The New South aesthetic is farcical, but not irredeemably so.
Over pimento cheese fritters with bacon jam at a restaurant in South Georgia, I marveled at waiters in chambray shirts under plaid vests, distressed brick walls, and cocktail names like ‘rockin porch’. How, I wondered, had things down there come to such a pass? My companion, a Virginian who’d gone to a New England college, lightly objected to the rusty scythes and plows adorning the walls – wasn’t this a bit much?
The farm tools were almost a New South parody, the chiks comin’ home to roost. To the Georgian, it seems, the logic was something like, the South is trendy – let’s decorate it Southern. So someone’s dilapidated shed offers up its long-dormant farm tools, repurposed for décor. What was annoying about it? To the non-native, it was trying way too hard, unintentionally subverting the dream in almost as crass a way as Old Virginny’s newest Charlottesville retailer, “Country Club Prep” (get your Southern Tide brand tees here). The strange thing is, in this restaurant’s case, the naïveté was a sign of authenticity; the Southern revival look couldn’t flourish because, well, there wasn’t much to revive. This overdone, heavy-handed restaurant was the most genuine ‘new South’ thing I’ve seen, because the newness never quite made sense to the furnishers.
In a Paris Review interview, the late Louisiana novelist Walker Percy said that the great tradition of Southern literature comes not, as may be supposed “from the famous storytelling gregariousness one hears about, but from the shy, sly young woman, say, who watches, listens, gets a fill of it, and slips off to do a number on it.” Another example of misconception: I lived in a beautiful apartment one summer with hundred year-old heart pine floors. A roommate’s contractor father came in and scourged our pride in the place: “I’d tear that right up and lay down some linoleum.” That’s something closer to where the South – in which, I’m aware, generalizations are the capital sin – might actually be. But the vision people want (in the various Southern revivals in LA, New York, etc) is more like:
Delta Mama and a Nickajack Man
Raised their Cumberland daughter in a Tennessee band
Played Springwater Station Inn
Couldn’t play fast, couldn’t fit in
Not that there’s anything wrong with Shovels & Rope (debatable: after the first song at a Charlottesville concert, Cary Ann takes the mike: ‘Can I get a yeeee-haw!?’ – this’ll be the last you ever SEEE of me), but it just shows what popular taste is right now. ‘Authentically’ Southern music, if there is such a thing, probably looks more like Phosphorescent, some weird dude wearing a cowboy getup and emphasizing irony, detachment, estrangement-in-the-world and self-conflictedness. For the SnR brand of Southern, there’s none of the mourning of the past’s passing, and there’s none of the repentance for its history. Its history, of course, played out with the ambiguity of a Shakespearian tragedy: a defeat caused a Fall and an exile (victims), but that Fall was facilitated not merely by fate; the defeat was both facilitated by a tragic flaw (or flaws) and provided an occasion for such a flaw (be it racism, inward-looking-ness, or hubris – all intertwined) to reach the pitch of self-destruction. Weren’t things great when Othello was furthering the Venetian cause? Sort of, maybe, but that’s not where we live. An unreflective and unambiguous reach back to Eden is the ultimate betrayal of where we live now; which is why musicians like Phosphorescent (or novelists like Percy) exhibit almost-painful levels of reflection and ambiguity.
But what is it we’re looking for in those ubiquitous mason jars, y’all? In the pages of Garden & Gun (get your authentichandcrafted hammer for $130 here)? Why were the Connecticut kids playing Wagon Wheel every other night in college (while the Southerners were after Umphrey’s, man)? The easiest answer would be a simpler, more rural time, with its vision of close community, lack of ambition, and what a Southern lit person might call particularity, that is, concreteness and context and non-fungibility. All are converses of so much of what ails us, now. But to go a bit deeper, I like Umberto Eco on the topic (in the context of unreflective Europhilia):
[T]he frantic desire for the Almost Real arises only as a neurotic reaction to the vacuum of memories; the Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.
There is also something of the exotic about the New South thing, a sort of tourism involved, as we try on new hats, act a part. Like going to Disneyworld (Eco mentions this) and sailing through the pirates’ cave (shiver me timbers, y’all) to get the piratical experience. Why is it that a New York restaurant in the shape of a ship, with menu references to scurvy and waiters in pirate hats and a band called the Lost Cove Mateys playing that night – why is that would be panned by the tasteful, but a similarly pandering Southern restaurant might not be? Some advice for such a restaurant:
1. Yes to mason jars, no to rusty tools (can’t be too noticeably direct, or the latent cheesiness comes out).
2. Southern Agrarian, not Western Agrarian (the West is already cliché), and
3. No references to the American South’s commercialization or urbanization.
All of this is really just a lens into tourism and human adventurism as a whole; the entire trend is one (too) cheesy movie or one (too) cheesy album away from going out of vogue. The insights to be gathered, from where I’m sitting, are that we want to explore other times and places and cultures, packaged without being noticeably so, authentic without visibly trying to be, accessible and purchasable without being commodified, and on the whole pleasant. But packaging, tryhard-ism, and commodification are facts of life: the Whiskey Still would be more authentically New Yorker than Southern, and for those after a truly Southern experience, I suggest the Red Lobster in Huntsville, Alabama.
This may sound dour or deflating, but perhaps a certain amount of insularity/snobbery is required to be appalled at the thought of the Dothan Red Lobster as the most authentically Southern. As Eco pans the imitation Europeanism of the West Coast (Madonna Hotel, etc), he praises the New York Federal Reserve’s Palazzo Strozi knockoff, which imitates Europe in the ugliest manner:
Built in 1924 of “Indiana limestone and Ohio sandstone”, it ceases its Renaissance imitation at the third floor, rightly, and continues with eight more stories of its own invention, then displays Guelph battlements, then continues as skyscraper. But there is nothing to object to here, because lower Manhattan is a masterpiece of living architecture, crooked like the lower line of Cowboy Kate’s teeth… real cities redeem, in their context, even what is architectonically ugly… In fact, a good urban context and the history it represents teach, with a sense of humor, even kitsch how to live, and thus exorcise it.
This idea seems right, even an ideal. Not an unreflective homage to a long-dated culture, not one which ignores guilt or Fall or change, but something living, and thus not capturable or experiencable in a tourist way. What makes something authentic is its foibles, and especially the foible of inauthenticity or aesthetic failure, e.g. the Fed’s Palazzo. If Red Lobster’s too much, check out that South Georgia restaurant with its plaid vests and farm tools. If the real Real is unreachable, at least a recognizable fake is something we can really relate to. Our tools of culture creation are weak and unwieldy, and though we can’t manufacture the real, we can at least celebrate, like Eco, the silliness of our constructions:
Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope
With two old guitars like a shovel and a rope
Despite the fact that, to my knowledge, a shovel and a rope have never been used to make anything, at least when all the real somethings have been deconstructed, we can enjoy the illusions, riding through Disney’s Pirate Cave in our second naivetes. It’s nothing if not fun, but hopefully, once we come out of the cave, we can look back at the shadows on its walls, indulge ourselves I the drama, and then step back into daylight for a dinner at the Red Lobster. The New South may be melting in the dark, but the vision of it is, like MacArthur Park, just ridiculous enough to have fun with. Next time Cary Ann asks for a yee-haw, y’all, I’ll probably still be too self-conscious to reciprocate – but I think the show’ll still be pretty fun.