Whistling Dixie

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 26 1996 3:30 AM

Whistling Dixie

A search for the real South.

Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture

By Peter Applebome

Times Books; 384 pages; $25

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S uch occasional overreaching aside, Applebome's is a shrewd, fair, and entertaining guide to the region. In Nashville, he shows how country and western has become the predominant music of white America, with Garth Brooks having outsold every recording artist in the United States except the Beatles. In Mississippi, Applebome mixes vivid landscape writing with visits to the state's tacky casinos. Throughout, he displays a deft and lively grasp of Southern history and letters, popular culture and cuisine. ("Pickled pigs' feet are the opposite of an acquired taste," he writes. "Unless you're born eating [them], you never will.") The narrative is laced throughout with colorful, distinctly Southern characters, including a Delta store owner who displays a Happy Holidays sign year round ("[w]e have a holiday every two months or so") and a Georgia rabbi whose " rock 'n' roll temple" fuses Jewish and Southern ways ("[w]e're sort of reconformadox").

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Nowhere is this book's love/hate affair with the South more obvious than at the end, when Applebome profiles Lewis Grizzard, the Georgia humorist and newspaper columnist who asked that his ashes be spread on the 50 yard line of the Georgia Bulldogs' stadium. After an admiring review of Grizzard's wit, the author turns on the writer for peddling a nostalgic vision of a homogeneous pre-integration South: "Grizzard's idealized South was the world before feminists and affirmative action, when gays stayed in the closet where they belonged, where America pretty much meant the world of small-town white folks like him."

"The South that is triumphant now," concludes Applebome, is one that both Grizzard and neo-Confederates would celebrate, "a place of feel-good nostalgia, easy answers, and painless solutions, forever looking backward through a pale mist and seeing only the soft focus outlines of what it wants to see." It exalts states' rights while ignoring the doctrine's ugly racial legacy, and rants against the federal government while conveniently forgetting Washington's role in salvaging the region's economy with military spending and other aid. Applebome sketches the alternative promise of a proudly interracial South that "has gone through the fire of change and come out redeemed." The problem is, little else in his book suggests that this dream will become reality.

Having recently traveled to many of the places Applebome visited, I found his warm but withering portrait of Dixie to ring true. The much-hyped New South may have shed Dixie's overt racism and acquired the same neon surfaces as the rest of America. But it can still look a lot like the Old South. And it remains a far cry from Topeka.

Tony Horwitz, a Virginia-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is writing a book about Civil War memory in the contemporary South.

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