Editor’s Note: This is a work in progress.
Richard Pillsbury, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Geography
If you are a history buff and a cultural geography nerd like me, you will enjoy Richard Pillsbury’s The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Geography, which is the definitive resource on the cultural geography of the South. I will warn you though that this book can be triggering for a Southern traditionalist although for likely all the reasons you have become interested in the subject in the first place.
This book contains 58 essays on places and populations in the South and attempts to explain their cultural evolution in a historical context. It is a reminder that we already have all the cultural diversity that we could ever want in the South: Little Dixie in Missouri, the Ozarks and Ouachitas in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, Acadia in Louisiana, the Southwest in Texas, the Lowcountry in South Carolina and Georgia, the Delta in Mississippi, the Black Belt in Alabama, the Tidewater in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, the Piney Woods, the Piedmont, Gulf Coast, Appalachia and so forth.
We have the Upland South vs. the Lowland South, the Atlantic Coastal Plain vs. the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Eastern South vs. the Old Southwest and the folkways of the Old South vs. the rank materialism of the New South. We have cities which have at least traditionally been wellsprings of Southern culture: Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, Charleston, Memphis, New Orleans and Richmond. At the same time, we have also mindlessly created huge New South metropolises like Dallas and Orlando which are culturally sterile centers of Americanization. There is an essay in this book called the “Disneyfication of Central Florida” which laments one of the worst aspects of the New South. Speaking of the New South, it was much more traditional than the era of the Sunbelt South which we entered in the 1950s.
Southern culture and history can be divided into two major periods: the traditional South which existed from 1607 until 1950, which were the centuries during which we put down deep roots in this land as a rural and agricultural people, and the modern South that was created by the bulldozer, interstates, the air conditioner and the television after the Second World War during which our grandparent’s generation moved off the farm and into the city to work in a manufacturing or services jobs. The modern South has been flooded by Yankees and foreigners while nearly a century went by from 1860 until 1960 during which we became far more homogeneous while colonizing the North and West. For nearly a century, few immigrants arrived in most places in the South due to the crushing poverty. Unlike the rest of the country, we became a settled and cohesive people during this period with a strong sense of identity.
I don’t have to tell you that is all being washed away now.
There is plenty of familiar material in this book like the story of how the traditional South was settled from its beachheads in the Tidewater, Lowcountry and Appalachia. I’ve already covered that process at length. The most interesting part of that story covered by Pillsbury which struck me as new is how settlers from the lowlands of the Carolinas in the Atlantic Coastal Plain moved up the Little Tennessee River and settled southern Tennessee, north Georgia, north Alabama and north Mississippi.
As I have long suspected, the Old Southwest was also significantly more influenced by Tidewater and the Upland South than Colin Woodard gave it credit for being in American Nations. This can be seen the architecture of plantation homes which are rooted in models found in the Upland South. Linguistically speaking, it turns out that the western border of both the Yankee and Southern accent is the around the 98th parallel about 50 miles to the west of Fargo, ND and Fort Worth, TX. Beyond the 98th parallel, Western speech patterns become more common as the limits of traditional Southern and Midwestern agriculture run up against the natural environmental boundary between East and West.
The best part of this book is the maps which ring true:
As the maps above show, we are now living in the modern South which barely resembles the traditional South. The textile industry of the Piedmont has moved to the Third World. Coal mining in Appalachia has been mechanized. The iron and steel industry there has similarly been decimated due to free trade. The railroads which dominated our transportation system have been replaced with highways and interstates. The world of the New South which ended in the Great Depression has vanished.
Consider what has happened to traditional Southern crops and livestock: cotton, corn, wheat, rice, tobacco and sugar have all been mechanized. The crops which replaced them in large swathes of the South like peanuts, timber and soybeans have been mechanized. The poultry and hog industries are now controlled by vertically integrated agribusiness. Less than 2% of Southerners work in agriculture and in states like North Carolina half of those workers are illegal aliens in the hog and poultry industries.
There has been a great migration from the countryside into large metropolitan areas where 76.7% of Southerners lived in 2000. Nearly twenty years ago, 84.8% of Texans and 92.8% of Floridians lived in metropolitan areas. The bulk of the Southern population is now concentrated at the extremes of the region in Texas and Florida. As recently as 70 years ago, Florida was the smallest Southern state. Now, Florida is ground zero for the huge retirement communities that stretch up the Atlantic Coast to North Carolina and also into the Ozarks and the Great Smoky Mountains around Asheville. Just as millions of Southerners colonized the Midwest and West in the early 20th century, millions of Yankees have moved down South to colonize the Sunbelt in the late 20th century.
We became fat and deracinated Judeo-Christian conservatives after moving into this place:
Even after the loss of all the traditional industrial jobs in coal mining, iron and steel and textiles, 30 percent of American manufacturing workers were Southerners in 2000 as more jobs were created than were loss in machinery, chemicals, automobiles, electric and electronic equipment and other new sectors of the economy. Many of these jobs have undoubtedly been automated or offshored though since this book was published as manufacturing employment has declined since 2000.
If what’s past is prologue, the Sunbelt South of the Boomers will be swept away in our lifetimes as well. The landscape will change again. Just as the Old South and the New South have disappeared, the world we are living in today will be replaced by a future South that is currently unimaginable.
Note: In our next book review, I will speculate about the future of the South which will be a world of artificial intelligence, automation and advanced robotics.