Tracy Thompson digs beneath the surface of the “New South.”
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Growing up in rural South Carolina, I tended a large vegetable garden and a small orchard with my family. The land, given to my dad by his mother as a wedding present, had once been a cotton field. Of the yearly rituals involved with the garden, my favorite was the October tilling. A relative who made his living as a real farmer would come down to the house with his professional till and run it through our ground, turning the brittle old corn stalks and bean vines from the previous harvest under so they could disintegrate and enrich the soil for the coming spring’s planting. There was always something refreshing about it, seeing the topsoil unburdened of all that dead weight—not far off emotionally from the Sunday cycle of confession and forgiveness.
Pardon me for waxing misty about the Lowder family garden. In her quietly brilliant book The New Mind of the South, Tracy Thompson writes that Southerners have—or at least imagine they have—a unique relationship to dirt:
"Southerners may live in the heart of Manhattan, in a penthouse in Pairs, or in a condo in Buckhead—but if they identify themselves as Southerners, it means that somewhere, and probably not very far back, they have a close personal connection to the land: relatives who live in the rural South, a grandfather who farmed, a small town that is the ancestral family home, a cousin up in some holler who still talks with a twang. Lifelong residents of, say, Kansas may also lay claim to agrarian roots, but they don’t celebrate it the way Southerners tend to, laboring as so many of us do under the delusion that we have a special, mystical attachment to The Land."
Thompson knows exactly why I maintain my delusional dirt attachment—my potted herbs in Harlem somehow don’t satisfy it—but that tilling I remember so well gets at another point her book, a rigorous psychological profile told in the easy drawl of a homecoming story, has right about “our” people.
The problem with the modern South, as Thompson sees it, is the region’s desperate, almost pathological desire to till under a whole mess of historical refuse so that it can get on with being and branding itself “new.” But the difference is, these remnants—horrific racial violence, Jim Crow-era indignities, Lost Cause mythology, and, of course, the noxious sludge of slavery itself—will not fertilize the land; they will blight it. Indeed, since they have already been salt on the Southern earth for the 150 years since the Civil War, Thompson hopes that the ongoing sesquicentennial will show her fellow Southerners finally ready to suspend their famed cordiality for a spell in order to honestly, purgatively sort through the trash.
A Yankee couldn’t get away with this book. But Thompson’s upbringing in Georgia allows for an intimacy of insight (not to mention a pleasing front-porch cadence) that tempers her chastisements with a weary strain of compassion. She loves the South and, though she recognizes its many flaws, ultimately wants to see it heal. The medicine required is obvious from the outset: The South must face “the way it has assiduously cultivated, refined, and tended” the “myths, distortions, and strategic omissions” that define its deeply skewed sense of history. Southerners, Thompson notes, echoing the historian Carl Degler, have a peculiar sense of “two-ness”—that is, of cherishing their identity but knowing, if only in their guts, that something is fundamentally amiss behind the sweet tea and yes ma’ams.
J. Bryan Lowder is the Slate editorial assistant for culture.