The best books about the South that you’ve probably never heard of

John Shelton Reed Author Of Mixing It Up: A South-Watcher's Miscellany
By John Shelton Reed

Who am I?

I’ve written a couple of books about other subjects, but most of my professional life has been devoted to writing, speaking, and teaching about the South. I’ve been doing it ever since I went north to college and graduate school in the 1960s. My early books and articles were written as a sociologist, mostly for other sociologists, but in the 1970s I started writing what I learned to call “familiar essays” for a more general readership, and lately I’ve been writing about Southern foodways—three books about barbecue (so far), one of them a cookbook. I’ve also written several country songs (only one of them recorded).


I wrote...

Mixing It Up: A South-Watcher's Miscellany

By John Shelton Reed,

Book cover of Mixing It Up: A South-Watcher's Miscellany

What is my book about?

Here’s what my publisher says: Mixing It Up is a medley of writings that examine how ideas of the South, and what it means to be Southern, have changed over the last century. Through essays, op-eds, speeches, statistical reports, elegies, panegyrics, feuilletons, rants, and more, Reed’s penetrating observations, wry humor, and expansive knowledge help him to examine the South’s past, survey its present, and venture a few modest predictions about its future. Touching on an array of topics from the region’s speech, manners, and food, to politics, religion, and race relations, Reed also assesses the work of other pundits, scholars, and South-watchers.

The books I picked & why

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Land of the South

By James W. Clay, Paul D. Escott, Douglas M. Orr Jr., Alfred W. Stuart

Book cover of Land of the South

Why this book?

This atlas, a beautiful but money-losing coffee table book from the book-publishing arm of Southern Living, appeared just as a new CEO ordered the company’s book people to think of themselves “more in the direct-marketing business, as opposed to being a book publisher.” (This strategy led eventually to How to Cook for Your Man and Still Want to Look at Him Naked.) It was probably treated as a write-off from the beginning and not marketed at all, which is a shame, because it is much more than a handsome ornament for your living room. Three geographers and a historian, all from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, produced a solidly-researched and profoundly informative work of cartographic excellence, one that repays both casual browsing and close study. (Some used book sites incorrectly show a different cover, but don’t worry about that.)


This Land, This South: An Environmental History

By Albert E. Cowdrey,

Book cover of This Land, This South: An Environmental History

Why this book?

This magnificent history of the South’s landscape, an unexpected one-off from a historian of military medicine, looks at how humans have shaped the Southern land and vice versa. It debunks the romantic view of pre-Columbian Indians as “natural ecologists” living in harmony with nature, showing how they radically altered their environment by hunting and burning. Europeans were even more exploitative and brought with them diseases that loved their new home. Later developments like flood control, wildlife protection, and anti-pollution measures have had profound and sometimes unanticipated consequences. The book is richly detailed and unusually well-written—not surprising, since Cowdrey has also written award-winning science fiction and fantasy. 


Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind

By Stephen A. Smith,

Book cover of Myth, Media, and the Southern Mind

Why this book?

Smith, professor of communications at the University of Arkansas, examines the stories that Southerners have told about themselves—the “myths” of the South. The Old South/Lost Cause/New South myths “controlled Southern culture and Southern rhetoric for one hundred fifty years,” he argues, but by the mid-twentieth century, the strain between myth and reality finally became too great and “a period of mythic confusion,” ensued. By the 1970s, however, Southern artists, scholars, journalists, politicians, and preachers—both Black and white—had forged a new myth, based on the themes of distinctiveness, racial civility, and community. When Smith wrote, he was confident that there will always be some myth of the South, that it won’t become a mere quadrant of the U.S. with a "dysfunctional amythic culture." We shall see.


Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South

By Richard E. Nisbett, Dov Cohen,

Book cover of Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South

Why this book?

Much of this book by two psychologists covers familiar ground and some may find their explanation for what they found unpersuasive, but get this: When they brought white male undergraduates into the laboratory on a pretext and called them "asshole," Northern subjects laughed it off or ignored it, but Southern ones bristled. Subsequent tests showed that the Southerners had heightened blood levels of stress-related hormones and testosterone, but the Northerners did not. Moving the study of the South’s “culture of violence” to the physiological level was a remarkable achievement, but hardly anyone seems to have noticed.


Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History

By Joe Gray Taylor,

Book cover of Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History

Why this book?

In 1982 “culinary studies” had yet to be invented, but that year Joe Gray Taylor, known primarily as a historian of Louisiana, published this spritely history, looking at what Southern people have eaten, from the meager diet of aboriginal Indians to instant grits and canned biscuits, with all the good and bad stuff in between, taking appropriate note of how diet has reflected race and class differences. Taylor packed his book with memorable detail: for instance, I will not soon forget that ground okra seeds served for coffee in the blockaded Confederacy. When the book was reprinted in 2008, John Egerton wrote a fine introduction about its genesis and subsequent developments in Southern food studies. 


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