Telling a Mouthful about the South.

Telling a Mouthful about the South.

Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, pp. 19-22

Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, co-editors. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. $49.95.)

Is an encyclopedia, and this one in particular, a book or an event, an event that should be written about elsewhere in this magazine? It is here, in the back of the book, that the duty has been assigned, and I shall endeavor to consider it as a book, albeit one of a distinctive sort.

Doing that is made difficult right off, because I–and I am reasonably positive every one of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture’s many other reviewers–have violated a reviewers first obligation: to have read the whole book. My plea in extenuation is that I have read a lot of it, and some of all of its twenty-four parts.

The parts proceed alphabetically from Agriculture to Women’s Life. The usual practice of encyclopedists has avoided subject classification. The editors of the E.S.C. added to their challenges by making such. As many topics

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overlap subject areas they had the problem of deciding where to put them. There are, by hasty count, more than fourteen hundred articles–and my first high-heaped praise is of the editors’ accomplishment in lining up about eight hundred persons to write them–and the placement of these many pieces has presented reviewers something to criticize. Given the task the editors faced one ought to spare the criticism. Reflecting on the difficulty, for example, of deciding whether to place the article on “Desegregation” under Black Life, Law, Politics, Social Class, or Violence suffices both to illustrate how close the judgment calls could be and to be accepting of the editorial decision, which in fact put this one under none of those but Education instead. Cross-references do help.

Some assignments do, however, apparently reflect a different kind of editorial judgment, one that expresses valuation. Placing the article on “Harry Crews” under Media, rather than Literature was probably an innocent slip. But to place “Margaret Mitchell” and “Frank Yerby” under Mythic South and “Lillian Smith” under Women’s Life instead of Literature are irritating literary valuations.

Another favorite area of comment by reviewers has been to note omissions: if this person is in why is this other one not, is the common approach. As in, if “Julian Bond” why not John Lewis and Robert Moses, if “Patsy Cline” and “George Jones” why not Kitty Wells and Johnny Cash, if “Hank Aaron,” “Ty Cobb,” “Dizzy Dean,” and “Satchel Paige” why not–for goodness sakes–Willie Mays? Well, why not indeed? Such are the perils of encyclopedia construction, and the joys of sideline critics.

Some omissions are more serious, however. How, for perhaps the leading example, can there be any reasoned justification in such a venture as is the Encyclopedia for the neglect of Thurgood Marshall, who has done as much as any person of this century to transform the South? (And if the grounds are that he was by origin but a Marylander, this man who has strode the South both literally and by influence for decades, those grounds did not keep out his fellow Marylander, H. L. Mencken.)

Another difficulty for the reviewer is that to comment on style or substance would be unfair when there are many articles, written by a small army of writers, and when numbers of them are yet unread. There seems no principled course other than to consider the tome as a whole, which means to concentrate on concept and outline rather than substance. Some articles are quite good, some are bad, and I think everyone who explores the book would say the same although not agreeing on which. I will note, however, examples of what in my opinion are good and poor models of the genre of encyclopedia essays.

The aforementioned piece on school “Desegregation” is an example of the former: clear, compressed, accurate, and obviously authoritative. Here, as elsewhere, the suggested bibliography is one that probably everyone familiar with the topic would want to revise–in a variety of disputable ways–but the important thing, the essay itself, is all one might turn to an encyclopedia to find.

On the side of bad models, I trust that an exhaustive reading of the encyclopedia would not turn up another article worse than “Newspapers,” in the Media section. I say that without concern here for its content–though it is generally atrocious–but because it is a very model of what an encyclopedia article should not be, for it is stuffed with the essayist’s personal preferences. Readers are told, for example, which are the “best” newspapers in each state and who have been the “courageous” editors of the South, and the fact that both lists are well off the mark is less to be noted than that such subjective judgments have no business in a reference work.

These two articles do not stand alone; there are many others which are very good and appropriate, and there are some others that, like “Newspapers,” are inappropriate. But fundamentally, the Encyclopedia is to be appreciated in terms of its concepts and architecture. The latter is easier to discuss. As noted, the book has twenty-four subjects. Was that necessary? Would the work be just as interesting were it more conventional, essays simply arranged alphabetically? Possibly so, but the editors are entitled to their belief, and their implied assertion that here are the twenty-four most salient aspects of the South does give another big thought to chew over. I have no fault to find with the outline. The inclusion of some subjects–I think especially of Violence but also Ethnic Life–is fresh and unexpected and altogether correct.

Each part has a Consultant who has contributed an introductory essay. In areas where I presume to trust my own judgment I single out Politics as a section where the Consultant has written a fine and trenchant introduction (concluding with the understated sentence, “Whether state governmental policies that favor public aid for industrialists, oppose labor organization, support relatively low taxes and services, and tailor social policies to the needs of land developers and real estate brokers will benefit the region’s people as a whole and will alleviate racial and other social problems remains an open question.” The ensuing

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articles are well chosen and–with only a scant few bobbles of fact and a wisp of blind overconfidence in southern peoples, as in suggesting that states which export such as Helms and Gingrich have outgrown demagogy’s attractions–well handled. This section can be read and studied as a first class treatment of a single subject, and is strong evidence of the good sense behind the editors’ plan of constructing the E.S.C. around subject areas.

The other side of that is, however, that with subjects as fluid and changeable as Politics and most others in this volume, to deal with them once, if that has been well done, almost commits the publisher to bring out revisions from time to time.

And finally, concept, beginning with the question, “Should this have been done at all?” Should we who live and work in this geographic region known as “the South” be deliberately deepening the sense of being Southern, of Southernness, of being, in one of the essayist’s words, “enthralled by the southern consciousness and its traditionalism?”

Or, on a somewhat different level, should we be burrowing ourselves more and yet more deeply into the digs started by Howard Odum, converting the South into “data,” which can be added to and mined and re-mined endlessly. Odum is, indeed, the intellectual patron hovering over the Encyclopedia, for it as did he expresses a uniquely Southern (as far as I detect) blending of social science and romantic attachments. The E.S.C. believes that there is a Southern “way of life,” and its text is meant to be the lineaments and the interpretation of that “way,” or culture.

John Shelton Reed, in the foreword to The Disappearing South?, an interesting collection of essays by specialists in the study of Southern politics (edited by Robert P. Steed, Lawrence W. Moreland, Tod A. Baker. University of Alabama Press, 1990. xii, 224 pages $26.95), has written: “one enduring element of ‘southern distinctiveness’ has been a concern for what that distinctiveness might be, a concern that amuses other Americans when it doesn’t just get on their nerves. This book’s title places it in a long tradition of inquiry, further specified by its subtitle, ‘Studies in Regional Change and Continuity,’ and one continuity has been the persisting worry by several generations now of thoughtful Dixiologists–journalists, students of history and literature, scholars from nearly every social-science discipline–about whether they have anything left to talk about.”

This is one of those matters which believing makes so; at leas/partially. If people who live in the South believe that they do have a distinct culture, then they have one. If observers cannot (as some able ones say they cannot) point to basic differences between the Southern “way of life”-of the Southern “mind”–and that of other regions’ folks, but if Southerners themselves continue to believe there are these differences, then so much for facts. A quarter of a century ago, I wound down an essay by asking, “Ten years from now, or 20, will people living between the Potomac and Rio Grande still identify themselves with each other, still feel worthwhileness in calling themselves Southerners?”

I answered then, “I do not know.” The answer now seems to be in. They do. They do, and too often for generally bad reasons. The Encyclopedia celebrates superficiality (“Goo Goo Clusters”) and seriousness in almost the same breath and indiscriminately. In doing so it is true to the present day South. An article on “Bonnie and Clyde” is almost as long as the immediately following one on “Capital Punishment;” that is to trivialize. So is the equality between “Snake Handlers” and “Southern Baptist Convention” or between a piece on “Armadillo” and its preceding ones, “Appalachian Coal Regions” and “Appalachian Mountains.” There is playful fascination with coltish things such as “Jack Daniels Distillery” and “Murder Legends.” The examples could, unfortunately, be multiplied. This side of E.S.C. is depiction of a South that does not care or give a damn, and today’s South is in fact much like that.

In which particular, the contemporary South is at one with the nation as a whole, as we became in recent years.

The editors say, “Black culture is central to understanding the region and the Encyclopedia’s attempt to explore this perspective in specific, detailed topics may be the most significant contribution of the volume toward understanding the region.”

They are certainly correct about the centrality of the black presence and experience. And there is, to be sure, a considerable quantity of space given to blacks and their concerns, though some opportunities are missed; there is, for one, only slight attention given to the black bar, its history and growing role.

But can an encyclopedia, with the constraints which the form imposes on even so unconventional one as this, be fairly taxed with a social or political mission? The great Encyclopedie served one, but has or can any since?

If the E.S.C. is intended to elevate regional racial cultures as well as describe them then it would have to be appraised on very demanding requirements. Those would include the measure by which it alters what are for white racial liberals today’s governing rules in their relations with the black community: keep a distance; engage with blacks only in politics; never publicly find fault and be ready to praise when publicly called upon; and never move a step in advance of black leaders in calling for institutional integration, even though that generally means not at all.

If such a measure were applied to the Encyclopedia, I doubt that it would pass; in that failure, it would be well representative of the region: and in fact, of the nation, no distinction there, at all. Until the section on Violence is

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reached, this is a book which wants the South to be liked, or at least respected. wants Southerners to feel good about themselves. The section on Violence is different, but one discordant note does not greatly change the rhythm.

Where do blacks fit into that? I cannot say that I hope they will–in these days of bullying small nations and turning away from the poor I am against any Americans feeling good about themselves–but I do hope they will find themselves and their cultures, and some of their troubles and their aspirations, justly depicted in these pages.

Leslie W. Dunbar, former executive director of both the Field Foundation and the Southern Regional Council, is the book editor of Southern Changes.