The modern South is waiting for its epic; or failing that, for a book that captures how one region can be so distinctive and still emblematic of every national psychosis at the same time. Peter Applebome’s excellent 1997 work “Dixie Rising” (facts out of date, conclusions still dead on) comes the closest in a pretty sparse field to hitting that zone, but there is no southern themed version of what George Packer just did so skillfully in excavating the Great Recession in “The Unwinding”. Tracy Thompson’s sometimes very good but nowhere near great effort, “The New Mind of the South” doesn’t threaten “Dixie Rising’s” standing. It might have, if the author had done a little less translation and a little more interpretation.
Some of Thompson’s flaws are relatively lower case blunders: identifying William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential nominee who reconfigured his party as a populist vehicle, as a third party candidate is not unforgivable, although it is the kind of gaffe that calls every other obscure detail into some degree of doubt. Some of her faults are the price of an approach that prefers the anecdote and the cherry-picked stat to heavy duty research. This is a book that devotes a chapter to Hispanic immigration while tossing off two sentences about Alabama’s controversial law; that reaches conclusions about the racialization of southern politics without acknowledging that at the time she went to print, the nation’s only black senator happened to be a South Carolina Republican who defeated Strom Thurmond’s son in a congressional primary.
But Thompson did not set out to write a tome or a textbook. And her intuition that the best impressionistic essays can be deep without being a fact dump is surely right. But where she falls short is that a stylishly rendered, graceful account still constantly feels one step away from the depth she was striving toward. This is well done description of a road trip laced with a little data, not so much analysis, and likely would have fared better with critics if it had been packaged that way.
Exhibit One: The sketch of teenaged Latinos in Asheboro, North Carolina is a smart, interesting read on their space between absorption into and alienation from their surroundings, and that duality does add a tricky side note to the rising Hispanic southern population. But that same half-in, half-out condition also applies equally well to, oh, inner city black teenagers in the Ivy League, or imported northern professionals filling downtown condos from Richmond to Nashville. Thompson dwells on whether that ordinary enough ambiguity in place identity will change the nature of southerness, as if it were something profound, but skims the surface of more immediately relevant questions: are Hispanics really the key to a Democratic revival in a Georgia or North Carolina or will the social conservatism of the region’s Latinos (which she pauses to address for only about a sentence) turn them into a bloc that Republicans may woo when the immigrant bashing drains out of the right’s system? Is their rightward lean on faith and family different than or tantamount to the one that black southerners possess but don’t take into the voting booth? And if those details are too tediously political, how about this big question: how is that Alabamians and Georgians who so conspicuously pride themselves on racial progress had no compunction passing some of the nation’s harshest immigration laws at obvious cost to their reputation? Thompson’s take on whether there is rationalizing or back sliding at the source of this tension would have been worth hearing.
There is more of this pattern of reporting up to but not including the point of real insight. She is laser like in capturing Atlanta’s rising tide that didn’t lift enough boats, and is appropriately critical of Atlanta’s run of political mediocrity and its lapsed civil rights generation succession. All true, but interesting for this book’s purposes only if it traces a path that surfaces in the rest of the New South. Thompson never lets us know if a Birmingham, Memphis and Little Rock tell the same story, even if just by way of an aside. Moreover, by subscribing so predictably to the lament over right wing Republicans and self serving civil rights cut-offs, she brushes aside another thorny issue: why have southern progressives had so little to offer lately beyond a bought and paid for defense of plaintiffs lawyers and casinos? The absence of a reform culture in 21st century liberal southern politicians is the kind of thing a southern liberal like Thompson should have appreciated. But she opts for the cliché instead.
For every spot-on instinct about southern ways—give her credit for placing the southerner’s casual interrogations as to who raised you and who you married as anxiety to find a zone of connection rather than snobbery or nosiness—there seems to be a spot where her antenna goes dead. One would like to know what Thompson makes of a more consequential oddity most northerners don’t know: the fact that the South’s politics are arguably the most classless in the country—downscale whites vote roughly the same as white southern economic elites, and not just when a certain black president is on the ballot. The phenomenon of upper income voters forming the newest element of the Democratic electoral base is altogether missing down South. Also, what does Thompson take from the perverse reality that the irrelevance of class, rather than birthing some new fangled populism, has instead produced an electorate disengaged from class oriented problems in one of the sections of American where they are festering?
Of course, Thompson touches as any southern chronicler must on the omnipresence of religion, and one of the book’s strengths is that she assigns religiosity its portion of responsibility for why the white south is so Republican rather than laying it all at the door of race. She turns cursory, however, when it would have been worthwhile to ask just how that evangelicalism might eventually be bent to turn opinions on immigration and poverty, or indeed why it hasn’t already. Then, in one of the book’s more roundabout chapters, she laments the physical homogenization of southern retail, as if a mall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Omaha, Nebraska does not look similarly sterile. And in falling for that hardly region centric generalization, she stops short of assessing a more genuinely southern variable: the South’s relative uniqueness in preserving a robust manufacturing sector (one that may be foreign owned but remains one of the most durable conveyer belts in American for non college educated men and women to enter the middle class), or the fact that how those jobs were won has lured even some of the area’s more enlightened leaders into the conceit that tax abatements and non union workforces are a permanent substitute for improved schools or cultivating a more skilled labor pool.
Thompson is at her sharpest, in both senses, about the South’s poor memory for its racial excesses. This is the one phase in the book where she spends the time to dig into the historical roots and she reminds the reader of a lot: from the perennial southern fixation with downgrading slavery from a genocide like event to just another rough, unbalanced class inequity; to the amnesia over how prevalent lynchings and lies about black men used to be. But even here, at her best, Thompson is incurious about the ways that forgetfulness plays out today: shouldn’t she have recognized that the South’s blind spot toward black rural poverty is actually just a newer coat of whitewash?
To be fair, it’s hardly that Thompson has written a bad or shallow book. To the contrary, “The New Mind of the South” adds a little subtle lighting to a slice of America that a liberal media has reduced to a caricature. Her weakness is that she gets into the South’s psyche only just enough to tell us how it got where it is: hope still springs eternal for the book that will tell us where the Old Confederacy is going next.
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