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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Travel Writer Finds Soul Of America In Rural South

Paul Theroux is a travel writer and novelist from Massachusetts. (Steve McCurry)

Paul Theroux is a travel writer and novelist from Massachusetts. (Steve McCurry)

Paul Theroux has made a career of writing about his foreign travels. But until recently, he’d never traveled in the American South, and he wondered if the region was overlooked.

He wrote about the South for Smithsonian magazine, 50 years after the civil rights summer of 1964. He says he found many rural Southerners, black and white, who are proud of their roots and welcoming to a Northern writer.

He calls the rural South “an undervalued America” where the sense of defeat is a strong as the sense of pride.

Interview Highlights: Paul Theroux

On reactions to being a Northerner traveling through the American South

“I stuck to the rural areas. And rural America has its deep roots, and, I think, great values. I said to a man in Aiken, South Carolina, ‘I’m a stranger.’ He said, ‘You’re not a stranger, there ain’t no strangers here.’ And a woman said the same thing to me in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. ‘I’m a stranger.’ She said ‘You’re not a stranger, there are no strangers here.’”

On visiting the infamous Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Miss.

“Bryant’s Store where Emmett Till met his doom, is still standing. It’s on a crossroads. Money, Mississippi, is a back road, there’s a railway running through it. Train doesn’t stop. The walls are crumbling, there are vines and roots sort of holding it together. They don’t know whether it’s a monument, a horror — it’s a haunted building. And Money, Mississippi, is a very tiny place. I doubt there are two dozen people who live there.”

On unexpected encounters in the Delta

“I was in the Delta, in the town of Greenville [Mississippi] in the Delta. And I must say, the Delta is a very poor place — poor in money, great in spirit. I was asking a lady about the B.B. King Museum and this woman’s colleague said, ‘Should we tell him?’And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the [colleague] said, ‘This is B.B. King’s ex-wife.’ His last wife! Most recent wife. So we talked about B.B. King.”

See some of Steve McCurry's photos for Theroux's piece:


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  • Kejad

    I think Theroux was confusing an appearance of friendliness with actual friendliness. I’m from a town in SC near Allendale, and I think Southerners, in actuality, are only as friendly as, if not less friendly than, folks in other parts of the country.

    It’s probably a similar misperception on my part, but I’ve felt more hospitality in the upper Midwest and the mountain states than I ever have in the South.

    • blueshift

      I lived in the midwest and my experience was similar. Raised as a flinty New Englander, during a sojourn in the midwest that lasted several years, I mistook midwestern friendliness for being more than it was — merely a lubricant for transacting superficial or transient business. Nothing was meant by it – and it in some cases, it made for a very camouflage for the unsuspecting (that would be me). People who understand this language know its inflection. Crippled by a yankee upbringing, I find myself more comfortable on New England’s rocky soil, where if some one says they like you, they probably do.

  • Jorge_Videla

    i’ve read all his travel books, but why does he talk that way?

    is it an affectation? or is it the result of his living in england for so long?

    • Ed Meyr

      I don’t think that the British would think that his accent was particularly british – more like “mid-Atlantic.”

  • crazytish

    While he was in the South he could have visited some of his cousins in NC/SC

  • thetnrebel

    I use to be a trainer when I was a OTR truck driver. I would train new drivers after they got out of the truck driving schools.. I would keep them for around 6 weeks to teach them the road.. I had one young black man who were 23 and had never left New York City. He could not believe the wide open spaces in the mid west. He spent a couple days in my home. And he told me when he left that people around where I lived treated him far better than people back in New York ever treated him.. I guess he heard all the false news about how black are treated and was surprised to find out it was untrue

    • rushthis

      Well, there’s your token. Did you let him vote?

  • thetnrebel

    I once had a lady who moved to nashville from New York city. She said she hated Nashville.. I asked Why? She said people were too friendly. They speak to you even though you do not know them. And she did not like that.

  • rushthis

    Let’s see how friendly they’d be if you brought a school bus full of immigrant children.

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