On Tuesday evening at Square Books, Charles Reagan Wilson, professor emeritus and former director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, met with the current director of Southern Studies, Kathryn McKee, to discuss Wilson’s newly published book, “The Southern Way of Life: Meanings of Culture and Civilization in the American South.”
Wilson described his book as a genealogy of the term “Southern way of life,” a phrase that has been redefined and disputed for generations. Diving deep into regional consciousness and the contingency of Southern identity, the book takes the reader on a journey through three centuries of Southern culture from the colonial era to the modern day.
“The Southern Way of Life” began in 1989 while Wilson was teaching at the University of Mississippi and writing the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.” After beginning the project, the historian quickly discovered that “The Southern Way of Life” would prove to be the project of a lifetime.
“I realized I wasn’t ready to write a book called ‘The Southern Way of Life,’ Wilson said. “It’s like the old bluegrass song says, ‘Sometimes you gotta dig a little deeper into the well, boys, to get a cold drink of water.’ So, I had to go dig a little deeper in research and deeper into thinking, and it was on my mind for years.”
Wilson’s initial research was influenced by the eras of the South in which he grew up but quickly expanded to focus on much more.
“Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, the Southern way of life was segregation,” Wilson said. “It became a rallying cry for the White Citizens Council in Mississippi and all across the South of defending segregation when the civil rights movement started, and that’s what I thought I was going to be saying.”
In revising his work, the author shared that he sought to infuse his voice into his book by drawing from writers, colleagues and his experiences in Oxford. Wilson emphasized that “The Southern Way of Life” strives to encapsulate diverse perspectives into its pages, including not only political figures and historians but also writers and musicians that bring vitality to the region.
During the conversation, Wilson shared his collection of antique church fans, ranging from illustrations of Martin Luther King Jr. to Elvis Presley, that he has cultivated throughout his exploration of Southern culture. Many of the fans are illustrated in “The Southern Way of Life” as part of 39 illustrations featured in the 600-page work.
“It’s a big book, but I don’t want you to leave with the impression that it’s an intimidating book or that it’s a book that you would have to sit down and try to tackle in one sitting because it’s really not like that at all,” McKee said.
The pair ended by discussing with the audience about how perceptions of the Southern way of life are evolving and how they will continue to change in the future.
“As you were writing this book and finishing this book, I wonder about a sort of resurgence of a kind of negative association with Southerness,” McKee said. “I’m thinking in particular of the sort of resurgence of white supremacy that we have seen in our country.”
Wilson shared his optimistic viewpoint concerning the spread of positive change and Southern influence within the United States.
“I believe in Dr. King’s trajectory of history, which is the arc moves toward justice,” Wilson said. “To me, it’s the end of something, and the future is much brighter.”
“The Southern Way of Life: Meanings of Culture and Civilization in the American South” is available at Square Books.