Ill-Informed Musings of a Man Who Has Hardly Ever Been South
I am ashamed to admit that I am 41 years old and my only trips to the South (so far) have been childhood pilgrimages to Walt Disney World. That’s right: Not only have I failed to visit a Southern state not named Florida, but even that experience was thoroughly mediated by Goofy—whom I vaguely remember going grinningly past my mother and me on water-skis, as our ferry full of insufferable tourists sped toward the Magic Kingdom.
Disney locales like Epcot Center, with its suspiciously compressed “World Showcase,” certainly seemed more intent on presenting a Mickey-Mouse portrait of the entire planet than anything Floridian. To have been so unworldly as to consult Walt Disney for global enlightenment is humbling knowledge indeed. Also—to return to more domestic concerns—staying at the blandly decadent Sheraton Lakeside Inn in Kissimmee hardly qualifies as having enjoyed genuine Southern hospitality.
And so, the essential question here: Apart from a few low-altitude Dumbo rides in Orlando, how is it that I have not ventured anywhere remotely near a whole half of the United States? How have I, a half-baked Northerner, managed to achieve such a staggering degree of ignorance regarding the South?
Well, in my severely insulated case, it helps to have been remarkably unadventurous. My known family is minuscule, and only my mother, born in Terre Haute, Indiana, can claim anything that even borders on slightly Southern origins. No school or job has ever beckoned me outside of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, an incredibly loose alliance that Northeasterners often refer to as “the tri-state area.”
I grew up in a beloved but haughty enclave of New York City called Brooklyn Heights, an aristocratic little ecosystem that can actually cater to the urban hermit’s lifestyle, if that’s your miserable bent. Gentrified karma has emanated almost directly from my old neighborhood in the intervening years, resulting in re-branded bits of unaffordable real estate such as D.U.M.B.O. (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)—proof that you can never truly escape the influence of that flying elephant. The skyscraper-high cost of living in any borough has perhaps contributed to what can amount to a surprisingly provincial city attitude. New York, after all, can rival Epcot in its epic belief that it sits at the center of everything. Since my Brooklyn upbringing, I’m afraid that I’ve managed to move even farther north; I currently reside in Montreal, Quebec, making me an only mildly greater authority on life in southern Canada than the southern United States.
My own early determination to not broaden my horizons beyond Manhattan meant that I tended to absorb the morsels of perceived “Southern” content that were delivered, quite conveniently, to my metropolitan doorstep. In the early 1990’s—which is how all of my atrocious anecdotes begin—I went to see a Broadway revival of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin in the lead roles of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. The headliners were skilled actors and established movie stars, and the site was the storied Great White Way, but the source material—a drama set in Louisiana, penned by a playwright born in Mississippi—was thoroughly Southern, freshly filtered into a 47th Street theater. Producers had smuggled the play, like preserved liquor, into an exclusive Manhattan speakeasy, where they intended to resell their brand of “Southern Comfort” at a ludicrously expensive price. “Northern Comfort,” meanwhile, may perhaps be defined as New Yorkers (plus assorted tourists) appreciating Southern art from a safe distance—or transplanting the product onto its home turf outright.
It was during this same period of obscenely stupid fandom that the actor Al Pacino had my undivided attention. I was therefore predictably riveted by his performance as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in the 1992 film Scent of a Woman. Al’s alternately melancholy and unhinged Colonel brandished a broad, scattershot drawl for the duration of a seemingly endless movie, sounding more effectively fried than Southern throughout. Pacino’s turn was so thunderously intense, and my own uncritical devotion so slavish, that I did not think to trace the scent of his spurious accent. “Where you from!?” Slade roars at a visitor in an early scene, his own exact roots remaining inscrutable. In any case, my unreasonable dedication to the Bronx-born thespian was such that I saw no reason to investigate further—certainly not from my cozy seat inside a Brooklyn cineplex. From Goofy to the former Godfather, there have almost always been “buffers” between me and the nebulous fragments of Southern-ness I’ve so lazily received (degrees of separation that may or may not lead back to Kevin Bacon).
Sometimes those fragments have been a bit more grotesque, although no less theatrical. As Steve McCondichie explores in his recent essay on “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, the Southern influence on professional wrestling has always been incredibly strong. As a perniciously addicted fan of the sport and performance art form in the 1990’s, it was impossible to escape the steamrolling prevalence of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a character whose very surname shrewdly branded him as being unmistakably Southern. So insanely volatile as to make Colonel Slade seem relatively serene, Austin also answered to benign nicknames like “The Texas Rattlesnake” and “The Bionic Redneck,” right before pummeling whoever had been foolish enough to address him in the first place. His drunken idea of diplomacy consisted of switching to Molson’s beer whenever the World Wrestling Federation crossed the Canadian border, and he was given to concluding his in-ring remarks with the affirming mantra “…and that’s the bottom line, ’cause Stone Cold said so!” It is still a lamentable state of affairs that I should be so well-acquainted with Austin’s “bottom line,” while having crossed the one of the Mason-Dixon variety but once.
I am immensely grateful that, throughout my reading life, so many Southern authors have courageously crossed that line for me, their words meeting me more than halfway. I first encountered Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides in 1990, and it is still one of the most shockingly honest explorations of pain and dysfunction that I can remember, as vividly evocative of personal trauma and mental illness as it is of the South Carolina fishing community in which its protagonist, Tom Wingo, grows up. Georgia writer Conrad Aiken’s short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” offered me an equally indelible depiction of an afflicted mind, distilled from the form of Conroy’s sprawling novel into a chilling vignette. Southern literature, whether you’re walking down Eudora Welty’s A Worn Path or George Weinstein’s Hardscrabble Road, can pave and navigate a pure line of communication between writer and reader, rendering distance almost moot, even as it illumines a fairly faraway time and place. Lurid and distorting filters tend to fall away, as quiet and clear articulation takes hold. At the same time, great Southern writing motivates you to wrench yourself free of your (Northern) comfort zone and experience what inspired it—and not simply because Stone Cold said so.
Sam Benedict is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and lapsed pro wrestling fan. With this essay, he hopes he hasn’t incurred the wrath of Colonel Slade, whom he fully understands is a fictional character. He currently lives in Montreal with his wife, and Nicolas, their unfortunately Trump-colored tabby tomcat. Follow @BenedictineTwit on Twitter.
(Photo Credit: “Pirates of the Caribbean Jail Scene” by Ben Ostrowsky can be found on http://bit.ly/2pxKRbV. The image has been resized and adjusted with Adobe Photoshop for color, contrast, noise, sharpness, and tone.)