Azalea Death Trip: A Journey Through the Land of Southern Living
By Allen Tullos
Vol. 1, No. 10, 1979, pp. 7-10,32
In the beginning,” it is written in Southern Living magazine, “man created Florida “Later on, men got around to creating Puerto Vallarta, where “luxury hotels are beginning to change the red-tile and adobe skyline of this picturesque little fishing village on the west coast of Mexico.” And, somewhere along the way, arose the Land of Oz, a theme park constructed by Grover and Harry Robbins’ Carolina Caribbean Corporation atop North Carolina’s Beech Mountain: “there was this wild top-of-the-world mountain that could overwhelm you, and the Robbins didn’t want to see it forever wasted.”
It is in such sentences of contradiction and divided allegiance that Southern Living reflects the plight of the modern South. To answer the question – What is the sound of six flags waving? – SL’s publisher Emory Cunningham conceived an annual section (“The Future of the South”) in his magazine to seek free enterprise solutions to free enterprise. He wrote: “Convinced that it is absurd to believe that the South’s natural beauty can remain intact without vigilance, we urge the preservation of vulnerable natural attractions that could disappear forever.” Yet the advertisements in Southern Living always suggest something else. One of them, for Bear Paw, a Southern mountain resort, soft-sells: “How to own a piece of God’s country. Before it’s all gone.”
Southern Living sprang full grown from the Progressive Farmer in 1966, the parent providing some 200,000 subscribers and a shower of garden tractors, riding lawn mowers and pickup trucks loaded with fertilizer, herbicides and nursery stock . An affluent market of urban and suburban White families was easily sold to the manufacturers of ovens, carpet, liquor, televisions, automobiles, etc. By 1967, Southern Living led the US magazine field in percentage of advertising revenue gains. In April of 1969 it proudly announced to its 576,000 subscribers the use of 239 tons of paper for that month’s issue. At year’s end, 1975, when Emory Cunningham became the first Southern magazine publisher to receive the publisher of the year award from the Magazine Publishers Association of New York, there were 1,200,000 subscribers and a yearly advertising revenue of eleven million dollars. Presently with its 1,600,000 subscribers, Southern Living is among the top ten monthly magazines in advertising volume.
Turning the pages on thirteen years of back issues provides some insight into the grand and continuing financial success of Southern Living. The magazine caters to the pursuit of leisure in a culture where the skills of outdoor sport and neighborly hospitality have legendary expectations. There are genuine needs here – for play and rest, for travel and the discovery of new peoples and places, for artistic expression in wide variety. Southern Living has seized upon these needs like no other publication.
Ultimately, however, what SL offers its hungry audience is a false fulfillment. In the clever hands of those modern engineers of desire, the admen, human-centered needs are promised satisfaction through saleable goods and a lifestyle of comfortable non-controversy. It is no coincidence that ol’ Alabama boy Emory Cunningham rose to the position of publisher through the ranks of advertising, first as ad
salesman for the Progressive Farmer, then its ad manager, then to Southern Living as advertising director. “Advertising,” he has written, “is the fuel which powers our journey.”
That the fuel itself can become the chief purpose of the journey has not worried SL‘s engineers. That such a journey requires the exchange of distinctive landscapes, communities and regional cultures for the coins of entropy is evident even in the titles of Southern Living articles: “Where Tradition Meets Its Match,” “Blazing a Trail into Remotest Florida,” “Shopping for Memories,” “Tradition Is For Sale in the Ozarks.” So well-fueled is SL that it is often difficult to find the articles amidst the ads or, having found them, to distinguish between the two. “Why not,” asks the bustling ghost of Henry Grady, “turn the entire South and Southwest into one vast theme park with turnstiles in Houston, Nashville and Richmond?”
A Safari Through Afrikaner Cuisine
“Southern Living,” noted its editor Gary McCalla on the magazine’s tenth anniversary,” reflects only those positive aspects of the South within the scope of our editorial format. Instead of editorializing on what might or could be done, we find positive examples of what has been done and report them.” It is easily agreed that Southern Living is at its best amidst the prospering restaurants, electronic kitchens and prize winning flower gardens of White Southerners of positive aspects. Countless mouths drool monthly over the full page color pinups
featuring glorious spreads of pickled peaches, slender string beans, stuffed quail, dependable cornbread and freshly hooked trout. Innumerable hands follow SL‘s instructions as to the care of dozens of varieties of camellias and roses. Millions of feet march along the hiking trails to pitch tents in the wildernesses approved by Southern Living. Squadrons of ears know from their reading that all fiddle and guitar players are alike, that the music they make is “bluegrass,” and that the tin flag of Opryland wags happily over the home of the quaint.
Applied to personal relations, this theme of positive aspects is explained by publisher Cunningham: “If a family is about to disintegrate there’s not much chance of them finding real help in a complex explanation of what the problems are. I don’t think a counselor will help. But if you get a couple to start gardening and not get into the marriage thing at all I think the chances of patching things up are a lot better.” In case of horticultural complications, such as the husband who has failed to deliver on a rose garden, the means of patching things up can be shifted to backyard barbecue skills.
Despite such good intentions, however, old fears die hard and Southern Living frequently (yet perhaps only semi-consciously) calls up attitudes older than Dixie and prospects as bogus as the Sun Belt . Racial and sexual stereotyping as well as the privileges of class are easily tied to the tug of a nostalgic heartstring. Selfishness, profit making and ecological violence can be encouraged with the promises of technological deliverance or hidden under a haze of azaleas.
Black folk are consistently ignored by Southern Living. Doubtless they lack the requisite positive aspects. Perhaps they lack the requisite incomes. Possibly they might look a little frightening to the typical subscriber if they came sliding up to poolside dripping wet and in full color in an article entitled “Serenity Among the Southern Pines.”
It took months for the first Black faces to appear in Southern Living. When they did, they belonged to Aunt Jemima on a box of corn meal mix and to a young employee at Aunt Fanny’s cabin, a restaurant where the plantation tradition lives on:
There is no printed menu at your table. A young Negro boy in a white jacket comes up wearing a slate around his neck and chanting the main courses listed thereon…
As you eat happily, several Negro boys put on a singing and dancing show of century-old songs. The waitresses sing when they are not too busy.
A South African vacation advertisement from 1967 invites readers to come to “where language and culture are mirrors of your own.” Ten years later, when a depiction of a tennis-shoed Black kid would have been out of step, an article entitled “Shine Mister” finds its humor in “shoeshine boys with ragged shirts, dirty tennis shoes and eyes that laugh at you. They’re the most loveable little con artists in Mexico.”
In the early 1970’s, within the two pages given to a monthly feature, “This Is Their South,” an occasional Black face or Spanish sounding name finds a segregated space alongside the cameos of nontraditional Southern women – those not chiefly noted for their hostessing or cooking abilities or their beauty contest victories. More recently Blacks seem to be returning to the roles of waiters or Caribbean drummers. Writing in May of 1972, publisher Cunningham noted that “the South has a unique oppor-
tunity and responsibility to provide moral and ideological leadership for the nation.” But in the thousands of pages which Southern Living has devoted to city living, community development or architectural design, the issues of white flight, integrated neighborhoods and low income housing are conspicuously absent. “Major new choices in residential ownership” turn out to be exclusive communities planned for the affluent and built on a foundation of private profit.
Complete the title of this 1976 Southern Living article: “Making the Most of Your_____________”
2) Retirement Years
4) Leisure Time
5) Trash Compactor
An Alabama friend told a story several years ago, when these gadgets were first reaching the popular market, about his father’s buying the family a trash masher for Christmas. He introduced the gift by announcing, “You’ve heard of that ecology? Well, this thing here does away with it.” Southern Living too, has heard of ecology. It has frequently won environmental awards from the Discover America Travel Organization, another vehicle fueled by advertising, whose membership includes such citizens of self restraint as the oil companies, travel attractions, transportation companies and accommodations firms.
Reaching out in all directions to embrace every species of mechanical contraption, the harmlessness of “A Blender Does More Than You Think” easily becomes the high technology visit to a delightful South Carolina nuclear reactor described in “An Atomic Kind of Fishing.” Although the title of a January, 1970, article, -It’s a Rocket; It’s a Robot: It’s a Barbecue,” seems to forecast the grim and toasty future awaiting a technocentric South in the post takeoff stage, this story actually turns out to be about the backyard cooking invention of a former NASA electrician. Formed like the offspring of a midnight graveyard rendezvous between a nosecone and the tin man, this device for “controlled fire” is quickly pointed at a familiar target: ” ‘I’ve written instructions three times for my wife,’ says the inventor grinning. ‘And she still doesn’t know how to operate it. She’s afraid of it.’ ”
Ultimately, journalistic visits to space colleges and features on the wives of astronauts turn a romantic. fascination for NASA and the space program into a source of metaphor for Southern Living‘s equally specious benchmarks of success. By April, 1971, editor McCalla was well launched on such a fantasy flight. “To publish a 200 page issue has been a goal of ours for some time,” he wrote. “It is an achievement, we think, somewhat akin to Al Shepard’s suborbital flight in Freedom 7. We’ve still got a long way to go to the moon.”
Azalea Death Trip
If once the Atlanta Journal and its radio station WSB could fairly boast of covering Dixie like the dew, a high tide has risen with Southern Living to cover the coffee tables and night stands, the beauty parlors and barbershops of sixteen states and the District of Columbia. By appealing to Southerners’ traditional love of food, travel, neighborly visiting, gardening, outdoor sports, home care and family life, Southern Living is able to wrap its pursuit of profit with the symbols of the good life. What it offers, however, is a mirage. Not only are historically rich folkways given an eye-catching or sentimental treatment which ultimately trivializes them, but sanction is given to a way of looking at life which eliminates its unpleasant or tragic realities, its historical burdens and its future obligations. Somewhere down the azalea trail, Homer’s lotus eaters come to mind. They too were victims of “positive aspects.”
SIDEBAR: The representations of women through the images and words of Southern Living is a subject too rich for an essay this short. Here, however are a couple of provacative items. First, a sentence worth a thousand pictures: “Charles and Mary Fraser — she was Mary Stone of the Stone Manufacturing Company in Greenville, South Carolina — an attractive brunette, and their two little girls live in a house– cypress, of course,, of a particularly fetching yet functional design on the 12th fairway of the Ocean golf course, one of three in the Sea Pines complex.”(Jan. 1970)
Now and then, this grocery list imitation of life gives way to a purer self-absorption, as in a February, 1971, interview with writer James Dickey:
(Southern Living): What were you flying then
Dickey:F=94’s, C. That’s a jet interceptor. It’s the one with the ring of rockets around the nose. And then when I came back my first boy, Chris, was born. He is married now, and I’m a grandfather. He’s a junior at the University of Virginia.
SL: And your other son is Keven?
SL: Let’s get your wife’s name in.
Dickey: Maxine. But then, let’s see, when I cameback out of the Service from the Korean War. I went back to Rice and I was still a freshman teacher. I was writing….
Allen Tullos is the editor of this special issue of Southern Changes. A native Alabamian, he currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.