Students Search for the Real South

By Matt Deegan, The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, VA
Saturday, January 13, 2007

The sweet tea at Michie Tavern rated “fair” on Betsi Taylor’s scale of Southern authenticity.

Taylor, 11 other students and two professors from a small private college in South Carolina are journeying through the Southeast, meeting with small-town writers and witnessing how the South has lost its drawl and found the mall.

The Wofford College travelers, who hail from South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, are basing their 11-day road trip on a premise created by Virginia novelist Lee Smith: In any small Southern town today, you are just as likely to spot a sushi restaurant as you are a place that serves cornbread, the emblem of traditional Southern culture.

“We have talked to some people who think the South will eventually revert back to its former ways,” senior Elizabeth Bethea said. “And then we talked to others who think that because of everyone moving to the South because of real estate development and such, it will become like anywhere else in the United States.”

The group wandered around the Downtown Mall on Wednesday and did not come away with a true Southern feeling.

“There were specialty stores all over,” said Teddie Norton, a senior from Gainesville, Ga. “The overall atmosphere is a little more Northern for me.”

Charlottesville was but one of the places that they said lacked true Southern flavor.

Deno Trakas, a professor of English at Wofford, said the group stopped at Johnny’s, a convenience store in rustic Hillsborough, N.C.

“I thought, ‘Oh here it is, here is the South,'” Trakas said. “And the woman behind the counter was Asian and couldn’t speak English and they had a huge batch of egg rolls in the buffet bar for the locals.”

The students are enrolled in “Cornbread and Sushi on the Road,” a course offered at Wofford and financed by the Watson-Brown Founda-tion of Georgia. The class is taken in correlation with one in the fall semester, “Cornbread and Sushi: Exploring the Real and Imagined Rural South,” in which visiting writers and historians speak to the students.

The basic question the students confront is: What defines the South these days?

Taylor said the traditional South has a gentility and politeness full of “bless your hearts.”

“It’s a smoother way of living and communicating,” the Georgetown, S.C., native said.

The South’s food, its football and stock car culture and its storytelling are genuinely its own, Trakas said.

With developments and strip malls bringing a more cosmopolitan, sushi bar vibe to more Southern towns, Bethea said Southern writers are vital to retaining a distinct culture.

“There’s no other region that has these writers that write about the culture so people can still remember the uniqueness of the area,” she said.

The students visited the Buchanan farmhouse of poet Thorpe Moeckel, who invited them for dinner so that his family could be a case study.

Senior Greg Clark called Moeckel’s world of chicken coops a slice of rural life, but did not see it as uniquely Southern.

Trakas and John Lane, also a professor of English who was a Hoyns Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Virginia, said they have challenged their students to ask themselves what they want the South to look like in 20 years.

“We said, You’re going to make these decisions and you’re going to vote with your purchases and your housing choices and it’s up to you what this place is going to look like,'” Lane said.

The students and their professors tried to meet with Albemarle County resident and best-selling author John Grisham, but the timing did not work with his schedule.

Their white vans will take them to Wilmington, N.C., today, where they will meet with Clyde Edgerton, a fiction author who won the North Carolina Award for Literature. The group has already met with authors Jill McCorkle and Randall Kenan, among others.

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