A Brief Apology to all Southerners
1.) The chief virtues of the South include a relaxed mode of life and really really balmy weather. When I first moved to Tallahassee from Kansas City I was thrilled every day I walked around campus. "How ingenious!" I thought. "Someone actually went and invented a room-temperature city!" There were certain particularly sweet days where the grass looked so inviting it took all my strength not to simply pitch forward and fall asleep. (I didn't, though; everyone warned me about chiggers.) Southern charm is more voluble than the sun-blasted taciturnity of the Southwest. Every student I ever had from Florida outside Tallahassee---it didn't seem to matter if they were from Miami or little ol' Denton---commented on how friendly everyone was in Tallahassee, and Atlanta's the only city I've ever been in where, trapped as an out-of-town moron in the wrong lane during the height of backed-up rush-hour traffic, three lanes of cars, seeing my distress, quietly paused to let me pass through without anyone so much as honking for my idiocy. These things deserve to be mentioned, and I'll add them accordingly.
2.) Having said that, it's also true that one of the things that I'm trying to mock---and I guess it's currently befogged by all my anti-Confederate irritation---is that I'm terrible at relaxing. It's not the South; it's me. I simply don't do the outdoors. I hate boats and fishing because I don't like killing things and boats are usually kind of wet, and once you're out on them it's often too windy and/or grimy to read a book. I went to a swimming hole once, and though I could sort of understand why my friends liked it---though it was very murky and we left when someone saw a cottonmouth---I kept thinking, "Now what do we do?" If I swim, I get wet and dirty and I smell funny until I get to a shower. If I don't swim, I sit in the sun, which no one from the desert is wholly comfortable doing. Do we just loll? How do we know when we're done? Are there any books around? It's the same reason I've never enjoyed being high.
In fact, I guess what I'm saying is I never experienced the South unless I was accompanied by people who, unlike me, were also comfortable being stoned. Perhaps I should have chosen antsier companions.
3.) Also, please bear in mind that the context of the book, I'm explaining why I'm not "capturing the South" in a situation where I'm literally spending one day in every major city along I-10. You don't soak in culture subtly in such a situation; you snatch what you can. And that means that, while driving through the South, I couldn't possibly have stopped at a swimming hole or gone out on a canoe, even if that was the kind of thing I was inclined to do. My options in terms of describing Southern culture tended to be limited to "that hellfire church sign I just passed" and "more gas-station Confederate shit I'd rather not buy."
4.) Having said that, as a person coming from outside, I tend to gauge places based on their human rights situation, and there's no question that I can neither ignore nor forgive the fact that the South is more racist than the rest of the country, and it's not only less educated (in Chapter One, I discovered online that by driving along I-10 I was driving through eight of the bottom ten least-educated states in the nation, not counting California and---to my pleasant surprise--- Texas), but it's a willful ignorance, which is why it's called "The Bible Belt." And as a teacher, willful ignorance is the thing I can least forgive. Threaten to take away evolution, women's choice, and gay rights, and you've lost my sympathy, no matter how much you may ply me with sweet potato pie. (And you simply irritate me further if, when I search for entertainment, you offer me Larry the Cable Guy.)
But I don't want you to think I drove through half the country gritting my teeth and hating everything. My approach was simply to avoid talking about The South as a whole, because I really can't do it without getting a touch of acid stomach. For example, in the book, it becomes quite clear that I love St. Augustine, and I love New Orleans, and I'm somewhat fond of Pensacola, and I'm flat-out crazy for Mobile. (And Lafayette was so not my thing that it didn't even make the cut.) But I never attributed any of the things I love about those cities to any overarching "Southern" style. (Nor did I blame "Southernism" for Jacksonville or Biloxi, which I didn't care for, and which again I judged on their individual quickly-assimilated merits.)
I guess what I'm saying is that I love individual Southerners, I love certain Southern cities, and I admire certain aspects of the South; but the South as a whole entity is so problematic for me that, for the purposes of the book, I simply wished it away with prejudice. But I'm glad y'all Southerners spoke up, because the paragraphs I wrote really were more snide and unjust than I like to be. I promise I'll fix it up. Sorry.