I haven’t taken a poll, but I think it’s safe to say that the followers of this website have in common not only a love of the South, its unique qualities and culture, but also a conviction that it’s a beautiful place physically. They also have to know that the South has its detractors, and that they come from all sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. The most enthusiastic Southerner admits to the region’s faults and daily confronts them with a combination of melancholy and stoicism. Among other reasons, Porter Briggs created the eponymous website you’re reading to celebrate the South that he’s a native of and to provide evidence that a Southerner’s pride is well-deserved, a view that is presented here with consistent intelligence and an admirable lack of hyperbole.
Paul Theroux begs to differ, though. In his new book, Deep South, the well-respected travel writer and novelist turns a gimlet eye on our region, finding little that pleases him. It’s not that he’s working in a vacuum of knowledge about his subject, it’s just that all he knows about the South comes from books. The two-year pilgrimage by automobile that he took as preparation for writing Deep South was his first actual trip to the region. He’s read his James Agee and his William Faulkner and his Erskine Caldwell, but he takes away from them their most negative aspects. Once he’s in the South, he sees only the stereotypes. He takes away the wrong lessons from what he observes, his conclusions underpinned mainly by what can only be called predetermined prejudices.
Theroux plotted his travels through some of the South’s poorest backwaters, and what he sees in those places is depressingly predictable: gun shows, Civil War re-enacters, snake handlers, football crazies. In the midst of historic Charleston’s most stunning early architecture, he observes that beautiful architecture bores him. He looks around at a poverty plagued corner of Mississippi and thinks to himself that “it looks more hopeless” than places he’s seen in Africa. He admits, though, that the people of the South are extraordinarily hospitable.
Although Theroux spares no Southern state from the scorn of his judgments, he saves some of his most lacerating opinions for Arkansas and its favorite son, Bill Clinton. He finds Slick Willie, the South’s most recent ascendant to the presidency, a deplorable character who brought the most vulgarian of Southern habits as well as the shady practices of Arkansas courthouse politics to Washington, and eventually to epic disgrace. He even dismisses Clinton’s post-presidential efforts at redemption as mostly self-serving. He wonders why the millions of dollars Clinton’s foundation lavishes on Third World countries aren’t devoted to his native state, where Theroux thinks they could be put to better use.
When Theroux’s literary imagination ran out of steam several decades ago, he turned to the possibilities of the travel book, a genre many serious writers have explored as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Theroux’s subsequent accounts of his own journeys—on the Orient Express, to the tropical hinterlands of South America, to the sagging resorts of the British coast—were all praised. He possessed an eye for the telling and off-beat detail, and for the generous empathy he showed for the characters he encountered along the way.
Few if any of those traits are apparent in Deep South. His tone is consistently patronizing and he seems determined to be unimpressed with anything he sees. Nothing singular, he implies, could ever grow in such depleted earth. In a very real sense, his book can be literally judged by its cover, which depicts an abandoned and overgrown small-town movie theatre, the ultimate of visual cliches. It’s an image meant to illustrate that a place is lost to time, its inevitable fate to inherit a shroud of darkness. Readers are left with the impression that Theroux and his publisher are content to leave the diagnosis of an entire region in the hands of a physician who approaches his patient blindfolded.