Whistling Dixie: Dispatches from the South, by John Shelton Reed, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 241 pages, $19.95
Why does a region appeal both to natives and to outsiders? Why do people want to call it home? Why do they return there after careers or families have taken them away? While John Shelton Reed doesn't explicitly answer these questions in Whistling Dixie, one consistent theme runs through this collection of his essays: Much of a region's charm springs from its own cultural idiosyncrasies. In the American South, he contends, stamping out these differences, and homogenizing American culture, will make the entire country a less vibrant and a poorer place.
Reed is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. Most of these essays originally appeared as columns in the conservative monthly Chronicles. The Old Right promotes Chronicles as its response to The New Yorker; many of the articles there seem anachronistic—as if you were picking up a decades-old copy of the Saturday Evening Post. But unlike the other academic paleoconservatives who write for Chronicles, who seem to pine for the Old South (before the Civil War?), John Shelton Reed lives in the here and now. And he enjoys it.
Chapel Hill, Reed's home (and mine for 14 years), has a well-deserved reputation as the left-liberal haven in a conservative state. When Jesse Helms broadcast television editorials in the 1960s from Raleigh, he told the state legislature that it didn't need to set aside land for a state zoo; it only needed to "build a fence around Chapel Hill."
But these essays, which take us from the final days of the Carter administration to early 1990, demonstrate the author's love of his hometown, despite its more animated residents. Along the way we briefly meet Reed's family, his academic colleagues, and his fishing buddies. He provides the front-porch atmosphere of an unsappy Garrison Keillor. And calls himself a "crypto-neo-semi-Agrarian." You get the idea.
Reed's academic work focuses on the contemporary South and its culture. But, as he writes in the preface, these essays "are not scholarly articles, understand? If you use them for that, you'll void your warranty." And what stuffy academic would admit that on his office wall "is a picture of Elvis ascending a golden staircase to a heavenly Graceland where his mother waits for him and Hank Williams extends a hand in greeting"? While he may have voted for Jesse Helms, Reed doesn't share the senator's fixation on people who engage in "alternative lifestyles." On the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy: "When it comes to state support for sadomasochistic homosexual art, give me [state Rep.] Billy Randall's bill to make Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti' the official rock and roll song of Georgia.…Georgia ought somehow to honor the best poet from Macon since Sidney Lanier."
Rock 'n' roll music appears prominently in Reed's work—both because he likes it and because it helped bring blacks and whites together during the turbulent '50s. In his UNC course on the sociology of the South, Reed places Elvis Presley alongside William Faulkner as a giant in Southern culture.
Several essays feature the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, a tattoo-laden, earring-adorned, boogie-woogie pianist who plays his own "queasy listening" tunes in nightclubs up and down the East Coast. Reed caught Billy's bar act, wrote a favorable review, and was then invited to appear in the Rev.'s only rock video (to date). The tune, "Teenie Weenie Meanie," is a love song for a midget lady wrestler. Somehow Pat Buchanan wouldn't fit here.
While many of his paleo-conservative friends deplore modernity and the decline of the West, Reed celebrates one recent Southern development: improved race relations. "States' rights is a self-evidently reasonable and just doctrine…so long as it's not a mask for the states' wrongs of racial discrimination," he states. "If 'pro-Southern' comes to mean 'anti-black,' the South will never rise again, and it won't deserve to."
The term libertarian doesn't accurately describe Reed, but he does have some favorable things to say about the "political perpendicular," as one of my Chapel Hill friends would say. Reed rails against the Reaganites who went to Washington and became part of the Beltway establishment. While uncertain about a new military draft, he opposes civilian national service, following from his "default libertarian assumption that free men and women shouldn't be forced to do anything without a damn good reason."
And he doesn't have much nice to say about politicians. "Most principled antifederalists," he writes, "have things they'd rather do than go to Washington and push people around. They have products to manufacture, fields to harvest, books to write, sick people to heal—and if they don't have something better to do, they'll find something."
Reed loves Southerners and the South, but he doesn't possess the provincialism and distrust of outsiders so often associated with Dixie. When he introduces us to his fishing buddies, or the crowd who goes with him to Durham Bulls baseball games, chances are most of them are transplanted Yankees. His only warning to them: Don't try to understand everything that's going on around you. You aren't supposed to understand it all. I don't—and it doesn't bother me.
Not every essay sticks so closely to home. On mail-order brides: "There's obviously a U.S. market for old-fashioned girls, and the Third World is well on the way to cornering it." On a commemoration of the French Revolution that included all the "Tribes of France" but the Bretons and the Basques: "The place won't be the same again. I'm sure [the promoter] saw his parade as a celebration of the fact, but I'm afraid I saw it as another half-million votes for the thuggish Jean-Marie Le Pen and his nativist National Front."
From Barcelona, Reed offers surprising hope for a unified Europe as "a loose confederation of communities: Catalans, Flemings, Bretons, Alsatians, Basques, Occitans, Welsh—in time, maybe Croats, Vlachs, Lapps, Ukrainians, who knows? This vision of all the old, suppressed, organic Nations rising up, shaking free of the artificial strictures of States, becoming fully themselves—this pluralistic vision conflicts with the ambitions of the Eurocrats in Brussels, but it's a lovely idea, and I wish it well."
Does anything in Whistling Dixie break new ground? Not really. Others have addressed some of these areas before. But remember, this isn't a collection of academic papers; it's a monthly report from the front. Reed has a distinctive voice and his honesty and humor draw the reader in. I know four other Chronicles subscribers; three of them often read his "Letter from the Lower Right" and nothing else.
And it's refreshing to hear a genuine Southern voice. Too often outside the South, the "Southerners" I come across are the ones on National Public Radio—pretentious novelists with Piedmont Carolinas accents who write 400-page stream-of-consciousness tomes in which characters watch the traffic lights change. Real Southerners aren't just whiny yuppie wannabes who listen to R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs; nor are they all dirt-eating Bubbas sitting in trailers cleaning their shotguns. They don't fit neatly into any predefined category. But they do maintain a sense of independence and regional pride that Reed appreciates and admires.
Anyone fascinated by the diversity of American regional cultures and traditions will delight in Whistling Dixie. John Shelton Reed reminds this North Carolina native of what makes that part of the world special, and why I hope to return there someday.
Rick Henderson is assistant managing editor at REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Carolina in My Mind".