I have been a stranger in a strange land . . .
Circling Dixie, huh? Contemporary Southern Culture Through a Transatlantic Lens, huh? Written by an Englishwoman? Double huh. Prove it, I’m saying. Prove an Englishwoman can tell ME about the south. The title of this book flew right off the email list and into my face. Right away I’m wondering just where she gets off, that Helen Taylor, thinking she can explain Dixie to a Dixiecrat.
Well, dammit, she did it. She done wrote herself a real nice book. If she were from around here, we’d say she done her mama proud. We’d tell her this here book is so good it makes you want to slap your grandma.
Helen Taylor, professor and head of the School of English at the University of Exeter, has quite a reputation as a southern cultural scholar. Author of Scarlett’s Women (Rutgers University Press) and coeditor of Dixie Debates, she sponsored the 1998 conference entitled “New Orleans in Europe” alongside the late Joseph Logsdon. The staff page for Helen Taylor on Exeter’s website contains a Curriculum Vitae of over ten pages in length. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Member and Convenor of English Postgraduate Panel, Arts and Humanities Research Board, has a Ph.D. from the University of Sussex, a MA from Louisiana State University (elected Phi Kappa Phi) and a BA Honors English from University College, London. She’s been everything from a Lecturer in Literary Studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol to a Senior Lecturer in American Literature for the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick.
And I thought my cousin Earlene had smarts on account of she graduated top of her class from Cosmetology School at Beaufort County Community College. We always knew she’d go far. But Helen Taylor, unlike Earlene, has been to more than two goat ropings and a county fair. She’s even done TV and radio interviews, and produced programs on the BBC (In the South, we know about the BBC, it’s on that “other channel,” the one with no commercials that comes in kind of funny but you can still hear it clear enough if Wayne Earl stands on the roof and holds the antenna just right).
We Southerners are an ego-centric breed. If we don’t know it, ain’t nobody gonna tell us how it is on account of we’ll figure it out by ourselves. Try to tell us something, will you? And we sure as hell ain’t going to listen to some foreigner. But this here Helen Taylor lady, why . . . she knows more about us than we know about ourselves. It’s down-right scary the way she sees how them tourists flock to N’awlins, toting them Willie Faulkner-type books, and all of them a’ looking for Anne Rice and vampires and whatnot… And she sees how we clutch them dollars they bring with them, them dollars they spend on all sorts of weird shit we wouldn’t have in our living room for nothing…
With the recent release of The Wind Done Gone, Helen Taylor’s discussion of Gone With the Wind, Roots, Maya Angelou’s poetry, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams’s plays, and all things New Orleans seems extremely timely. The “mythified and demonized place” we call The South brings to the author “mixed emotions of yearning and abhorrence.” The book utilizes the term “circling” in much the same manner as James Burke does with “connections” in his excellent series of television shows, in his books, and on his website, with Taylor inserting cultural influences rather than inventions.
Taylor sets us up early, explains the importance of Southern Culture:
The three most universally recognized names in English are said to be Jesus, Coca-Cola, and Elvis Presley. Two of those three come from the American South, even if their global reputations have obliterated their origins in (respectively) Atlanta, Georgia, and Tupelo, Mississippi. The South in general, and New Orleans in particular, are known for giving birth to America’s only original art form, jazz. John Shelton Reed reminds us that the South has given us those commercial institutions most signifying Americanness, Holiday Inns and Kentucky Fried Chicken (and of course Coke). Atlanta is the home of Ted Turner and CNN, as well as Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind; the Olympic Games—the first ever in a southern city—were held there in 1996. The last two Democratic presidents have been southerners: the first person from the Deep South to win the post for more than a century, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and Bill Clinton, once governor of Arkansas . . .”
To me, the South is typified by Taylor in her choice of words. Southern presidents are referred to by their nicknames: Jimmy and Bill. Not James or William Jefferson. We call our elected officials by their first names or nicknames, as if we know them, because in the South, they’re either going to be related to us or to someone we know.
The ambiguous title Circling Dixie, Taylor comments, “. . . suggests the international circulations of southern cultural forms themselves and also those appropriations and critical responses that circle around, and back to, the American South.” Taylor begins by comparing Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind to Alex Haley’s Roots. Each book offers a different perspective of the slave south and the plantation myth. When it comes to the infamous GWTW, Taylor tells us that although the book and film were originally highly acclaimed, they are now greatly suspect. She writes, “. . . despite their reactionary racial politics and nostalgia for an Old South, most Americans now recognize [GWTW] as discredited.” Alex Haley, she claims, wrote Roots to shame international opinion, to slam the Mitchell plantation myth. While commercial pressures kept the plantation myth alive, Alex Haley, with “flamed ambition,” attempted to write the history of the African-American race. Taylor says Haley did so with “dubious authenticity.” A great deal of tension exists between the two versions of the Old South and how each is received internationally.
In her discussion of all things New Orleans, we learn the city has the “closest ties to its European colonial history and to European artistic practices and modes of cultural production.” Taylor finds a juxtaposition in the promotion of cultural tourism, the European popularity, of a region so racially and socially divided and troubled.
Circling Dixie then discusses the British Theater’s “bandwagon” of Tennessee Williams productions and the reinterpretation of his work with a European flavor. In a lengthy discussion of the writer’s life, Taylor labels Maya Angelou a “Europhile who has lived in exile in Africa” and says that, as a writer who “finally settled in the Deep South, she [Angelou] embodies, and expresses some of the incoherences and problems of, those very cultural flows with which [this book] is concerned.” Me, I wonder why, even though she is currently the Poet Laureate of North Carolina, Angelou is not mentioned in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, bible of all things below the Mason-Dixon Line. I guess it’s because Angelou is a “Europhile” who only writes autobiographies and poetry.
But Taylor is not emulating W. J. Cash, she’s obviously not writing another Mind of the South. She is trying to “convey the complexity” of cultural journeys. As she so aptly tells us:
There are utopian visions, especially of Africa, that do not live up to sustained attention and enquiry (as with Alex Haley and Maya Angelou). Tourists can see only what they wish to and thus—like British New Orleans jazz enthusiasts and drinks advertisers—obfuscate complex histories and experiences. We Europeans can fool ourselves that, by eating British supermarket versions of jambalaya or sobbing over Bessie Smith numbers, we are in touch with the essence of southerness.
A while back I emailed Helen Taylor via her Exeter staff page email link. It’s been over six weeks, so I reckon she’s busy on account of I haven’t hear from her. That’s okay—I don’t take it personal. I don’t know much about them foreign countries, but I suspect them folks have the same problems we do here in eastern North Carolina. Mosquitoes the size of hunting dogs flying around, skeeters so big that they just open a screen door and come on in; neighbors what won’t neuter their pets on account of how “personal” it is for a dog to have no testicles; low oxygen levels in the Sound causing fish kills; and Jimmy Wayne hooting and hollering, disconnecting the muffler on his 4x4 Ford F-150 and driving in circles around his ex-wife’s trailer, riling up her new boyfriend. I figure, if Taylor documented as to how we’s exporting our southern culture and just how popular it is over there in England, she’s probably on her way to a Mud Run or a Pig Pickin’. Or, as she’d say if she were here, “I’ll get back to you.”