Fifteen writers on a region, a culture, a mindset.
The Gloria of Azaleas, Magnolia-on-the-Ashley, SC, ca. 1901, by the Detroit Publishing Company via The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Most summers my sister and I were taken along to family reunions and also to cemetery meetings, where the family discussed the upkeep of a fenced-in plot of graves on a bald hilltop in a valley we’d peppered with ourselves since the 1800s at least. It seemed to me then that the chief purpose of these gatherings was to figure out how we were all related to one another, that if we could just figure it all out then we wouldn’t have to keep meeting this way, year after year, always on the hottest day of the summer.
This was an age of great social upheaval—desegregation and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, labor issues, the birth of the youth movement, a time when conversation might have opened on any number of relevant and important topics—but in my hometown in the American South, the region of the country known for its storytelling, men rarely said a word.
As a boy, I watched mothers of classmates spit on a crucifix held up by our parish priest as he attempted to lead a little black girl to a waiting car the day my Catholic school was integrated in New Orleans. But I witnessed incidents of racial prejudice that shocked me just as deeply in summer visits to my mother’s hometown of Brooklyn.
There are times this love, like all love, makes me feel stupid and ridiculous—giving a piece of my heart to a man born a lifetime ago a thousand miles away. I know what I look like. I know the sound of my voice. I know that a four-story walk-up is not a shotgun shack and the BQE is not the crossroads and that the Key to the Highway was never really mine.
Savannah native Johnny Mercer trafficked in the sui generis jazz, blues, and hillbilly sounds that he and other Southern diaspora entertainers took with them when escaping the drudgery of sharecropping cotton and its retainers for the brighter lights of northern and western cities.
In Key West, I noticed the wild roosters in the palm trees, the seawall laced with purple algae, the dark, mountainous clouds that appeared before a storm. I noticed Florida. What a strange and troubled and occasionally magical place. What a place to have come from.
As the song reaches its frenzy—“Lord, I can’t change”—we are driving home with the windows down, pummelling the dashboard like a drum. My hair is flying across my face, and I can smell his cologne. His headlights land on the tawny body of a deer sprinting across the road. Everything inside me is wild, beautiful, beer-drenched.
Being a Southern writer means my grandfather’s grandfather looking down on us from his portrait at the top of the stairs in my grandparents’ house. A stout and fierce man of sixty somehow buttoned into the Confederate uniform he’d worn in his twenties, which still lies folded in the cedar chest in the attic.
You see, here is a narrative nearness that approximates the closing in of landscape by hills and trees, and the closing in of space and night-sky and finality by the presence of ghost ancestors who perhaps are also trapped by the land, which is beautiful, unutterably beautiful, so it’s no wonder the dead aren’t leaving to go into that goddamned light.
Foote also happens to be my last name, and what the history books fail to mention is that my ancient relative was also the only senator in American history to draw a pistol on the Senate floor and attempt to shoot another politician.
I see these signs, but I also see alligators and flamingos and cypress knees and Spanish moss, dolphins and palm fronds and pine cones the size of pumpkins. Even the clouds are bigger down here, as if the sky is closer to earth. Whether or not you believe in Him, God abides in the everyday of Southern life, not tucked away in churches and synagogues, saved for special occasions.
There are the young women of Tulane and Loyola, yacking in pairs or jogging endlessly to shed the proverbial freshman fifteen. There are the dog walkers bearing wee plastic satchels of scooped shit to the nearest trash can. Love-sick couples catch a breath of air before repairing again to the bower. There are the scrawny skateboard dudes with more tattoos than they have years of school.
I heard Barry Hannah tell a story one time about a writer from some Northern magazine come through Oxford, Mississippi, back in Barry’s drinking days. They were sitting there and nobody was saying anything, and Barry was staring at this fellow, who was getting kinda nervous, you understand, wondering what he was supposed to do and say, and after a long silence Barry just looked at him and said, “Whut the FUCK are you lookin’ at?”
It’s the first sunny day in a week, warm, the kind of soft-focus, liquid air that makes me feel half-time and drowsy. Blots of color in yards along Lula Lake: purple crocus, yellow forsythia, green onion grass. Hudson yanks up a cluster and chucks it across the street, then smells his fingers. Will that grass make actual onions? he asks.
We lurch after the authentic, whether dictated by white-column worshippers or BBQ alchemists or blues hagiographers or poverty tourists, and flog with equal glee outsiders who dare to intellectually or physically invade the bounds of our territory and those insiders who don’t match an idea of authenticity that amounts to little more than commoditized regionalism.