Southern Cultures 8.2 (2002) 106-108
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Contemporary Southern Culture through a Transatlantic Lens
Circling Dixie: Contemporary Southern Culture through a Transatlantic Lens. By Helen Taylor. Rutgers University Press, 2001. 232 pp. Cloth, $50.00; paper, $20.00
In 1958 a newspaper survey of thirty British schoolchildren revealed that although only twelve of the fourteen-year-olds had heard of Dwight Eisenhower, seven of Nikita Khrushchev, and four of Jawaharlal Nehru, "everyone was on Christian name terms with a Mr. Presley." Such findings would come as little surprise to Helen Taylor, whose perceptive and highly readable Circling Dixie explores the longstanding British infatuation with—and to a lesser extent influence on—southern culture. Indeed, Taylor is careful to note the quiet preoccupation with Elvis in Britain, where Elvis-themed shops ("Elvisly Yours . . . ") vie for attention with West End plays like Cooking with Elvis, while fan clubs continue to thrive and Elvis impersonators of every race (like Elvis Patel from Swansea) stalk the land.
The British Elvis industry is, Taylor suggests, part of a complex process of transatlantic cultural exchange whereby, tourism notwithstanding, the British, other Europeans, and even Africans have come to "know" the American South largely through contact with the region's cultural exports or via depictions of the South in the mass media and entertainment industries. As a result, there has been a steady tension between somewhat sketchy understandings of the "real" South and a far more intimate knowledge of a mythical or quasi-mythical South inhabited almost entirely by stock southern stereotypes—the comic rural hick, the vicious racist redneck, the gallant beaux and his beautiful belle, the unrepentant hedonist, and the religious zealot—which are drawn mainly from stage, screen, recordings, and literature. [End Page 106]
Taylor's focus is mainly on the twentieth century, especially on the period since World War II. Although she devotes relatively little space to musical exchanges across the Atlantic, there is a good chapter on the way in which New Orleans and its jazz heritage have served as a potent symbol of eroticism and personal freedom for many British fans. She doesn't make the point explicitly, but it was no coincidence that the 1950s British Dixieland jazz revival was dominated by young gray-suited, lower-middle-class office clerks who were so desperate to escape the monotony of their nine-to-five lives that in their leisure time they identified with the flamboyant music and libertine lifestyles associated with the Crescent City in the early twentieth century. Reverence for Dixieland gave these fans access to an exoticism and visceral passion lacking in their everyday lives. This, as Taylor explains, is pretty much how the South has functioned in the British imagination (and, one might add, often in the American one, too). At one level, the South has always been associated with rebelliousness, independence of action, sensual pleasure, and the joyful defiance of stifling conventions. At another level, however, there has also been considerable admiration for the region's deep sense of heritage and tradition. She might have made more of the fact that southern conservatism and even its less reputable cousins—reactionary racism and religious bigotry—have also had their admirers and apologists in Britain.
Since Taylor is primarily a scholar of southern literature, it is no surprise that the best chapters in her book are those that deal with Alex Haley, Maya Angelou, and Tennessee Williams. In somewhat different ways, the Haley and Angelou chapters both consider the essentially hybrid nature of southern culture and identity, placing them within a broader context of transatlantic influence and counter-influence. It is also here that the African dimension of Taylor's model is most vividly drawn, as she tries to triangulate the South between European and African streams of culture and consciousness. Best of all is the chapter on Tennessee Williams, whose plays and their television and film adaptations have long enjoyed remarkable success with British critics and theatergoers. Taylor describes how, since the late 1940s, the British have developed an almost proprietorial interest in Williams...