Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 9-17
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Our Kind of Yankee
September 11 Reminded Southerners of What We Admire about New York
John Shelton Reed
In the days after September 11, when Americans were watching a lot of television, many of us heard a Texas man-in-the-street tell a network interviewer something like, "Being a Texan or New Yorker just isn't very important right now. We're all Americans." Soon after that, we heard about some South Carolina middle-school students who raised the money to buy a truck for some Brooklyn firemen who lost theirs (along with seven comrades) at the World Trade Center.
What's going on here? Texans and South Carolinians playing kissy-face with New York City? Isn't New York the heart of Yankeedom? Isn't it the city southerners love to hate? Well, like other Americans in that great red Republican interior on the 2000 Presidential election map, many southerners do think at least occasionally of New York City as the Great Wen, the cesspool of iniquity, home of everything alien and vile. It has been suggested, not entirely in jest, that the city's evolution vindicates the Confederacy.
The bill of particulars has several components. First of all, there's a lot for everybody to dislike about New York: the welfare culture, deranged street people, dysfunctional public schools, periodic brushes with bankruptcy, wack-job politicians. Even many New Yorkers complain about this stuff, often while taking a perverse sort of pride in being able to cope with it.
But southerners have had some special reasons to dislike New York, starting with the fact that it is simply the most urban corner of America. A good many southerners have seen city life as bad for both morals and manners. When Thomas Jefferson celebrated individual ownership of land and the farming life as the only sound bases for culture and society, he was writing in what was already an old southern tradition. The most eloquent statement of the southern case against big cities probably came in 1930, with a manifesto by twelve southern men of letters called I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. More recently, Hank Williams Jr. has often put the sentiment to music: in "Dixie on My Mind," for example, he complains, "These people never smile or say a word / They're all too busy trying to make an extra dime."
In addition, although this may be changing, many southerners have also taken a dim view of New York for serving as the great reception center and repository for foreign immigration. Our chambers of commerce, after all, used to brag about our "native born" labor force, and former Atlanta Brave John Rocker of Macon, Georgia, is not the only southern boy who thinks Americans ought to speak English. In general, ever since New York displaced Boston as the home of the ultra-Yankee, southerners have tended to see whatever we dislike about northerners as concentrated there. When we describe ourselves to pollsters as friendly, polite, hospitable, leisurely, traditional, conservative—well, it goes without saying who is not that way.
And what many of us really dislike about northerners, and thus loathe in spades [End Page 10] about New Yorkers, is their view of southerners as yokels—if not as Deliverance-style Neanderthals. Wherever northerners got their ideas of the South (and of course a southerner wrote Deliverance), some of them have indeed been inclined to view us as a lesser breed. Consider Kirkpatrick Sale's scare-mongering 1975 book, Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment, which extrapolated from economic and demographic trends to project the sort of nightmare future in which Mr. Sale's northeastern readers would have to choose between, say, a governor of Texas and a former senator from Tennessee for president. (One of the few pleasures of the 1992 Democratic convention for this southerner was watching the expression on Mario Cuomo's face every time he...