Finding and selling Southern genteel culture

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By Hardy Jackson

A while back, I got an e-mail from a guy named Eric Spitznagel who said he was “working on a feature story for Bloomberg Businessweek about the rising popularity of Southern genteel culture.” He wanted to interview me.
I was flattered.
Spitznagel wrote that he was out to examine how “the more sophisticated aspects of the South, from the Kentucky Derby to good ol’ fashioned Paula Deen family cooking, [were] making a big comeback.”
I didn’t know they went away to come back.
From my line of sight, it seems that what passes for “genteel culture” around here has always passed for “genteel culture.”
But knowing I could be wrong, I dashed off an e-mail to a buddy John who can pass any gentility test you might devise. He answered my question with a question – “Have you kept up your subscription to Garden & Gun?”
Of course, I thought. Where once Southern Living was the go-to manual for Southerners aspiring to gentility, now Garden and Gun, which promises to show you how “appreciating the richness of the South… can enrich one’s life,” is challenging Southern Living for a share of the gentility-seeking market.
So I took his hint, set myself a-pondering “Southern genteel culture,” and waited for the call from Mr. Spietnegel
It came.
We talked.
And then I waited for the article to see just where all this would take us.
Not surprisingly, it took us to the marketplace because, remember, this was Bloomberg Businessweek – emphasis on “Business.” So naturally the article focused on how “Southern style and culture is big business beyond the Mason-Dixon line.”
To prove this, the author told of how recently “a gaggle of celebrities and fashion icons filled Lincoln Center to view” a show called “Spooky Savannah” that featured a collection of “models in floppy hats and tiered ruffles walking the runway” like characters out of some low country garden party.
Southern style and culture for sale.
And where are the buyers salivating over this stuff?
How about Dubai, and places in between?
Yessir.
According to Spitznagel, around the world, the South is all the rage. In the U.K., sales of bourbon are up 25 percent and growing. “Agrarian-chic” has gone global. A Texas-based, big-hair book club called the “Pulpwood Queens” has 412 chapters in 11 countries.
But why? Why has Dixie become big business here and in lands beyond our borders?
That, more or less, was the question he put to me.
Maybe, I suggested, the South is popular because in uncertain times like these, our region comes off as a “calmer, quieter place, and a lot of folks are craving that right now.”
Kim Holloway of the blog “Southern Stuff People Like” agreed, and added “if you’re out of work, depressed, and stressed out, caviar and sushi aren’t exactly going to stanch the flow of tears. But fried chicken might.”
Which is why, I suppose, that KFC has around 3,200 outlets in China. China!
And why Savannah’s Paula Deen became a food celebrity all the way to Turkey and back.
Then there is music. The Bellamy Brothers, who recently made a small splash singing about the world seen through the eyes of a couple of white, heterosexual, Methodist boys, are playing to sold out crowds in South Africa and Sri Lanka where it was said they are “treated like Elvis.”
From Scandinavia to Hong Kong to Brazil music promoters are scrambling to “satisfy the Southern cravings.” As for the audiences – young folks think country artists are cool, old folks think they are sweet, rich folks think they are trustworthy.
Not a bad combination.
But what about the “genteel culture” Spitznagel first wrote me about?
It seemed to have gotten lost somewhere. Though all this global attention was interesting, and for a Southerner very satisfying, I could not shake the feeling that Southern genteel culture was more than food, fashion, and a country music frolic.
And thinking this, my mind kept wandering back to a passage from Walker Percy’s The
Moviegoer. In it an elderly Aunt tells her nephew that more than anything she wants to pass on to him “the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women.” These, she says, are “the only good things the South has ever had and the only things that really matter in this life.”
That, to me, is the genteel culture of the South.
But how would you market it?
Where would you sell it?
And these days, who would buy it?
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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