Thursday, October 15, 2015

Deep South

I have been a fan of Paul Theroux's travel writing for a long time, particularly enjoying the way his work allows the reader to become so totally immersed in worlds that would otherwise forever remain a mystery.  Via his books, I have traveled by train, boats, and automobile to places I am unlikely ever to see with my own eyes.  And along the way, I've learned a lot about people, places, and myself.

But this time around, Theroux has written about a region of the U.S. that I know quite well, the section of the country that has come to be called the "Deep South."  I was born in East Texas (a part of Texas that is far more Deep South than it is Southwestern United States), have extensive family roots in Louisiana, and have taken close, leisurely looks at the states the author travels through in Deep South.  As a result, I wish that I could have a long, personal conversation with Theroux because, while I do not think that his assessment of the South is all that far off, I find myself wondering about some of his conclusions and wanting to tell him what he may have missed. 

Theroux is largely sympathetic to the plight of the Deep South, its generational poverty and hopelessness disturbs him - and it should.  He rightly lambasts charities like the one run by the Clintons for sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Africa when the same problems they are focusing on in that continent exist in their own back yards.  He is particularly hard on the Clinton foundation because of the way that it ignores the problems so common in Bill Clinton's own home state of Arkansas.  As he points out, most agencies working on domestic poverty and education issues have budgets in the hundreds of thousands, not in the hundreds of millions.

But at the heart of Deep South, as it should be, is the issue of race relations, and I think that Theroux nailed it here.  From my own observation and interaction (as a white man not much younger than the author) in little towns in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, I came to similar conclusions about the white-black relationship in those places.  On the surface, based solely on the behavior that outsiders are allowed to see (and what Southerners want to believe about themselves) the relationship between the two races is better today than it ever has been.  Scratch that surface a bit though, and there is still much hidden suspicion and animosity on both sides.  Prejudice towards, and fear of, each other is very common to both whites and blacks in the region, something that will not be entirely overcome for decades to come, if ever.  Such is the nature of human beings.

Author Paul Theroux
Where I think Theroux is a bit off in his observations is in his impression that the American South is home to few books and readers.  This is a point that the author returns to several times, and it is one that, in my estimation, he over-simplifies.  While I am not surprised that he found few readers and even fewer filled bookshelves in the homes of the Southerners he came to know, Theroux seems to have forgotten that he was most often spending his time with people who have little discretionary income to spend on luxuries like books - and that they have little ready access to books whether they want them or not.  Books, after all, are seldom a high priority item for people living below or near poverty level.  In only slightly larger cities than the ones Theroux spent most of his time in, I have managed to have casual, "bookish" conversations with the people I randomly met along the way.  I have seen people dining alone and reading a book to kill the the boredom; I have visited tiny libraries and talked books with librarians and patrons; and I have visited many literary landmarks in the region.

This is a rather small quibble with Theroux's overall impression of the Deep South.  But, as I say, I would love to sit down with him some day over a beer or two so that I could perhaps tell him some of the things that his Southern friends did not tell him during his four seasons of travel among them, things that I think would temper some of the conclusions he has come to.

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