Books

Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South by Roy Blount Jr.

Michael Merschel
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

The native Georgian, who lives among fellow liberals in Massachusetts, is tired of the anti-Southern attitudes he constantly encounters from uninformed Northerners who seek to paint the South with one broad, redneck-stained brush.


Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0307266184
Author: Roy Blount Jr.
Price: $25.00
Length: 400
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-05
Amazon

You can call Roy Blount Jr. many things: Author. Humorist. Radio personality.

Do not, however, call him "the world's most sophisticated redneck," as a well-meaning host did once when he spoke on a panel in Manhattan.

The native Georgian, who lives among fellow liberals in Massachusetts, is tired of the anti-Southern attitudes he constantly encounters from uninformed Northerners who seek to paint the South with one broad, redneck-stained brush.

"People like to objectify other people," he says. "That's a no-no among liberals. And they don't realize that applies to Southerners, too."

It's partly to address such bias that he wrote Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South (Knopf, $25), a collection of essays that attempt to explain the South and perceptions of it. The book is at times nuanced, complex and laugh-out-loud funny: He drops references to Krispy Kreme and Kafka, fried chicken and Chekhov, with equal grace.

In other words, it's an intelligent, thought-provoking look at the South. And not, to use his own term, a kitschy "cracker-barrel book."

"I guess the easiest kind of book for a white Southerner to write is a so-called cracker-barrel book," he said in an interview in New York City last month before an appearance at Book Expo America. "But I just never wanted to write anything like that. I run into cracker-barrel assumptions in real life too much and would like to counter that notion. It's awkward. You don't want to go around saying, `I'm not that dumb,' all the time."

Like a relative who can simultaneously deliver the sharpest blows against -- and be the strongest defender of -- his own kin, Blount is celebratory and unsparing of Southern culture. In his book, he asserts that "the great majority of Southern homes could have a sign hanging in the parlor saying: `WE DON'T THINK MUCH OF IDEAS, AS SUCH.'"

But when asked why a Northern liberal might consider "Southern intellectual" an oxymoron, he makes his own roots clear.

"`Most people' and `intellectual' is an oxymoron. I mean, intellectuals are wonderful, valuable things, but most people don't aspire to be one. And it's certainly true in the South. And as I say, the South has tended to have too little respect for abstract ideas.

"But I sort of share that `too little respect for abstract ideas,'" he said. "Yeats said we can only embody the truth, we can't know it. And I've always been in favor of embodiment and texture, and always favored the trees over the forest." He paused.

That's as opposed, he said with a smirk, "to our current president, who started out with the forest and tried to fake the trees."

Oxymoron or not, that mix of Southern liberal intellectualism comes to Blount genuinely.

Raised in Decatur, Ga., with a stop in Dallas in the eighth grade when his father briefly moved there for work, Blount came of age during the civil rights battles of the 1950s.

"When I was a teenager, all the Southern white people on TV were chasing black people with cattle prods. So I didn't have many role models in the media. ... You had this sense that the South was gonna change in regards to race, and it was gonna be a really interesting thing, and you didn't want to get caught on the Bull Connor side of it. There was nothing about the Bull Connor side that appealed to me," he said, referring to the police official in Birmingham, Ala., who used fire hoses and police dogs against civil rights demonstrators.

Blount said he chafed under his mother's strict Methodism and then found his own salvation when an English teacher gave him a stack of New Yorkers and told him he could be a writer one day.

"I just felt more at home in the pages of The New Yorker than I did, frankly, in church," he said.

And even if he sometimes is treated as the exception to the rule by his Northern friends, he enjoys what he has come to represent.

"Southern liberals tend to be more interesting than Northern liberals because it's not the most obvious thing in the world," he said. "It's easy to be a liberal in the media-centric circles of the Northeast, because everybody you know is, except for some people you bump into here and there, and don't talk to. But in the South, you run into lots of resistance. And resistance is good for character."

"So you know, Molly Ivins, one of my favorite people, was always more vivid than your average Northeastern liberal. I mean, `Texas' and `liberal' together makes for a strong compound."

Blount's own Texas ties are extensive. His ex-wife was from Waxahachie ("You know, the man who invented the Allen wrench is from Waxahachie," he noted); he has a sister in Austin; he spent time with writers Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright in Austin in the 1970s. And talking about what's Southern about Texas leads to a discussion of how varied the South itself is.

"There's lots of different flavors of Southern. There's East Tennesseans. There's Atlantans. There are Mexico-Southerners. People in the panhandle of Florida are different from Virginians. There are Virginians -- and then there are Virginians, for that matter."

He points out all the sources that feed into Southern culture. He's unflinching on matters of race and acknowledges and celebrates how black and white are bound together in the South. "Southern speech and Southern cooking and Southern literature and Southern art all is a fusion, if not always an easy fusion -- but some kind of stable or unstable compound of African and Celtic and Anglo-Saxon influences."

It's a serious series of reflections that Blount still manages to make fun of. Which, once again, he doesn't see as contradictory.

"I never have thought that `funny' and `serious' were opposites at all," he said. "It always surprises me when people say, `Are you ever going to write a serious book?' I realize that's not an abnormal question; I just have always thought that there's no contradiction between funny and serious."

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