Southern Folk, Plain & Fancy, by John Shelton Reed

A Summary by Austin Graham

"Jesus, the South is fine isn't it...it's better than Ben Hur, isn't it," notes Shreeve in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, an attitude shared by many Americans since antebellum days. The South's notoriety, argues Reed, rests on the supposed assortment of "colorful" people who live there. Northerners and Southerners alike have preconceived notions about what sorts of people populate the South, and, in order to explore the Southern Image, Reed dedicates his book to examining who these characters are.

Reed's first chapter introduces readers to the overall concept of Southern stereotypes and how they work. It is a complicated issue: Reed points out that this sort of grouping can be helpful or harmful, grounded in reality or completely contrived, clarifying or confusing. One point stands out, however, and that is that the media plays an enormous role in defining the selection of available social types, introducing new ones and keeping old ones alive. "Gone With the Wind"-style Southern gentlemen and "Dukes of Hazzard"-style redneck villains are nationally advertised and known through television and movies, and one result of this sort of prominence is that Southerners become "stock characters" to the national audience. To non-Southerners, the South, with its unusual and foreign citizens, seems less a part of America and more as an entirely different country with a bizarre caste system. Non-Southerners are often fascinated by the Southerners they meet: in Faulkner's words, they have an "almost helpless capacity and eagerness to believe anything about the South not even provided it be derogatory but merely bizarre enough and strange enough."

Classifying America's favorite kinds of Southerners requires three preliminary considerations: the Southerners being studied must be white, men and women must be examined separately, and social class is a necessary division. After making these considerations, Reed applies four terms to describe the popular portraits of Southerners: the hero, the villain, the fool, and the victim.

The Southern Gentleman (hero) is the picture of refinement, politeness, and dignity; Robert E. Lee is perhaps the ultimate example. The Evil Aristocrat (villain) is the Gentleman's foil, sometimes referred to as the "Lord of the Lash," and is haughty, arrogant, dangerous, and powerful. The Comic Gentleman (fool), or the "Cotton Snob," is ridiculous and contemptible (such as the windbag Senator Phogbound of "Li'l Abner" fame); he is in many respects like the Evil Aristocrat, except that he is powerless, which makes his wickedness laughable instead of fearsome. The Gentleman Victim is ultra-refined, often too delicate and sensitive to even live, much like the tortured Quentin Compson of Faulkner's novels, and is usually taken advantage of by those who prey on his outdated gentility.

Common men are categorized by the same distinctions. The Good Old Boy, like the Southern Gentleman, is the soul of decency, a solid, unpretentious, and reliable character. He is not, however, above rasing Hell once in a while, like the heroic Burt Reynolds of "Smokey and the Bandit." The Redneck corresponds with the Evil Aristocrat, and his essential characteristic is cruelty. The Redneck is a particular favorite of filmmakers, such as Peter Fonda's ultimate redneck in "Easy Rider." The Hillbilly, as embodied by "The Andy Griffith Show"'s Gomer Pyle, is the laughable (in an either cruel or pitiable sense) common man, a lazy and stupid country bumpkin, and the last socially acceptable butt of ethnic jokes.

Women fall into the hero-villain-fool-victim system as well, but not as neatly for two primary reasons: age is more important in classifying women than men, and good-bad distinctions are not as straightforward.

Because of the necessary age distinction, there are are two types of women who correspond with the refined Gentleman: the young Southern Belle and the more advanced Southern Lady. The Comic Lady is often young as well, the "Scatterbrained Belle" being a favorite stock character such programs as "Hee-Haw." Villainy in upper-class Southern ladies is largely a modern concept, but "Dallas"-style wealthy women promise to expand the villainess' horizons.

The Good Old Girl is a pillar of strength and patience, and is distinguished from her upper-class counterpart by a position of equality with "her man." The more exciting Evil Redneck woman, however, get more radio time in country music songs as the ever-present temptress, the sexual demon who leads the blameless Good Old Boy astray. In such a scenario, the Good Old Girl often becomes the Victim as well, forced to deal with the ensuing chaos of a broken home. "Please don't steal him just because you can," implores Dolly Parton, simultaneously embodying both types of women.

These people are not the South, however; a prominent and familiar middle class dominates below the Mason-Dixon Line just as much as above. Since it is largely television shows and movies that perpetuate the stereotypes, one might argue that the fantasy South of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was exploded simply to entertain. Southerners themselves, however, get as much of a charge out of "being Southern" as non-Southerners enjoy seeing the phenomenon: Faulkner is considered by some to be the greatest Southern stereotyper of them all, and one won't find many Southern image-shattering country music artists on the performance circuit. Colorful Southerners may not be strictly real, but, like the mythic cowboy, they're here to stay.

Southern Folk, Plain and Fancy by John Shelton Reed, copyright 1986 by the University of Georgia Press

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