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The Artificial Southerner
by Philip Martin
The University of Arkansas Press, 2001
ISBN: 1-55728-716-3 (paperback)

 

 
 

Refreshing!  Refreshing, yes, that is what it is!  To have the topics and ideas of Southerners and the South treated in a sympathetic and clear voice, articulated by a young man with both the writing skills required and knowledge of the area demanded to discuss it.  Such diverse figures as musicians--Johnny Cash and Elvis, writers like Richard Ford and Eudora Welty, politicians--Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter are featured in vignettes within this 205-page collection of articles written by Philip Martin. 

Martin describes himself as, quote: 

…a critic and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. I like newspaper work; it seems to suit me. I recognize that I'm lucky to have a job like the one I have - I write every day and almost every day something I've written gets published and presumably read, if only by the copy desk. I write about movies and books and music and politics and stuff that happens to people.” 

What he is in fact is a man, who was brought up middle-class in the South, traveled around and settled in Little Rock, choosing to stay in the South by choice, not by constraint.  Where others see shortcomings and ills, Martin explores the depths of the culture of this region, unearthing truths that we take for granted.  In exposing and celebrating our differences (yet pointing out our assimilation into the modern America) Martin paints a picture of demarcations.  We are a blend of peoples, yet we are distinct.  We are Americans, yet we feel ‘different’ somehow, polarized from the rest of the country by our own makeup and struggles, which are unique.   

In his article, “Don’t Call Me That: White Trash a Go-Go” for instance, there is this: 

          “In the South, where there was never any illusion of classlessness,
     “white trash” was the term for shiftless white folk, the petty criminals
     and the dissolute.
          It was codified by an Atlanta newspaper reporter named Erskine
     Caldwell in his novels Tobacco Road, in 1932, and God’s Little Acre,
     a year later.  Jeeter Lester and his brood were shockingly raw, nearly
     feral people.
          In the book an older woman persuades a sixteen-year-old named
     Dude to marry her in exchange for a car.  Dude promptly drives the car
     without oil, ruining it.  It goes up on blocks in the yard.
          Caldwell, the truth-teller, was summarily run out of the South. 
     Jerry Lee Lewis, who once married his thirteen-year-old cousin, was so
          trashy he was nearly driven out of the United States.  The indignant
     mob ran him right off the pop charts and into what was then called
     hillbilly music.” (page 39-40, The Artificial Southerner.)

Then, more to the tastes of the whimsical among readers, there is a depiction of the writer, Richard Ford, who was born Southern, yet really became a citizen of the world: (page 17) 

          “He is a man at ease with himself, a patient and gracious man. 
     He likes his little apartment here: he likes the fact that he can spread
     his clipboards out, read his Chekhov, watch sports on television. 
     Soon he’ll be back in New Orleans, in the big house on Bourbon Street
     where Kristina is remodeling the slave quarters to accommodate his
     clutter—then on to Paris, where some of his most recent writing has
     been set.  Maybe they will buy that apartment. 
          And sooner or later he will be back in Arkansas, to a reunion of his
     father’s family in Atkins or Russellville, to sign at Wordsworth Books or
     at his friend Rod Lorenzen’s bookstore, to visit Frank Newell.  Something
     will call him back.  His mother is buried here.”

The Artificial Southerner is a taste of the South, a slice from the lives of the people that live there, like having a big hunk of watermelon thrust in front of you for the feasting!  Thank you, Philip Martin.  Thank you!

 

Robert L. Hall
Southern Scribe Reviews

© 2001 Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved