What is Southern?

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By Hardy Jackson

Back in my teaching days, one of my courses was one designed to introduce students to what is euphemistically called (by people into euphemisms) “Southern culture.”
In class, we talked about things like regional mythology, religion, humor, literature, folklore, music, manners, and such, but no matter what we covered, I kept trying to get students to ask themselves and tell me “what makes it Southern?”
This is not easy to answer, because most of my students, being Southern, knew (or believed they knew) Southern without thinking about it. Which made them even more Southern than they were, if that was possible.
Except for that one. He (it is always a guy) was uncomfortable with intuition.
He needed certainty, wanted it explained so he could write it down. If anyone ever told him to “go with the flow,” he’d want to know where the flow was going. He was the logical one, the one who couldn’t accept something because it felt right, so he made me explain the vitals and vinegar out of it so he could memorize the skin and bones.
Now how, I asked myself, could I satisfy his pursuit of passionless knowledge (or passionless pursuit of knowledge, take your pick) without turning off those other students who instinctively know that some things can’t be, shouldn’t be, listed and filed, but felt?
Searching for the solution, I decided to fall back on a time honored teaching technique, the story. Hey, preachers use it, why can’t I. Besides, if newspapers reports are to be believed, this one actually happened. So here it is.
“Once upon a time (I would tell the class) there were these two good old boys, Hollis Junior Cox and L. J. Rivers, from over east of here.” (Not their real names of course. Some student might know them. Or be kin.)
“They had been hired to clean out this warehouse, which they did, and when they finished one of them felt it was time for a drink. The other agreed, so they had one. And another. And another. Until, having just a little more than enough, they came up with what someone later described as ‘an unusual way to unwind.'”
“Recalling that a fellow who lived close by collected snakes, Hollis Junior and L. J. decided to go over and get one. They did, and next thing you know the two were playing catch with a four-foot canebreak rattler. This was not the snake’s idea of a good time, and the first chance it got, it bit L. J. on the arm.”
“Hollis Junior rushed to his friend’s aid, and the reptile bit him as well.”
“Somehow, the two got to a phone, called 911, and when the emergency medical team arrived, it found the men ‘on the porch, semiconscious and slurring their words,’ and a headless snake, dead in the dirt.”
“There is no happy ending to the story. Hollis Junior had a severe allergic reaction to the venom and died in the ambulance. The last I heard, L. J. was still in intensive care.”
And when I finished I would lean back, sigh, and say “Now, that’s Southern.” And the whole class would nod in agreement.
Except that one.
His hand will shoot up and even before I can call on him he will be asking “why” and I was ready.
With me, I would have Roy Blount’s Book of Southern Humor (the finest collection of things I wish I had written I’ve ever read). In it is an analysis of the elements found in Southern stories. These I will have combined with my own insightful deconstruction of what took place that unfortunate day and when the student asked, as I knew he would, I would smile and tell him that a story is Southern if:
It contains characters that come to life through personal shortcomings.
The characters have names that suggest they are, or could be, from around here.
There is a close interaction between the characters and various forms of animal life.
Southern readers instantly recognize the characters and pass judgment on them – usually before the story is over.
And, what occurs can be classified as typical.
Now, the literalist would be just fine until I got to typical. Then his brow would furrow and he would want me to explain, and I would.
In the South typical is not used identify something that is, you know, typical, unless that something is something you disapprove of.
As in, “Hollis Junior and L. J. done got drunk and been playing with a snake what bit them both and Hollis Junior’s dead.”
“Now ain’t that just typical.”
‘Course it is. And its Southern. And the logical one will either understand and realize that he is Southern too, or won’t understand and won’t be.\ I hate to say it, but there is just so much a teacher can do, and by then I will have done it.
Class dismissed.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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