I’ve written before about how I believe the South can provide a remedy for the general American tendency to downplay our faults and forget our own history. There is an article in the Oxford American that says much the same thing while approaching the subject from a literary standpoint. I commend it to you:
Even today the Northern visitor hankers to see eroded hills and rednecks…to sniff the effluvium of backwoods-and-sandhill subhumanity and to see at least one barn burn at midnight. So he looks at me with crafty misgivings, as if to say, “Well, you do talk rather glibly about Kierkegaard and Sartre…but after all, you’re only fooling, aren’t you? Don’t you, sometimes, go out secretly by owl-light to drink swampwater and feed on sowbelly and collard greens?”
—George B. Tindall, in the 1963 speech “The Idea of the South.”
You know the situation from TV: a one-way mirror separates two rooms. You’re in the second, dimmer room, and the mirror allows you to gaze through into Room One, where the lights blaze and the action rolls. The people there can’t see you, though occasionally somebody strolls to the glass and peers at her reflection, as though suspecting something.
This metaphor suggests the position in which contemporary “Southern” writers find themselves vis-à-vis the mainstream American literary establishment. I use quotes to draw attention to a dubious distinction: No other group of writers in this country is typically tagged by place. John Irving and Annie Proulx, for instance, aren’t identified as “Northern” or “New England” writers, or writers from the “Deep North.” Though “Southern” may be applied—and often is applied—without belittling intent, the effect makes clear that Southerners are “Other,” from a “there,” not here. And here, Room One, the center whose centrality is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be specified, is the Northeast. Room One is New York.