Selling of Southern Exceptionalism


1. the condition of being exceptional; uniqueness.
2. the study of the unique and exceptional.
3. a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.
On any sweaty swampy summer Saturday in South Carolina you can watch the wonderful diversity of the South (in reality the diversity of the whole east coast mainly north of South Carolina) mingle and move among the concrete and asphalt that defines and represents “vacation” in the American Southern mind. Myrtle Beach being the prime example of this vacation ideal of the South at play. Along the last paved road running approximately north to south before the sand, one can see high rise beach hotel after beach hotel…with a sprinkling of beach stores and pancake houses. Here where the ocean meets the sand, millions of visitors come to play golf, get sunburned, and consume calorie after calorie of extremely unhealthy food. During the winter, Canadians come down with pasty skin and shorts (even though local South Carolinians are bundled up and bitching about the cold). Late spring through late fall, however, the wonderful mix of the New South converges on Myrtle Beach to eat fried seafood and drink lemonade sold from young (and extremely thin) Russian girls who seem to have been seduced by the beaches as much as the tourists.
Myrtle Beach, unfortunately, is not the easiest place to get to though. It doesn’t have an interstate, and it takes exactly (with typical traffic and no more speeding than 5mph over the posted speed limit) 1 hour and 25 minutes from I-95’s exit 181. Arriving by plane would seem to be the next best choice…but due to the average airfare and the constant merger of major airlines…places like Myrtle Beach can become even more remote. Getting to the beach, the sun, the waves, the golf, the young Russian girls, and the seafood is a true test of a tourist’s determination. Determination though is something that comes easily to the New South tourists.
 Before reaching the Myrtle Beach exit on I-95, tourists (primarily from the north…what resident south of Myrtle Beach is going to travel north to the beach?) cross the North Carolina/South Carolina state line..and they cross with great expectation. If they are new to this trip, they have been seeing sign after sign of a politically incorrect Mexican (Pedro with his mustache and sombrero) extolling the magnificence of place called South of the Border, or SOB for short. SOB started as a beer stand in 1949 and found remarkable success due to the bordering North Carolina county being dry. From there it has grown into a mecca of kitsch and crap. Gas, food, t-shirts, and fireworks are the primary SOB products.
Not only do Myrtle Beach bound tourists stop…but the constant summer caravan of families driving south toward Georgia and Florida clutter SOB’s parking lots. The New South’s tourist spots are not only populated by the actual families born and raised in the South, but it is populated by the families of mid-Atlantic and northern states heading south to enjoy the actual and perceived pleasures of the South and its sandy coast. SOB doesn’t just represent the capitalistic achievement of kitsch but it represents the wonderful, automobile-obsessed, American society that has been running at full speed since the 1950s. One can debate what is truly representative of America…but it seems that a good number of us Americans are quite enthralled with the idea of being represented by cheap crap that is sold at decent prices and displayed in such shops as SOB’s “Hats of the World”…and as my stepson so non-sarcastically informed me was not an actual museum of hats from around the world, but is instead warehouse-sized store that allows you to purchase hats that range from sombreros to beanie caps with propellors.  He wanted to ensure that I was not disappointed…and disappointed I was not. SOB, its hats from around the world, and all its crap entertained me fantastically. Truly, this was a way station for those from near and far as they conducted their annual pilgrimage to the South…the almost religious mecca we Southerners have sold to ourselves and the rest of the country.
 This selling of the South, and its assumed exceptionalism, is almost equal to the way in which Hollywood in the 1950s sold America overseas through its completely inaccurate cowboy movies. This is extremely evident in the fact that the number 2 largest group of visitors to Big Bend National Park in Texas is Germans…and the reason is that the very idea of America to a large part of world is the myth of the American cowboy in the wild west. It doesn’t get more wild west like Texas along the Rio Grande River. As in the mythical selling of America in the 1950s, and the melon-scratching endeavor of trying to explain or describe America…in the 1950s or today…the mythical selling of the South is extremely hard. Defining, with geographical or cultural borders, as nebulous as the South is at best enigmatic.
Defining the South’s borders is a debate of much conjecture and mainly opinion. The South can be reasonably argued as the region below the Mason-Dixon Line, or the former member states of the Confederacy, or areas with a larger than the national average consumption of grits. Additionally, it is hard to define the South geographically and culturally considering the three major historical periods of the American South has experienced. There is the colonial period to the 1930s…by far the longest period and the most enduring in mythical resonance with both modern-day Southerners and others…frontiersmen, plantations, and inbred mountain hollow (pronounced “holler”) cabin dwellers. Then there is the period from the beginning of World War II to the 1980s or so. This period truly opened up the South to the rest of America due to the federal government’s ability to acquire and build cheap military bases, the national interstate system, and the nation’s desire to finally bring them po’folk up from their backwoods ways. This is also the period when the feds decided to go into the Blue Ridge mountains and forcibly remove families and communities so a national park could be formed. Finally, the era of the New South, which is identified with its supposed corporation friendliness by being non-uni0nized and the selling of lake/river/ocean front property to “from elsewheres”…individuals who are not of Southern born and bred heritage but who have flocked to the South in a quest for warmer weather, cheaper prices…to stretching retirement dollars, and economic opportunity.
As the grandson of an Alabama coal miner (maternal) and an Alabama sharecropper (paternal), and the son of two parents born and raised in South just as it was being opened up at the end of World War II, I am intimately aware of the Southern ideal…regardless of the fact that I was raised as an Army brat until I was 13 and 6 years of those 13 were in Germany, I was raised Southern…but being an Army brat is by far more Southern than any other geographical distinction. The Army is known for being, at least mythically and somewhat culturally, a subculture of predominately Southern habits. Many a soldier from someplace other than a southern state tasted grits for the first time upon entering the Army. This of course being, again, due to the Department of Defense’s decision to build and maintain a large number of military bases in the South. Local farmers and their crops…and their tastes was the grocer of the Army in the 1950s and 1960s, thus generations of non-Southern soldiers were introduced to grits.
My Southern bonafides are further enhanced considering the number of places in the “South” I have lived…which based on your own opinion…are either genuine Southern states or, at best, border states with a familiarity to the South. These states include Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington, DC. Yes DC is Southern…any city that is within sight of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation (now turned)…Arlington National Cemetery…is Southern. This is not even taking into account the prevalence…and marketing…of Southern cuisine restaurants or the city’s location on a swamp. DC is Southern in everything except the ability to hunt and going mud din’. Honestly though, the very nature of arguing for or against DC’s inclusion in the South is a prime example of how hard it is define the South.
The South can’t even truly claim some of its supposed cultural icons… such as barbecue, farming, and country music. Kansas City…a metropolis situated at best in a border/battle state…is known for its barbecue. New Jersey…not even anywhere close to be considered Southern…is a farming state. Finally, Canada and California have populated country dials with their very not Southern sound. If Southerners can’t claim their cultural icons…what can really define the South?
Seems the South and Southerners (imagined or otherwise) have sold itself and its exceptionalism…its specialness and we have all bought it. Imagining or creating a reality is nothing new…especially in the South. Margaret Mitchell imagined the South in her fantasy novel Gone With the Wind…as the Cambridge History of the American Novel states “The South exists as a place of imagination for many writers.” Not only has the South been a place of imagination for writers in the past, but today publications such as Oxford American (published in Arkansas) and Gun & Garden  (published in South Carolina) extol the real and imagined views of the South. Interestingly, Marc Smirnof…a Californian started Oxford American, and the publisher and chairman of the board of the Gun & Garden are both Southerners (South Carolinians) who (as Roy Blount Jr said) had “gone up north” to learn their professions before returning to the South as part of the modern era of the New South revivalism.
Page after page of these well-written, and highly entertaining magazines provide a glimpse of how the South is being sold…and not just by Southerners but Southerner wanna-bees…I am looking at you Mr. Smirnof. Between the pictures 0f and articles on “shrimp gumbo reimagined” and Jack White’s (most definitely not a Southerner considering his birth in and place among Detroit’s punk rock scene) mounting of Nashville’s music throne, there is an endless supply of advertisements for companies and products that sometimes have actual roots in the South. The New South is where not only is lake/river/ocean front property is sold to the highest bidder, regardless of their origins, but the New South is where Southerners will allow anything considered “Southern” to be held aloft as it is some special item or religious totem worthy of examination and exultation. Not only are these Southern “artifacts,” like a biscuits and gravy recipe…and trust me my mother’s biscuits and gravy should be exulted…held aloft, but they are presented in such a marketing manner that they resemble an advertisement about how good we got it down here more than the actual Southern artifact it is. Somewhere along the line we have traded the popular…yet undignified…stereotype of the Barney Fife and Bo and Luke Duke for the imagined Southern stereotypes portrayed in glossy magazines that mix good writing with advertisements for Fiats…I Shit You Not…there is an ad for a Fiat car on page 57 of the latest edition of Oxford American, and the last time I checked, the definition of Southern did not include the ownership…let alone the driving…of a Fiat. (says the guy who drove a 1972 yellow MG Midget in high school…in Tennessee in the mid-1980s)
Of course, owning and driving a Fiat in the South is a perfect example of how you really can’t say what is or isn’t Southern. In the end, the South and Southern is based more on imagined than the realities of our everyday experiences here in the South. It is impossible for me to define the South based on the my limited view (at the time) of my upbringing or life in Fayetteville, Tennessee (my ‘home’town), and comparing it to my wife’s upbringing in Wahalla, South Carolina (they filmed Deliverance there nearby if she hasn’t told you…but she probably has) is near impossible…and as far as I can tell, what these two places have most in common is a distinct small town appeal (or repulsion)…of course that is not truly Southern either considering the number of small towns (with their appeal and repulsion) across America.
 On second thought, driving a Fiat is definitely not Southern by anyone’s definition and that shit is wrong…plain wrong. Unfortunately, what we have is another situation where the imagined place of the South (within the minds of writers and everyone else’s) gets mixed with the reality modern economic necessity…which results in Fiat ads within a magazine that bills itself as “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing.” What we got here in the South is exactly what everyone has in every place and region…people trying to make living, raise a family, and lead an existence that (hopefully) means something to them without being bothered too much…as they drink their sweet tea granita…I have no fucking idea what that is, but here is the online article on it in this month’s Gun & Garden….so obviously it is Southern and all us Southerners drink it…right?