"Add up all these gorgeous pictures of fox hunts, mint juleps, turkey hunts, polo matches, refurbished mansions, forest-sized gardens, pure-bred beagles, expensive fishing reels, silver flasks, artisanal knifes, engraved rifles, sexy riding crops, and what do you get but a near-replaying of The Old South Plantation Myth?" —Marc Smirnoff, Oxford American, February 2012
If you want to fire a Southern shot, you need to know how to do it right. Charleston used to be in that camp, back when a plurality of voting residents fearful of an overreaching federal government would get the local college boys to drag a 1,000-pound cannon to the top of a stately mansion and blow the hell out of Fort Sumter. These days, those folks vote for Mitt Romney and call it a day.
So the arrival of last month's Oxford American brought a certain tinge of nostalgia to my Charleston home, even if my family didn't emigrate from Barbados or sign the Declaration of Independence, nor do any local streets bear the Allen name. The best I could do was marry a women who would adopt the family surname (old school, I know) and plaster it on the sign hung outside her Broad Street office, which for a guy who has absolutely no chance of ever becoming a member of the Hibernian Society is about as good as it's gonna get.
You see, as much as I want to applaud Marc Smirnoff, founding editor of The Oxford American, for his blunderbussing evisceration of every sugary-sweet gloss publication in the "New" South — from Southern Living to Garden & Gun — I'm a little pissed.
There is much in Smirnoff's article to applaud, even if he admits that his long-winded rant is little more than "the equivalent of penis envy." He says that "the South's progress since 1966 is what needs to be celebrated, not the fact that a native magazine [Southern Living] ignored the historic issues and deep struggles of the era." And he's right to question how "the $78,800 Patek Philippe wristwatch; the $1,200 Gucci riding boots; the $87,500 Fabbri Majestic [rifle]; the $150,000 earrings by Buccellati; the $4,900 Nicholas Varney cufflinks; the 'price upon request' Michael Kors dress ... represent the 'Soul of the South,'" Garden & Gun's motto. That kind of shot shouldn't take 3,600 words.
My family ain't Garden & Gun rich. But we're mostly from the South, from all over. And my mama taught me better. Where I'm from, even people who didn't have the best mama learned manners. We also learned that you stick up for your own. That's where Smirnoff missed the bull's-eye. I don't think he adequately understands the South, or its soul.
It's one thing to go on a three-day bender and blah, blah, blah about the hypocrisy of Southern marketing versus Southern letters. It's quite another to publicly mail it to tens of thousands of people. That's what my grandmama would call "irresponsible."
So Marc Smirnoff is somewhat irresponsible and undoubtedly a charming individual to share a beer with, mostly because he's right. Garden & Gun is a "front-porch mag," but not the kind you might find on the East Side of Charleston. And like a plethora of other regional glossies, they peddle in the nostalgia and good cheer that's representative of the mostly white middle and upper classes of the South. That's not really front page news. Nor is it news that those folks still have a hard time accepting certain sins of their forefathers and owning up to the current realities that those transgressions engender.
I imagine that most regions of this country, even if not currently as popular as the South, have similar regional magazines that "whitewash" the local culture and eager evangelists ready to sing the praises in the mother tongue.
But he asked, "Is it pure trashiness for The Oxford American's editor to bash another Southern magazine?" Why yes, it is. And from the lowest trailer park meth lab to the swankiest digs in Belle Meade, Tenn., their mamas taught them the same thing.
Beyond that, we should acknowledge that he raises a good point. Perhaps it's time that we suggested a reimagining of Charleston's take on the South. After all, Garden & Gun does call our city home and claims up front that it speaks to the "Soul of the South," a rather encompassing locution. If I tuned to the local news at six, in Charleston, Birmingham, Nashville, or Richmond, would I discover as placid and surreal a picture as the stunning images that grace the pages of Garden & Gun? I think not. And that says nothing of Atlanta, New Orleans, or Norfolk.
The fact is, we Southerners are a very diverse bunch, but long before the gathering folds of Scarlett O'Hara's emerald gown, we were drunk with the ecstasy of regional recognition — and autonomy. Ever since the fall of Southern chivalry, we have sought a return.
In the last few years, that opportunity reawakened. Charleston and the greater South's popularity exploded and led a national surge of recessionary hunger for authenticity and grit. We are currently the world's oyster, and we're very tasty. But this won't last. The searchlights of fashion are only certain to move on, to find other darlings that tempt the shallowest senses, and so the question begs: What follows?
Grits, gravy, and seersucker jeans will not henceforth sustain the legacy of the South. Neither will buxom steeds, mint juleps, silver vases, or the azaleas at Augusta National. We're just as apt to be known for racial politics, Appalachian poverty, stock car racing, and being the birthplace of Stephen Colbert. To be relevant, we must contribute something with gravity to the nation — whether it's airplanes, wind turbines, oil rigs, or local shrimp. There's a vision for every stripe. Pretty pictures and this year's celebrity will fade into the periphery.
When that bubble bursts, I hope the real South's left standing tall in the pages of regional magazines like Garden & Gun, an authentic South that can leave room for religion and politics, and perhaps even SEC football in a pinch. It can acknowledge the full range of people that contribute in myriad ways to the cultural collective that we seek to celebrate and explore. It should do so on their terms, not solely through a lens of wealth and elitism. Perhaps the South will have truly arrived when we can converse about such matters, in person and in print, without offending our own soul. Until then we're just pretending to be something that we're not.
It takes spirited women and men to fight such battles and follow narrow paths in search of the true soul. They display patience, virtue, and a realization that bright lights cast deep shadows. Some sit in boardrooms, some sit in classrooms, some sit in saddles. Some find themselves editors of marginally successful regional literary magazines and harbor covetous feelings toward their neighbors. In my grandmama's South, no one is without sin.
If you came home late and tipsy at my grandma's, you'd be up at dawn staking tomatoes in the garden or weeding the ditches — not to atone for some carnal exploit, but because if you're gonna be a drunk and not work hard, well that'd be "irresponsible." If you were young and stupid, she'd make you go out and tear a pretty branch off the forsythia bush and then she'd switch your legs. If she read last month's Oxford American, I imagine she'd invite Marc Smirnoff to dinner, whip his rear end good, give him a big hug, "bless his soul," and then fix him a vodka tonic.
Jeff Allen is a freelance writer, educator, and agriculturalist focusing on the people and culture of the South. He regularly contributes to the Charleston City Paper.