Dispatches from the South

By John Shelton Reed

University of Missouri Press. 241 pp. $19.95

John Shelton Reed first made his mark a couple of decades ago with the publication of his doctoral dissertation as a book called "The Enduring South." In it he challenged what was then emerging as the new conventional wisdom, that the South was becoming just like the rest of the country, arguing instead that it was still a distinct and singular region, part of the United States to be sure but apart from it in innumerable ways.

It is a theme that Reed has continued to pursue in his books and his fugitive journalism, much of the latter written for an agreeably eccentric and decidedly conservative periodical called Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. These missives, which appear under the heading "Letter From the Lower Right," are characterized by a sharp wit -- pity the poor soul who feels its sting -- as well as an impatience with received wisdom in any form and a deep love for the South in all its variety and oddness.

But the readership of Chronicles is far smaller than it should be, so Reed is far less known than he deserves; thus it is good to have a fat batch of his columns and other bits of journalism collected in "Whistling Dixie," though readers doubtless will have to search diligently for it as the University of Missouri Press is small and its books can be difficult to find. Make the effort. If you're interested in the South specifically or provocative writing generally, you'll find much in here that is instructive and amusing.

Reed, who in his other life is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina -- a sociologist who can write! -- describes himself as "a semi-pro curmudgeon," and at times he overplays the role; at times too he overplays the good-old-boy number, though no doubt he'd strenuously deny that's what it is. In any event there's a certain amount of provocation for its own sake, and from time to time Reed puts on countrified airs; but these are minor irritations, of no real moment, and should be regarded as such.

What matters is that Reed knows his region intimately, probably as well as anyone around, and manages the impressive feat of regarding it both seriously and lightly. He writes from the right, but never in predictable or doctrinaire terms; unlike most Southern Republicans, for example, he has an honorable record on questions of race and deplores "white supremacy {as} the sine qua non of the South." He recognizes that this obsession with race impinges upon and diminishes the region's undeniable virtues, at the same time that he insists -- as well he should -- that race relations have improved there far more dramatically than in most of the rest of the country.

But defensiveness is not Reed's natural position, and he spends as little time in it as possible. He's much more comfortable when going on the offensive, whether against big-time intercollegiate athletics -- his piece on that subject is both telling and funny -- or in favor of country music and old-time rock-and-roll. He has his say on the Yankee invasion of the South -- he thinks it's bringing in too many yuppies and tempting Ol' Dixie with the evils of trashy commerce -- but that doesn't keep him from taking a swing or two at cherished Southern traditions, to wit: "A joke going around down here asks why Southern women don't like group sex. Give up? Too many thank-you notes."

For all his impertinence and tough-mindedness, Reed readily admits to a powerful sentimental streak where the South is concerned, especially the South of his Tennessee boyhood. "For me," he writes, "a Dolly Madison cupcake can set off a Proustian reverie of driving through a steamy Southern night, with WLAC blasting Hank Ballard songs. One can actually believe, deep down, that the decline of Western civilization dates from the death of Buddy Holly. I know. I do."

What all of this adds up to is a plea, or a demand, that the maligned and misunderstood South be given its fair due. Much though he rues its dismal past and ambiguous present on matters of race, Reed argues that this cannot blind us to its virtues. He isn't talking about the ones Southerners traditionally cite -- "Southern hospitality" being the most notorious -- but about a culture, high and low and in between, that is indigenous and distinctive and highly flavorful.

Thus it is that Reed is all for Moon Pies and Lyle Lovett and barbecue in all forms and permutations, whether North Carolinian or Texan or even, heaven forbid, South Carolinian. He's right. Read "Whistling Dixie," and you will be too.