American Times: Washington - Wired up in Deep South

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AT AN airport a few months ago I saw a man in a T-shirt that read: "It's a Southern Thing. You Wouldn't Understand" That sums up many people's view of the South: sullen, vaguely threatening if not violent, obscurantist and inward-looking.

But over the past few years things have changed. It is not just the South's growing population and economic boom. Southern values, ideas and culture interest the rest of the nation, which is realising the South has kept many things the rest of America has lost.

If you think Southern culture is what you find growing on a plate of grits left on the porch, William Ferris is the man to change your mind. He helped to create and raise to stardom a centre at the University of Mississippi called the Centre for the Study of Southern Culture. He edited an encyclopaedia on the subject, a volume that ranges from Faulkner to Elvis via Gone with the Wind, the blues and bourbon.

An expert on Mississippi mule traders and friend of Bill Clinton and B B King, Mr Ferris is a passionate explainer of the South. He came to Washington last year to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal body that funds and promotes culture and education.

"There is a strong sense of place that people have," he says of the South. "The sense of family, history and place are central to life." That makes it a complex, dark place, with a history encompassing racism, the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan. But it also gives it cultural depths that much of the rest of the nation lacks, producing, just in the past few years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Tom Wolfe's book about Atlanta, and Cold Mountain, a novel about a Confederate deserter.

Mr Ferris's great contribution has been to explore byways of the South's popular history. Seminars on Elvis aroused the ire of much of the traditional literary establishment but helped to build a new, scholarly focus on the region's low culture while helping to understand its high culture as well.

William Faulkner and the King met in Oxford, Mississippi, where Mr Ferris worked before he moved to Washington. Examining its popular culture, he points out, shows the impossibility of the racism and segregationism that have been so central a part of the region's politics. The New South is the result of a complex interplay between black and white. "We are as deeply indebted to Africa as we are to Britain," he says. "The way we speak, eat, sing, have deep roots in our black and white history."

The latest phase in the Southern renaissance is its growing acquaintance with the Internet. Technology might seem anathema to this dense old culture, but it has revolutionised the South, helping to build giants of the communications world such as CNN and WorldCom, the telecom company based in Jackson, Mississippi.

For much of the 20th century the South feared modernity would undo it, rip out the heart of a culture and replace it with a transplanted northern soul. Yet in many ways it is Southern culture that has become American culture, through music, food, literature and, now increasingly, technology. The East may be red, as Mao once said, but, according to Mr Ferris, the South is wired.