Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Southern Yankee

In my last post, I called author Michael Perry a “Southern Yankee.” Several of my readers shook their heads at my description, so maybe I need to explain what I meant. Let me tell you a little of my journey.


In 1986, having never lived anywhere close to the Mason Dixon line, I left the South for Pittsburgh. Some thought I was crazy. The staff I worked with in Western North Carolina gave me a good bottle of Scotch to keep me warm in those cold northern winters. I moved north and after a week or two, long before the snow started to fly, was shaking my head and mumbling, “And they think we’re rednecks.” Maybe it was because North Carolina was humming with activity and Western Pennsylvania was struggling with high unemployment, but the idea that we in the South walked and talked slow (at least in comparison to Western PA) I quickly discovered to be a myth. I w s always leaving people in the dust.


A few years later, after adding another degree to wall (metaphorically speaking that is, as I’ve yet to hang a diploma on a wall), I moved to a small town known primarily for its skiing, in New York State. I’d always vowed that I’d never live in New York, but when I made that vow, I was thinking of cities and not skis lifts. It’s amazing how quickly one’s priorities can change. In this village that had less than 2,000 permanent, I felt right at home. They may have talked differently, but that was the main difference. It wasn’t until after being there a while that I realize the county I lived in was considered a part of Appalachia. Then I understood. And now I live in a small town in Michigan.


In my travels, I have decided that much of what people think of the South has more to do with rural living. There are lots of similarities with small towns in Western Pennsylvania (and the small-town feel of the burgs in Pittsburgh), New York State and Michigan and the small towns in North Carolina. That said, small towns in North Carolina are more similar to rural life up here than to what goes in Raleigh or Charlotte or Atlanta. We hunt and fish and watch the sky and watch the crops and know who’s related to who. We tell our stories slowly, letting them sink in.


In my mind, I compared Michael Perry with Rick Bragg. In a way, Perry’s still is more like rural south that Bragg’s, who had lived in a mill town where things were always humming. Bragg’s writing is often fast-paced, while Perry’s is like waiting for the corn to grow. Both have a great eye to detail, but Perry tells his stories slowly and for that reason, I called him a Southern Yankee. I hope I didn’t offend him; I meant it as a compliment.

I took the photo on New Year's Day in North Carolina. The tide was low!


  1. Although I didn't get why you called him a southern Yankee, I do now and I agree with your reasoning. I think if you travel to rural areas anywhere in the states, you are going to find similar people with different accents. Same goes with urban areas.

  2. In the past few years I've done a good bit of reading on the Atlantic Rim theory. Your argument expanded.
    Anyhoooos, what it's on about, peoples that live in certain climatic and geographic conditions have way more in common with those living 50, 500, 5000 miles away than they have to those 10 miles down the road.
    Maine to St Johns Newfoundland has way more in common with the Coast from Brittany, via the west coast of Ireland, to northern Scotland. Than those living in Mass. And the Maine to Newfee's have more in common with the uplanders down to Ga, than than either has with the lowlanders and city folk.

  3. i know of a town in SW VA that I could easily live in. Population about 200 of the finest folks I have ever met.

    just to clear something up in case..Rednecks were originally Striking Coal Miners who showed their solidarity through thee wearing of red bandanna's round their neck. How the hell the entire south got classified as redneck is beyond me.

  4. I've always thought it was probably a rural versus urban kind of thing instead of north versus south. Glad to hear some confirmation for that.

  5. You confused me with "Southern Yankee", too. What? No such animal.

    The little town I visited in Wyoming reminded me so much of the little town I grew up in that it made me homesick.

  6. Your observations are spot-on. While there are distinct differences in regional cultures, the similarities between/among small-town-rural America are substantial.

    I think part of the problem is that the media, ensconced in the Northeast and west of the Sierra Nevada, have this picture of the South (and rural America) in their collective heads, which no amount of evidence to the contrary can erase. Thus, these elites fly from coast to coast and look down (literally and figuratively) at those below, secure in the knowledge that they already know all about us and need not bother with actually visiting.

    Of course, the rest of us follow suit and wonder about those people from Mississippi or Michigan as if they're from outer space.

    Maybe if we turned off the TV and actually drove around the country and talked to people, we would disabuse ourselves of those prejudices.


  7. Sage
    It's nice living in this small Michigan town, I grew up in Ohio in one twice as small; but its also nice living close to a big city only about an hour's drive away - the best of both worlds. We oughta have Sherm come up and visit us northern rednecks, most of us are pretty normal rural tree huggers and water

  8. Ed, I know the term threw people. i also know that I'm more at home with small town folk, regardless of what part of the country I may be in.

    Vince, is the book the "4 Pathways of Albion" or something like it (I may have the title wrong) that traces movement from the British Isles to the Americas? I've read several reviews of it.

    Walking Man, I'd heard that miners were the origin of the word, but I've also heard it was in relation to farmers whose necks were red from working in the fields

    Charles, glad you agree!

    Jen, but there is a big difference between folks in rural Michigan and those in Detroit

    Randall, i like your suggestion of turning off the TV and visiting... Having lived out west for so long, I always felt the true west began on the other side of the Front-range of Colorado (across from Denver) and it continued to the Sierras and Cascades and when you crossed them and were on the Pacific Coast, you were somehow back east.

    Sleepyhead, it's a great town here! Although a lot of people here feel like we're so far away from anything, till I tell them about living out west where the closest real mall was 2 1/2 hours away!

  9. When I lived in Rochester, all my family from Miami called us rednecks...yeah, Cuban Rednecks! Go figure.

  10. If you put 'Atlantic Rim' into google scholar you will see the dust that has been kicked up over the past few years. Some very worth while essays some pure dross. But as yet I've not seen a good 'Book', it has yet to get to that critical mass and more importantly, get over the 300 years of false difference.
    But on your side what they are having issues with is that 1-2-3 of early settlement.

  11. Good Sir, you have a fine and discerning mind, a flair for Photography... and yet I, as a Cosmopolitan Man, find it all a bit, well... way-rustic, no?

    I much Fear that even as we speak, fine Hairs may be protruding from thine ears all-unnoticed...

  12. You truly make your posts so vivid. I enjoy reading those.

    I see Sir Silley at his insulting best. I tried keeping him away from my blog with no success. Hope you succeed where I failed.


  13. It may be similar, but you Yankees still need to get some sweet tea up there.

    I would also say that in addition to urban versus rural, there is also a different between the coastal people and inlanders in the South.

  14. You're exactly right that much of the stereotypical "south" is based on rural areas. I would also agree w/Bone's comment - thinking of Florida in particular - that there is a big difference between coastal and inlanders as well.

  15. Ily, I'm still trying to figure...

    Vince, sounds like another interesting thread to follow

    Percy, say what? Forget it.

    Gautami, thanks

    Bone, McDonalds sells sweet tea up here! I agree on the coastal/inland difference--having grown up on the coast of North Carolina and moving to the foothills before heading north, I was surprised that people could recongize me by my accent: "Oh, you're from down east..." I'd hear over and over.

    Stephanie, It would be unkind to make a statement about Florida being a settlement for displaced yankees, wouldn't it... I thought so!

  16. I used to go to coal country in PA a lot--Carbon County which is closer to NY than Pittsburgh but was totally dependent on strip mining with some great Army of Engineers lakes for swimming. So I understand what you mean

    Now it's a second home county filled with rustic shops, restaurants and bars and a lot of charm was lost

  17. I have decided that much of what people think of the South has more to do with rural living.

    We hunt and fish and watch the sky and watch the crops and know who’s related to who. We tell our stories slowly, letting them sink in.

    Exactly. Perfectly said. Also, loved the line about Perry's writing being like watching the corn grow. Sure, it takes some time, but what a sight, huh?