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(Southern Partisan) – More than a decade ago, on the first day of a college seminar titled “The American South,” Glenda Gilmore—one of the deans of Southern history—challenged my classmates and me to define the borders of the South. It was a surprisingly difficult task. Everyone agreed on, say, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, but what about Oklahoma—was it Western or Southern? What about Kentucky, home state of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln? Perhaps Missouri, the setting of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Undoubtedly northern Florida, but whither Miami? Why not New Mexico, which after all is south of Virginia? Does Delaware count? The exercise ended without any certainty, which surely was the point.
To the eminent (and eminently racist) Southern historian U.B. Phillips, the South was defined by its weather. Elsewhere, he labeled white supremacy the region’s “central theme.” To others, the South is simply the former Confederacy. To many, there’s an unspoken but firm association between Southernness and backwardness, or religion, or poverty. These assumptions position the South as a region apart, an “other” place, an American heart of darkness, a foil for the more enlightened North or the more entrepreneurial West.
It’s ironic, then, that the South has also become a stand-in for American authenticity. “The most violent and inequitable region of the country produced a disproportionate amount of the modernist literature, adventurous self-taught art, and genres of music and popular styles of religion, which entered into and then transformed the artistic sensibilities and cultural soundtracks of the twentieth century,” writes Paul Harvey in a penetrating essay in…