An Englishman in the American South
Five Southern states in 11 days: scattered views from the old world.
Music is everywhere in Music City, not all of it welcome. Bouncing along pockmarked roads on the edge of Nashville, the only sounds came not from the radio but rattling from a car suspension struggling to navigate years of under-investment. We’d finished honky-tonking, and loaded up on Johnny Cash gear (it would be wrong not to), and were heading off for our latest rendezvous with the Seventh President of the United States.This one was deliberate but we found him everywhere regardless.
The Southern States certainly haven’t. In monuments, museums, and a collection of eponymous cities, Old Hickory left his mark far beyond a picture on a $20 bill. Americans, I imagine, are used to this, but it’s a different story for new arrivals. Andrew Jackson was not to be my only discovery. Before the plane touched down in New Orleans, it’s fair to say my knowledge of the American South consisted almost entirely of broad preconceptions drawn inaccurately from film, TV and literature. I felt like I knew the place without ever visiting, a belief wrong in all the fundamentals and right in the sense that it invariably colored everything I experienced in 11 days travelling across five states.
That’s not unexpected. When you’re the cultural hegemon, which the United States indisputably is right now, everyone thinks they know you. This goes doubly for someone from the old world, grown up on the same language (more or less) and a diet of American entertainment. When I drove across the arid plains of northern Spain, all I saw was the dustbowl of The Grapes of Wrath, and whenever I go to sports stadiums I can’t help but imagine Robert Redford destroying the lights with a baseball. So to me the Deep South is a world at once familiar and far removed; a place of stereotypes that come from a base of truth, since warped far beyond original context.
Even though I know it won’t be like this, the part of me steeped in stereotypes came looking for signs of rugged individualism and Southern manners, and on the flipside, grinding poverty, oppressed minorities and ignorant redneck hillbillies. But stereotypes don’t allow for nuance, and crude characterisations do no one any favors. The only red neck I saw was my own after too long cooking under the Southern sun.
It wasn’t just the sun making an impression. The moment I stepped outside the air-conditioned baggage hall at Louis Armstrong International Airport, a wall of humidity hit. I imagine, given it was only early May, it wasn’t even particularly gruelling for locals. Try telling that to someone from the perpetually mild south of England. In London, my former home, we get rain but it’s rarely heavy, sun but it’s hardly ever too hot, and snow only on lucky occasions. Air-conditioning, something that seems to be built into the American experience, is an afterthought. So this humidity, enough to immediately stick me to the ridiculously heavy jeans and long-sleeve shirt I’d for some reason thought it was acceptable to wear, came as a shock. The following ten days, although the heat switched from humid to dry, were equally testing.
New Orleans was the start, and the finish: in-between involved a large arc up through western Louisiana into Mississippi (technically Arkansas as well but one night in a motel should probably be disqualified), Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia before returning to the city of jazz. Along the way there would be time for swamps, Andrew Jackson statues, Elvis, giant rivers, towns named after Andrew Jackson, abandoned furnaces, honky-tonk, Andrew Jackson’s home, and more BBQ than a person can safely consume. It also required an awful lot of driving, a chore I dodged as I haven’t even got as far as a driving lesson, never mind a licence. Luckily my partner was around to do the hard work while I enjoyed the view.
At least New Orleans, a city that lives in the imagination of the world according to John Goodman in Treme, didn’t require any driving. The air-conditioned car might have been nice though. Southern Louisiana was nothing like the other four states. They were hot but not touch-something-and-you-stick-to-it hot. I have no idea how anything gets done in such a climate. I spent the whole time feeling like the fluffy cat we saw in the French Quarter that could barely summon the will to look in my direction.
Louisiana swamp (photo by Stephen Mayne)
It wasn’t just the climate in the South, but the odd combination of scale and remoteness I couldn’t shake. The five states combined, five states that make up less than ten percent of the landmass of the United States, are together nearly three times bigger than the United Kingdom. Yet the combined population of these five states is not even half that of the UK. So we’re talking a road-trip across land that is vast compared to what I’m used to, far hotter than I’m frankly equipped to handle, and eerily quiet much of the time.
That’s the kind of thing you can figure out with a handy guidebook beforehand though. Besides, none of it (well maybe the humidity) was apparent starting off in New Orleans. The city, packed full of partying tourists, is about as far from the sedate sights that made up large parts of the journey as can be imagined. Which is to be expected. In general New Orleans was as expected, at least on the surface.
At first glance it looks just like the city of jazz, creole cooking, and non-stop fun it purports to be. The historic French Quarter bustles with confused tourists stumbling around in search of voodoo memorabilia and sickly sweet beignets. Street musicians sit on every corner, always ready to indulge the unimaginative with a burst of When the Saints Go Marching In. Families out early to tick off sights walk past drunken partygoers making the slow stagger home after a night of overindulgence. People were everywhere doing just about everything.
It’s hard to tell how representative the heaving streets of the French Quarter are. Even the nearby Tremé district, deserted by comparison and full of charming if occasionally dilapidated buildings, will be nothing like the majority of the city. But at the same time, tourism has become so central to New Orleans that the sanitised gimmicks of balcony strewn old streets is almost as real a representation as anything else. It’s certainly the one the city prefers to sell to the world, even if it doesn’t take much walking to find other areas of interest, punctuated by long avenues full of the same fast food restaurants (I’ll make an exception for Popeyes, founded in New Orleans), gas stations, and Starbucks.
Walking between different parts of the city is a revealing experience, particularly in a country that seems unusually averse to the idea of pedestrian travel. Cars are more aggressive on crossings, happily choosing to ignore foolish foreigners trying to pass. On more than one occasion I’ve had to cede right of way for my own safety. Most of the time sidewalks seem like an afterthought.
Vehicular perils aside, the 45-minute walk to the Garden District was fascinating. Moving between districts is odd. It involves entering an indistinct urban wasteland full of concrete bridges, cracked sidewalks and decaying tenements. Then suddenly this lush former plantation land full of giant trees and beautiful mansions appears. Maybe the generic bands of urban sprawl between points of interest help maintain individual identities by preventing different areas from merging into each other, or maybe it just seems that way to someone seeking distraction from a downpour.
Some downpour it was. We were the only idiots out on the streets in rain that fell so heavily it came through my waterproof top. When it stopped, I had to drain my shoes. Taking shelter on the stoop of a lavish wooden mansion was both chastening and kind of thrilling. At least the water was warm. That’s life in the tropics for you.
On the way back to the center we stumbled across a statue of Robert E. Lee mounted on a giant plinth. Black Lives Matter was sprayed onto the base, a not wholly unexpected sight. The lingering racial divide in the Deep South is not usually as blatant as the defacement of Confederate bogeymen, but it drew a particularly vivid line between the historic lionising of local heroes, and the anger they inspire in others.
Lee wasn’t the only dead white man mounted on a plinth. Back in the French Quarter stood good old General Jackson, my first encounter with the hot-tempered Commander-in-Chief. He’s the supreme example of that earthy frontier spirit turned estate owner that still shapes the image of the South. A visit to his plantation outside Nashville summed up the contradictions of the region better than any other part of the trip. But there are many miles to go before. First we had to leave New Orleans and travel, via a swamp tour outside Baton Rouge (alligators and a slight feeling I’d entered Jurassic Park), up the Mississippi to Natchez, and along the Trace Parkway to the outskirts of Memphis.
For a country obsessed with driving, the roads sure are a mess. Perhaps that’s because everyone loves driving so much, but an aversion to taxation can’t help. Even the many Interstates we drove on, supposedly the gold standard of motoring, are bumpy endeavours. Long stretches aren’t much better than gravel tracks. What’s with all the blown-out tires on the side of every road as well? It hardly instils confidence. I’d rather see destroyed rubber than dead animals, mind. Unfortunately, my first Racoon and Armadillo were spotted spread across the hard shoulder. I didn’t hold much hope for the turtle moving slowly across the road, either.
Look a little further and the scenery is something else. The magic of Eisenhower’s Interstate plan, at least for the idle passenger staring from the window while his partner does all the driving, is that it simply scythed a route through the middle of nature. It makes for gorgeous views of lush green swampy forests, glittering lakes, iconic rivers, and rolling hills. The ride up to Natchez, and then along the first 200 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway proved consistently stunning.
Natchez was not so impressive. An air of ornate sterility hung over the well-preserved Southern mansions in the historic center. The past ruled the present, a recurring theme. Along the journey there were constant signs for battlefields, forts, and countless boutiques selling Civil War antiques. It’s not like New England, especially Boston where I now live, isn’t full of historic reminders of course. You can’t move without coming across a plaque to no-one in particular. But Boston is a booming modern city. Many of the areas of the South that we visited were not. The past stood out here because it was undiluted by a present yet to arrive.
There were exceptions, both geographically and thematically. The Civil War hangs heavy, Civil Rights stand proudly. In Nashville the public library contains a room dedicated to the movement, one we had only minutes to view before a conveyor belt of school kids flooded the place. High up on the walls stood a series of still photos, chilling and powerful reminders of a struggle that has concluded in some regards, and barely begun in too many more. Many places we visited had similar reminders.
And then there are the constant Jacksons. There’s a Jackson in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee, and of course Mississippi where they named the state capitol after him. It’s hard to move for signs directing you to another of his towns.