Minding the South

Minding the South

Minding the South

Minding the South


You're in the American South now, a proud region with a distinctive history and culture. A place that echoes with names like Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, Scarlett O'Hara and Uncle Remus, Martin Luther King and William Faulkner, Billy Graham, Mahalia Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley. Home of the country blues and country music, bluegrass and Dixieland jazz, gospel music and rock and roll. Where menus offer both down-home biscuits and gravy and uptown shrimp and grits. Where churches preach against "cigarettes, whiskey, and wild, wild women" (all Southern products) and where American football is a religion.

For more than thirty years John Shelton Reed has been “minding” the South-watching over it, providing commentary upon it. He is the author or editor of thirteen books about the South, and despite his disclaimer regarding formal study of Southern history, Reed has read widely and in depth about the South. His primary focus is upon Southerners' present-day culture and consciousness, but he knows that one must approach the South historically in order to understand the place and its people.

Why is the South so different from the rest of the country? Rupert Vance, Reed's predecessor in sociology at Chapel Hill, once observed that the very existence of the South is a triumph of history over geography and economics. The South has resisted being assimilated by the larger United States and has kept a personality that is distinctly its own. That is why Reed celebrates the South. His essays cover everything from great thinkers about the South-Eugene D. Genovese, C. Vann Woodward, M. E. Bradford-to the uniqueness of a region that was once a hotbed of racism, but has recently attracted hundreds of thousands of blacks transplanted from the North. There are even a few chapters about Southerners who have devoted their talents to different subjects altogether, from politics or soft drinks to rock and roll or the design of silver jewelry. Reed writes with wit and Southern charm, never afraid to speak his mind, even when it comes to taking his beloved South to task. While readers may not share all his opinions, most will agree that John Shelton Reed is one of the best “South watchers” there is.


The essays and reviews collected here reflect the variety of publications and occasions for which they were written, but they are all about "minding" the South, in one sense of the word or another. If you think of minding as a process, for instance, like (say) salting or seeding—spreading minds around—well, here is a sprinkling of minds. the South has produced or attracted a great many interesting ones, but many are not as well known as they should be. I hope readers of this book will encounter at least one or two thinkers that they will be glad to have met.

And "minding" has other, more familiar, meanings. Many of those thinkers have themselves minded the South, in the sense of watching it, even tending it—and a few have minded it in yet another way: they have been distressed by it. the South-minders in this book (as outside it, no doubt) are mostly Southerners themselves, but some come from elsewhere, from all over the United States and Europe, as well as Trinidad and Korea. Surely I am not the only Southerner who wants to know whether they got it right.

In short, most of these chapters look at people looking at the South. a couple of them, in the section "What They Say about Dixie," even look at people looking at people looking at the South, which is getting pretty rarified. But the South is not the only thing Southerners think about. a few chapters here examine Southerners who have devoted their minds and talents to different subjects altogether, from politics to soft drinks, rock and roll to the design of silver jewelry.

In addition, minding the South—in the watching sense—is something I have been up to for thirty-odd years myself. in fact I have been accused of having no unpublished thoughts on the subject, but some of these chapters . . .

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