The cover of 'The New Mind of the South' and author Tracy Thompson. (Simon & Schuster; Dayna…)
The contemporary American South is so different from the troubled yet exotic Dixie of the past that it's nearly unrecognizable, argues Tracy Thompson in her splendid new book, "The New Mind of the South."
Because of immigration, the typical Southerner in 2013 is almost as likely to be a Latino as a native black or white. At the same time, the huge numbers of Northern blacks who have returned to the region their grandparents fled because of racism more readily identify themselves as Southerners nowadays than whites do.
Then there's religion. Although the South remains deeply Christian, the stridently conservative fundamentalism that characterized the 1980s has been eclipsed by the so-called "prosperity gospel," which holds that financial gifts will be bestowed upon the faithful.
As for the white intransigence that in 1963 prompted Alabama Gov. George Wallace to promise "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," Thompson observes: "It's a fundamental reality of the twenty-first century South [that] whites and blacks work together, enjoy genuine friendships, date and even marry each other."
Despite all this, the South is still plagued by economic problems, while racial tensions continue to fester. From Thompson's perspective, however, there is an even more fundamental issue: Southerners — particularly white ones — haven't come to terms with their vexing but potentially liberating history. Like a patient in the early phases of psychological therapy, they have stopped some destructive behaviors — discrimination against blacks — but they haven't dealt with deeper issues, chiefly the causes of that discrimination and the pain it inflicted.
In "The New Mind of the South," Thompson puts the region on the couch, thereby following in the footsteps of W.J. Cash, the author whose great work "The Mind of the South" she audaciously evokes in her title. In his 1941 book, Cash, an editor of the Charlotte (N.C.) News, explored subjects including Dixie's antipathy to labor unions and the relationship between chivalry and lynching: The extra-legal hanging of a black man was intended to protect Southern womanhood.
Cash's pre-civil-rights-era South was a place of savagery, hedonism and, above all, paradox. It was a land of intolerance for social differences but acceptance of individual eccentricities.
Thompson advances the story into the present. A former reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and later the Washington Post, she uses her considerable journalistic skills to sift through the debris of the region's many convulsions. Her South is a place of willful forgetfulness ("Let it rest" is a typical white response to mention of some rediscovered racial atrocity), rural brain drain and, at the heart of it all, a pretentious big city, Atlanta. It is also a land of hope, for buried with the bad is a lot of good.
Thompson hails from an old Southern family, and she structures "The New Mind of the South" as a kind of extended road trip through the region. Some of what she discovers disturbs her. In Mississippi, mechanized agriculture is destroying the fabric of its farming culture. In Atlanta, which she describes as "obsessed to the point of collective insanity with image and appearance," city fathers still haven't made good on the promises of affordable housing they offered when soliciting support for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
At the same time, Thompson sees cause for optimism. In several Southern states, truth and reconciliation groups are reaching across racial lines to heal long-standing wounds. More remarkably, Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for Mississippi's Jackson Clarion-Ledger, has been investigating cold cases from the worst days of the 1960s, getting some of them (the Medgar Evers murder, for instance) reopened.
Thompson finds the greatest reason for hope in an unlikely place — the past, specifically that part of it staked out by the Agrarians, the group of Vanderbilt University teachers and students (among them Robert Penn Warren) who in 1930 published "I'll Take My Stand," a manifesto in praise of the Southern way of life.
Although wrong about race, the book was right about much else. The Agrarians championed sustainable family farms, ecology, human scale and, most of all, community. They were green many decades before the rest of America, and they were down home.
Thompson believes that the philosophy of the Agrarians is as basic to the South as collards and grits. She spots it in everything from Atlanta's nascent efforts to transform abandoned railroad rights of way into park land to the traditional hospitality that Southerners still prize and practice.
"The New Mind of the South" does its namesake proud. Thoroughly researched and beautifully written, it suggests that if Dixie can make peace with the hellish parts of its legacy while fostering its inherent strengths, it just might achieve a real breakthrough.
There is, of course, one last outstanding matter. "The Civil War is like a mountain range that guards all roads into the South," Thompson asserts near the start of her book. "You can't go there without encountering it."
By pilgrimage's end, however, she has become aware of unprecedented stirrings. White Southerners have begun to accept as fact what was long a contested point: slavery, not states' rights, prompted the conflict.
The South, she concludes, is "finally disentangling itself from the Confederacy." That's a Dixie W.J. Cash could not have imagined.
Oney is the author of "And the Dead Shall Rise."
The New Mind of the South
Simon & Schuster: 288 pages, $26