Volume > Issue > New South, Old Religion

New South, Old Religion

SUN-BELT PARADOXES & EXCESSES

By James J. Thompson Jr. | June 1988
James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nashville-area writer and Book Review Editor of the NOR. His latest book (co-edited with George M. Curtis III) is The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver.

Back in the old days, before the sunbeltization of the South, Yankees ventured into Dixie with trepidation. Speeding through the former Confed­eracy on their way to Florida, they peered out of their fancy automobiles at a people and a landscape filled with minatory portents. Those ragged Negroes, slack-jawed rednecks, scraggly hound dogs, batter­ed pickup trucks, fetid swamps, and languid mud­dy rivers sent a prickling of fear crawling up the Yankee spine. It was all so — well, Faulknerian. Beneath its sluggish and placid surface it seethed with the exotic and dreadful: violence, insanity, imbecility, incest, miscegenation. When it involved the South, the Yankee’s legendary realism and sang­froid succumbed to the phantasmal.

That has changed. The South, once condemned as a stagnant backwater — an embarrassment to wholesome, energetic Americans — has undergone a metamorphosis in the American mind. The image of the Sun Belt has crowded out the phantasmagor­ia of the past. Tobacco Road has been transformed into an Atlanta suburb, newly rechristened “Tara Estates”; Jeeter Lester’s grandson — J. Lester III — commutes by BMW to his brokerage firm on Peachtree Street. Bustling entrepreneurs have shouldered aside the fabled Good Ole Boy — he of tobacco-wad, beer can, pickup truck, and shotgun. Formerly wedded to the past, the South pulsates with prog­ress and scintillant visions of the future. Once not fully American, it embodies the quintessence of Americanism. The Yankee no longer experiences the old surge of fear and revulsion as he races toward Florida; instead he mulls the possibility of abandoning a decrepit North to try his luck in Dix­ie. In the late 20th century, the South is, as they say in the boardrooms and promethean glass towers, where the action is.

Imagine a Northern friend (yes, “friend”: the war is over and he exudes amiability) on a leisure­ly foray into the South. He has crossed its borders this time without Florida as destination; he comes as a prospective migrant. Business has slumped in his native Pennsylvania, and he is pondering a relo­cation to Nashville, a city that burbles with Sun-Belt vigor. He spends Saturday in an unhurried drive down the Shenandoah Valley on Interstate 81. The Virginia landscape at its most ravishing unfolds be­fore him as he consumes the miles from Winchester southward. Late in the afternoon he exits at Bristol on the Tennessee border, checks into a sparkling Sheraton Inn (spiffier than the superannuated one at home), and relaxes over a sumptuous meal at a well-appointed steakhouse (no grits or red-eye gravy on this menu). Back in his hotel room he retires to a night of easeful sleep. As he drifts off he hums “Dixie” and dreams of the dollars that sprout as thick in the Southland as tobacco and cotton once did.

The next morning he continues toward Nash­ville, a five-hour drive across east Tennessee. He reaches for the radio knob, seeking music to com­plement his expansive mood. The soporific hum of motor and tire yields to a choir singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The Northerner smiles, “Why, it’s Sunday morning!”

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