28, 2013 

  • At a Glance

    ‘The New Mind of the South’ by Tracy Thompson; 263 pages. Simon & Schuster. $26

W.J. Cash, the author of “The Mind of the South” (1941), was a newspaperman, a Mencken devotee and a manic-depressive. When he killed himself, not long after his book was published, he was newly married and had a fresh Guggenheim fellowship in his pocket.

His book is a complicated American classic, sometimes ahead of its time on racial matters, sometimes troglodytic. But in its contemplation of what Cash called “the savage ideal” in Southern culture, an ingrained white male truculence, it remains a volume be reckoned with.

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.

Thompson, born in Georgia in 1955, has worked as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post. She’s lived in the Washington area for the past 24 years.

This isn’t a disqualification for writing about the South. Being away from home can sharpen your observations about what’s left behind. Witness Roy Blount Jr., who used to deliver a wicked column for The Oxford American called “Gone Off Up North.”

Thompson wrote “The New Mind of the South” out of an intuition that much of what she prizes about her home ground is imperiled. “Tradition in the South is like beachfront property in an era of global warming,” she declares. “As much as you love the view, you live with the knowledge that some morning you will wake up and find it gone.”

This is not a new arena of thought. In his 1974 book, “The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America,” for example, the journalist and historian John Egerton issued a long, lonesome moan over how malled-up and hollow-souled the South was becoming.

Yet Thompson digs into fresh material. Her book is a series of pop-ins. She’s interested in identity, and visits a Hispanic leadership seminar to get a feel for the South’s new waves of immigration. She’s deft on how Hispanics don’t entirely see themselves as Southerners — to them the American South will always be El Norte.

“Hispanics will change the South,” she says, but “the South will change them.” She notes that it’s hard to find a mariachi band these days that can’t play “Orange Blossom Special.” She’s optimistic. She asks, “Can salsa with grits be far behind?”

Thompson drops in on a Children of the Confederacy convention, to observe genteel racism of a fading sort. She takes us along to a megachurch presided over by the sublimely named Creflo Dollar. She ponders the overlapping meanings of the 1994 Susan Smith case, in which a mother in Union, South Carolina drowned her two children before claiming a black man had kidnapped them.

She’s good on what she calls “Southern Sonar,” which allows Southerners to “ping” one another to assess their origins. She’s brutal about her hometown, Atlanta, which she feels has backslid on racial issues.

After listing some civil rights-era black leaders, she says: “With the exception of John Lewis, I couldn’t imagine any of them making a career in politics in today’s Atlanta. Their brand of concern for the poor and dispossessed would be instantly construed as an attempt to pick the pockets of the middle class; they’d be booed off the stage.”

She argues, compellingly, that to put the ghosts of slavery to rest, the South needs something akin to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in South Africa by Nelson Mandela in the mid-1990s.

There are grace notes. I enjoyed Thompson’s observation that discovering that one of her ancestors had been a Union supporter during the Civil War was a shock not unlike “learning that some old family keepsake painting you’d had for decades had, in fact, been hanging upside down.”

“The New Mind of the South” does not, alas, make for a sustaining supper. Thompson has zero feel for the South’s literature or music or drama or food — the only cook she discusses in any real way is Paula Deen — and not much more for its politics. There’s no deep historical awareness.

I wasn’t sure it was possible to write a book about the mind of the South that didn’t mention George Wallace, Bear Bryant or Ronnie Van Zant, but Thompson has managed it.

When large and complicated humans do walk into view, they seem diminished in her hands. She describes the great South Carolina writer, planter and Anglican clergyman Charles Woodmason, for example, “as a kind of 18th-century Frasier Crane.”

This is a book about the Southern intellect by a writer who had never visited the South’s intellectual ground zero, Oxford, Miss., until she hurriedly drove through it while researching this book.

Thompson takes her share of whacks at what’s become of the United States below the Mason-Dixon line — or, as The Onion has it, below the IHOP-Waffle House line.

“The South has been urbanized, suburbanized, strip-malled, and land-formed to a point that at times I hardly recognize it anymore,” she writes. Yet it remains, she declares, “a place that bears the imprint of that deep sense of community and an almost tribal definition of kin.”

Best of all, this heartsick Southerner reminds us, “in New York you never get the fleeting sense that the polite stranger giving you directions might invite you home for dinner. In Atlanta, you do.”

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