Paul Theroux in the Deep South

At the age of 74, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux toured the Deep South in 2012 and 2013.   It was research for his first travel book on his own country.  What he found was “kindness, generosity, a welcome.”

Back home in Cape Cod, he wrote, a stranger would look away if he tried to make eye contact.   In the South, a stranger would be likely to say “hello”.    Strangers, black and white, were quick to offer help and advice, even without his asking for it.

He greatly driving back roads in the South.  He enjoyed Southern cooking and the music in Pentecostal churches.  He made more trips than he originally planned.

But he was shocked by the dire poverty in regions such as the Mississippi Delta, which reminded him of what he saw traveling in Africa.

The difference was that, in Africa, he frequently came across American missionaries, philanthropists and foreign aid workers trying to alleviate poverty.   Poor Southern communities, in his view, are own their own, so far as American corporate executives, politicians and philanthropists are concerned.

I read Theroux’s travel book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads (2015) as a followup to the writings of David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard on the origins of American regional cultures.

Theroux skipped big cities such as Atlanta, which he said are little different from Northern cities, nor what he called the Old Magnolia South, the South of horse farms, historic preservation and gracious living.  He did not interview prominent politicians or anybody whose name I’d heard before.

Instead he concentrated on the small towns and back roads, and talked to people he met in diners, churches and gun shows.

The bulk of the book consists of reports of conversations, with roughly equal numbers of whites and blacks.   In most cases, he did not specify the race of the person he was talking to, and I somethings had to read quite a few paragraphs before I could deduce the race from context—which, significantly, I always could do.

Many Southern white people think Northerners see them caricatures, based on how they’re depicted on television and in the movies.   One man told Theroux he gave up watching television because he is tired of programs that only show a smart black man and a stupid white man.

Theroux thinks a certain type of Southern regional writer is partly responsible for this stereotype.   Writers such as Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and others depicted poor Southern white people as freaks—albinos, hunchbacks, 12-year-old brides, colorful con men and generates.

Not that their tall tales have no merit as stand-alone works of literature, but their approach was a way of not dealing with segregation, chain gangs, sharecroppers and lynchings, Theroux wrote.   Only a few white Southerners wrote about everyday life in the rural South in the kind of way that Anton Chekhov wrote about the frustrations of life in rural Russia.

He visited gun shows, where he was impressed by “the sense of order and politeness” he found.  “No one on earth—no one I have ever seen—is more polite than a person at a gun show, more eager to smile, more accommodating, less likely to step on your foot,” he wrote.  “Among so many weapons, there are no insults, there is only patience, sweetness and occasional joshing.”

The overwhelming majority of Southerners, white and black, own guns.   Most regard the power to defend yourself with lethal force as a basic human right.  Theroux met a woman whose stepdaughter from up North had anxiety attacks.   She bought the stepdaughter a gun and taught her how to use it, and she didn’t feel anxious any longer.

Deep South gun shows, as Theroux described them, are a kind of safe space where Southern white men can relax and be themselves, without having somebody ridicule them or criticize them for venting their feelings about liberals, gun control or President Obama.

He quoted a writer who said that Southerners experience all of American history as a series of outside pressures to force them to change—abolitionism, the Union army, carpetbaggers, Wall Street, civil rights agitators, the federal government, feminism, socialism, trade unionism, Darwinism, Communism, atheism and Daylight Savings Time.

William Faulkner, quoted by Theroux, wrote in the 1950s that living in the 20th century and being against racial equality was like living in Alaska and being against snow.  But he also believe that Southern white people should be allowed to change at their own place.

I can sympathize with that.  I don’t like to have change forced upon me, either, even when I theoretically agree with it.  But if change hadn’t been forced the South, black Southerners would have been basic human rights for many decades longer than they were.   It’s possible that, if left alone, white supremacy or even slavery could have continued to the present day.

Black Southerners are as conscious of history as white Southerners, but what whites see as a series of defeats, they see as a series of victories—emancipation of the slaves, school desegregation, the Voting Rights Act, the entry of black people into the professions, the election of black people as mayors and sheriffs.  Although black Southerners are, on average, worse off than whites, the ones who talked to Theroux are more hopeful.

Theroux’s most impressive interviews were with a number older black ministers, entrepreneurs, political leaders and anti-poverty workers—most of them combining at least two of these roles—who had overcome great hardship and prejudice to get where they are, and who now were concerned with helping others.

The themes of these interviews were how much worse things were in the past than they are now, and how much still needs to be done.

The Mississippi Delta, possibly the poorest region of the South, reminded him of poverty he saw during  travels in India and Africa.   And, in fact, some Mississippi counties have worse infant mortality and life expectancy than India.

Paul Theroux

Another respect in which the Deep South reminded him of Africa was large number of small businesses owned by immigrants from India.   A large percentage of motels are owned by immigrants named Patel from the state of Gujarat.

The poverty is made worse by the departure of local manufacturing industry for Asia.   To me, this shows the fallacy of an economic development policy based on low taxes, low wages, lenient regulation and business subsidies—in short, by leveraging poverty.   Other regions of the world can out-poverty us.

To Theroux, the industrial ghost towns of the South represent an abandonment of poor Americans by the American government, corporations and philanthropists.

When Deep South came out, he wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times about this, and got a surprising amount of push-back from neoliberals.   Their argument was that globalization improves the living standards of poor people in Asia, and their needs should take priority over poor people in the USA because they are poorer.   The problem with this argument is that American corporations with branches in Asia strongly oppose efforts by their workers to form labor unions and demand better pay and working conditions.


The Soul of the South by Paul Theroux for Smithsonian magazine.  An excellent selection of highlights of the book.

The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping the Poor’ by Paul Theroux for The New York Times.

How Mississippi Is Worse Off Than Bangladesh by Justin Fox for Bloomberg View.

Paul Theroux photo via SFGate.

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One Response to “Paul Theroux in the Deep South”

  1. paintedjaguar Says:

    “the entry of black people into the professions”

    One quibble – pre Civil Rights there was already a middle class of black professionals even in the segregated South, just as there were black schools and businesses. There were even things like annual black debutante balls. In fact there have always been a certain number of blacks who were better off economically than many whites. It was a parallel economy, in many ways a separate society. Social relations between blacks and whites were somewhat formalized, with little real mingling.

    I was reading a history of the NW Florida Gulf Coast, where I spent half my childhood, and was surprised to read about a beach/recreational area that had been very popular as a black gathering place – I’d never heard of it. Of course I was never really of the South, though I’ve spent many years in the area and despite all of my family being Southern (and if you aren’t aware, NW Florida has always been Deep South).


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