Review: Paul Theroux’s Deep South
By Hunter Wallace
Paul Theroux’s “Deep South” was a disappointment.
I bought the book after reading his highly misleading Op-Ed in The New York Times on the loss of manufacturing jobs in the South. I was under the impression that Paul Theroux had come to the poorest parts of the Deep South – the South Carolina Low Country, Alabama Black Belt, Mississippi Delta, and the Arkansas Ozarks – to write about the here and now. More than anything else, I was eager to see if Theroux had traveled to my area and written about the world I know.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. It quickly became apparent that Theroux traveled to the Deep South mainly to explore in the flesh his long held preconceptions about the region. This ideological framework was drawn from three sources – the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, Southern literature, and his contacts with local anti-poverty workers. Basically, Paul Theroux is someone who has read a lot of books about the South, mostly fiction or about civil rights, and that generally dictated his subject matter and the places to which he traveled.
In spite of his deep immersion in Southern literature, I was stunned to follow along and discover that Theroux was ignorant of some of the most basic facts about the region. He didn’t know, for example, that “the Delta” in Mississippi referred to a large region in the western part of the state, not the mouth of the Mississippi River. He thought that Arkansas was half black until corrected by a local hillbilly. Amazingly, he even assumed that Appalachia had the demographics of the Deep South, and was surprised to learn there were so few blacks in the mountains.
Reading “Deep South,” it felt like Theroux was touring the equivalent of 21st century Italy and writing about the Roman Empire or the Renaissance. The South of William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emmett Till and Strom Thurmond vanished a long time ago. I’ve lived in the Alabama Black Belt almost my entire life and have never once seen any private business or public area that is segregated. No one my age, black or White, has ever picked cotton here.
It is a much different world now, but this only comes through in flashes in “Deep South.” We meet the inevitable Mr. Patel from Gujarat in India who now owns every motel and gas station from the Potomoc to the Mississippi. We see the rotting towns of the Delta, Black Belt and the Lowcountry with their black mayors, black city councils, black chiefs of police, black reverends and black anti-poverty workers. We meet a great many Southerners who have lost their jobs due to globalization, but maddingly Theroux doesn’t probe the subject any deeper.
Instead, we always seem to come back to race and civil rights: Harrison, AR and Philadelphia, MS because Klan remnants are there; Aiken, SC because of Strom Thurmond’s black love child; Greensboro, AL because “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” was set there. The extended meditation on the meaning of the word “nigger,” the Rep. John Lewis presser in Little Rock, and especially the obsession with Emmett Till was too much. Are we allowed to point out now that Emmett Till’s death was one of the last lynchings in the South? That it happened over half a century ago? That lynching was uncommon even then?
There are times in the book when Theroux’s interlocutors seem to become aggravated by him. Randall Curb, for example, patiently explains to Theroux, a Yankee, that Greensboro, AL is now controlled by the blacks. In the Alabama Black Belt, white supremacy has been replaced by black supremacy, and all kinds of negative consequences familiar to locals have followed from that. Theroux’s response is that black majority rule was the whole point of the Civil Rights Movement!
In all his travels in the Deep South, it never once occurs to Paul Theroux that the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement has anything to do with the social and economic devastation he sees, which he explicitly compares to post-colonial Africa. Theroux says large swathes of the South now resemble Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but never connects this fact to black majority rule and subsequent White abandonment. He never once ponders the question of whether integration actually worked – in the Deep South, in Northern cities, or anywhere else.
If “Deep South” has a saving grace, it is that Theroux repeatedly points out how the Clinton Foundation and all the other great and good humanitarians have no interest in fighting poverty and underdevelopment in, let’s say, the Ozarks or Mississippi Delta. Bill Clinton and Bono can be found rescuing the poor in Haiti, India and Africa, but are never heard from in Hope and Helena, Arkansas.
Read the Op-Ed in The New York Times and pick another book. You are not missing anything important.