Six Underappreciated Books about the South

My friend Michael O’Brien, among whose books is a 1400-page study of antebellum intellectual life, once teasingly asked me when I was going to stop writing “fluff.” I don’t remember what I said, but the real answer is, apparently, never. In 1982 LSU Press published One South, the first collection of my short pieces, and now it has published the eighth. Mixing It Up is subtitled “A South-Watcher’s Miscellany,” and it is just that: a dazzling variety of essays, op-eds, speeches, statistical reports, elegies, panegyrics, feuilletons, rants, and more. After fifty years, I have come to terms with the fact that I’m a sprinter, not a distance runner.

You might think that someone who has been reading and writing about the South from so many angles for so long could easily provide this blog with a short list of books that people interested in the subject should read–but it’s harder than it sounds.  You should start, of course, with 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South (Doubleday, 1996) by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed (shameless, I know), and move on to the 24 volume New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (UNC Press, 2006-13), but then what? There are just too many possibilities. I wrote once that the South of the 1930s is probably the best documented society that has ever existed. And that’s just one decade.

I’ve set myself a more modest task. I’m going to suggest a few really good books about the South that I think aren’t as well-known as they should be. Each may be well known, even celebrated, by a small circle of fans, but for whatever reason most people I recommend them to have never heard of them, much less read them.

These six oldies shouldn’t be allowed to go down the memory hole:

Land of the South, by James W. Clay, Paul D. Escott, Douglas M. Orr Jr., and Alfred W. Stuart (Oxmoor House, 1989).

This atlas, one of the last of a number of beautiful coffee table books from the book publishing arm of Southern Living, and is much more than a handsome ornament for your living room. Three geographers and a historian, all from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, produced a solidly-researched and profoundly informative work of cartographic excellence, one that repays both casual browsing and close study. It is out of print, but used copies are twenty dollars or so from dealers and turn up at library book sales for much less.

This Land, This South: An Environmental History, by Albert E. Cowdrey (University Press of Kentucky, 1983; revised and updated edition, 1996).

This magnificent history of the South’s landscape, an unexpected one-off from a historian of military medicine, looks at how humans have shaped the Southern land and vice versa. It debunks the romantic view of pre-Columbian Indians as “natural ecologists” living in harmony with nature, showing how they radically altered their environment by hunting and burning. Europeans were even more exploitative, and brought with them diseases that loved their new home. Later developments like flood control, wildlife protection, and anti-pollution measures have had profound and sometimes unanticipated consequences. The book is richly detailed and unusually well-written—not surprising, since Cowdrey has also written award-winning science fiction and fantasy.

South to a Very Old Place, by Albert Murray (McGraw Hill, 1971; Vintage, 1991; Modern Library, 1995)

Odd that a book reviewed by Toni Morrison in the New York Times and selected for the Modern Library can be called “underappreciated,” but I’m pretty sure I can count the people I know who’ve read it on my fingers. Albert Murray, a remarkable man of letters, a literary and jazz critic, biographer, and novelist, recounts his journey from his home in Harlem to his Mobile birthplace, with a detour to Yale to talk with C. Vann Woodward and Robert Penn Warren. (How can you not like a book that describes Woodward as “the spitting image of the old Life and Casualty Insurance man”?) Among other things, Murray was looking for what one reviewer described as “the roots of miscegenated southern culture, ‘things shared in spite of the politics of racism.’” His account includes conversations with interesting Southerners (mostly other writers), memories of his Alabama youth, and riffs on African-American folklore. It is a sober, and at bottom optimistic, appreciation of multiculturalism, one much needed these days. Murray’s jazz-like writing may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it’s pretty wonderful.

Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, by Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen (Westview Press, 1996).

Much of this book by two psychologists covers familiar ground and some may find the explanation of their findings unpersuasive, but get this: when they brought white male undergraduates into the laboratory on a pretext and called them “asshole,” Northern subjects laughed it off or ignored it, but Southern ones bristled. Subsequent tests showed that the Southerners had heightened blood levels of stress-related hormones and testosterone, but the Northerners did not. Moving the study of the South’s “culture of violence” to the physiological level was a remarkable achievement, and deserves further recognition.

Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind, by Stephen A. Smith (University of Arkansas Press, 1986).

Stephen Smith, a professor of communications at the University of Arkansas, is fated to be remembered as a loyal aide to Governor Bill Clinton who was caught up in the Whitewater scandal and wound up doing 100 hours of community service, but Smith is also an astute observer of Southern media and rhetoric. A rough summary can’t do justice to this book, but here goes: Smith is interested in the stories that Southerners have told about themselves—the “myths” of the South. He begins by dissecting the Old South, Lost Cause, and New South myths that “controlled Southern culture and Southern rhetoric for one hundred fifty years.” He then argues that by the middle of the twentieth century, the strain between myth and reality finally became too great and a sort of regional identity crisis, “a period of mythic confusion,” ensued. By the 1970s, however, Southern artists, scholars, journalists, politicians, and preachers—both black and white—forged a new myth, based on the themes of distinctiveness, racial civility, and community. When Smith wrote, he was confident that there will always be some myth of the South, that it won’t become a mere quadrant of the U.S. with (a rare lapse into jargon) a “dysfunctional amythic culture.” We shall see.

Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History, by Joe Gray Taylor (LSU Press, 1982; new edition, 2008)

In 1982 “culinary studies” had yet to be invented; John T. Edge was still a University of Georgia undergraduate studying to be a management consultant; and the Southern Foodways Alliance wasn’t even a gleam in John Egerton’s eye. That year, however, Joe Gray Taylor, known primarily as a historian of Louisiana, published this spritely history, looking at what Southern people have eaten, from the meager diet of aboriginal Indians to instant grits and canned biscuits, with all the good and bad stuff in between, taking appropriate note of how diet has reflected race and class differences. Taylor packed his book with memorable detail: for instance, I will not soon forget that ground okra seeds served for coffee in the blockaded Confederacy. When the book was reprinted a few years ago, John Egerton wrote a fine introduction about its genesis and subsequent developments in Southern food studies.

John Shelton Reed, author of a dozen books, innumerable articles, and a country song about the South, served as the Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and is cofounder and Éminence Grease of the Campaign for Real Barbecue ( He lives in Chatham County, North Carolina, and taught for many years at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His new book is Mixing It Up: A South-Watcher’s Miscellany.