Regular readers of this website know of my fascination with the American South. I’m a 5th generation Utahn on both sides, and before marrying my Texas belle I had never set foot in a southern state. Yet every time I visit the South, I feel like I’m coming home. The South is an essential element of Americana. It’s more than just the food, the music, and culture. It’s the underlying roots of these things- a unique blend of nature, peoples, and history- that have fused together in time’s crucible to form a rich and enduring character.
I’m not sure, as an outsider, that I can ever truly understand the South. Author/Guide/Blogger/History buff Debra Goodrich does. Deb was born in Mt. Airy, NC- Andy Griffith’s home town and the real-life model for the fictional “Mayberry”. She grew up in the nearby Blue Ridge foothills and is a southern girl to the core. She has spent much of her life researching the historic figures and events that shaped the South. I recently asked her for some insight on the South, and the following is the first half of our cyber interview:
BONNEVILLEMARINER: If you could travel back in time only once to any point in southern history, where would you go and which event would you witness?
DEB GOODRICH: I would go back to about 1850, to Ararat, Virginia, and Mount Airy, North Carolina, where I grew up. The communities–The Hollow, Doe Run, My great-grandparents and great-great grandparents would have been children, and when I read the census reports from that year it awakens so much curiosity in me about the families that would intermarry, the roads that would be built, the men who would go off to war. Jeb Stuart’s family was still in the neighborhood, and I would like to hang out at the post office and watch the families stopping to get their mail. I’d like to go to Galax and Fries and Independence, over to Indian Valley, up to Roanoke, down to Winston and Salem and Boone and Yadkinville across the state line. So there is no real event I’d choose to see, just the daily lives of my ancestors.
BM: If you could have dinner with one historical southern figure, who would it be and why?
DG: I’ve thought often about this and posed the question to several folks myself, and the answer is difficult. Since I’ve been working for so long on the life of Varina Davis, I would most enjoy sitting down with her, but at what point in her life and in what context? Varina, like most Southern society, or society of any part of the world, was conscious of class. Would she accept me as a reporter? Since she was a writer, I think so, but I’m not sure. As an author, I might be acceptable on her social level, but as just a “Common White,” as my former professor put it, Varina might not feel free to open up to me. Would I want to interview the First Lady of the Confederacy, a woman shuffling children and national diplomacy? Or would I choose to speak with the elderly Varina who had suffered the deaths of five children and her husband who could reflect on her extraordinary life? Would she be insulted, embarrassed, exposed to know I had read the private letters between her and her husband or closest friends? She possessed a tremendous heart, which grew as she grew older, but had been so wounded. A part of my desire to talk with her is simply woman to woman, not as a journalist or historian, but simply as someone who has been inspired by her courage and compassion. I would very much like to take her hand between mine and tell her how often I have thought of her and wished her peace.
BM: A southern-based travel agent once told me “When you come here, the South will get in your blood. Doesn’t matter if you go to Louisiana, Kentucky, or North Carolina. It’s all the same. It’ll be in your blood for the rest of your life.” What is it about the American South that makes it so distinct? What makes it bleed so deep into the American psyche?
DG: Many people have tried to answer this, and I understand it more deeply and believe it more strongly as I travel, but find it more difficult to put into words. Perhaps watching Paula Deen on the Food Channel explains it best. People perceive Southerners as having more fun. I hate to make it sound that trivial, but I believe at the heart of the matter, that is it. There’s all this hype about storytelling and Southern hospitality, and the pace of life’s being slower in the South, but I think what this all boils down to is “We’re having more fun!” That’s why people visit the South, move to the South, won’t leave the South. Church and Family and Society translate to getting together-for food, for music, for drink. Even for the Baptists who don’t drink in public, the ultimate goal is always a party. People are forever planning how to get together, where to get together, when to get together, and who’s going to bring the potato salad. That is the focus of Southern life. Some folks manage a job or some major accomplishments along the way, but that’s pretty much it–getting together.