Applebome's Dixie -- implacably distinctive

November 10, 1996|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Dixie Rising," by Peter Applebome. Times Books. 384 pages. $25

In the 1850s, the New York Times dispatched a young reporter named Frederick Law Olmsted on a meandering journey to report from the nether world of the antebellum South. In due course Olmsted's penetrating dispatches were assembled in "The Cotton Kingdom," now regarded as a classic of Southern historical literature.

Ever since Olmsted's trek, New York Times reporters assigned to the South have proved to be of incalculable value in defining the land of moss and magnolia to the rest of America.

Over the past half-century many of the great bylines of modern journalism - John Popham, Gene Roberts, Claude Sitton, to name a few - first appeared over stories from the Southern bureau of the Times. Peter Applebome, the Times' Atlanta bureau chief during the first half of this decade, carries on that worthy tradition by synthesizing five years of reporting into this compelling book.

Applebome focuses chiefly on the core Deep South: the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, plus Tennessee.

He takes the reader on a languid journey to environs which exemplify the South: To Selma, where George Wallace's repression three decades ago led to the supremely important Voting Rights Act of 1965; to Charlotte, where boosterism is an established religion; to Nashville, from which great names of country music incessantly twanged out their ballads; to sad places like Honea Path, South Carolina, where impoverished textile workers were massacred in 1934 for trying to organize a union; to the Mississippi Delta, still today so much like Faulkner's world.

Yankee though he may be, Applebome has absorbed that special Southern talent for spinning perfect-pitch yarns which illuminate the subtle complexities of the nation's most implacably distinctive region.

The thesis of the book's subtitle is not all that new. John Egerton put forth the same theme 20 years ago in his book, "The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America." And in many respects this also was the theme of Dan T. Carter's recent definitive biography of Gov. George C. Wallace, the region's rambunctious native son who set today's national political agenda to a far greater extent than most appreciate.

And yet, one suspects that Applebome may have been mugged by an early deadline. At the time he closed out his book, there was every reason to believe Bill Clinton - widely viewed in his native region as an apostate Southerner - would be turned out of office. The result was precisely the opposite: The South wound up almost as isolated from the mainstream as in 1964. Newt Gingrich's hubristic swagger may have won him reelection in Georgia by 60 percent, but 60 percent of Americans outside the South loathe him for the very same reason.

Applebome's closing chapter rises to the level of W. J. Cash's legendary meditation of 1941, "The Mind of the South." He chooses two improbable figures as avatars of the South, new and old. The first was the novelist Erskine Caldwell, whose depraved comic characters like the turnip-eating Jeeter Lester so enraged Southerners in the first half of the century. The second was the late Atlanta Journal columnist Lewis Grizzard, who righted Caldwell's wrongs by defending redneck culture without apology.

An odd juxtaposition, and yet, fitting. Jeeter Lester's grandchildren have moved from Tobacco Road to the suburbs of Atlanta, but they still can't seem to shake the old habits and attitudes of hog-wallow Georgia. And if last Tuesday's election is any guide, these are hardly national "values and culture."

Ray Jenkins, who retired in 1992 as editorial page editor of The Evening Sun, covered the South as a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, a paper he later edited and worked at for 20 years.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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