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The South sells

Just as the old colonel promised, the South has risen again. It has risen not as a separate sovereign state, though we have "neo-Confederates" arguing for re-secession; not as a national emblem of racial conflict, though we still have segregation, Klan rallies and burned black churches; not as a caricature of provincial thought, though we still quarrel over school prayer and creationism. The South has risen as a booming economy where culture is the principal commodity.

In the South, we have finally figured out that the best thing we have to sell is ourselves.

In the 19th century, we made money from rice and cotton; for most of the 20th century, we lived off iron and coal, oranges, timber and Coca-Cola. These days, we're back to shipping cotton, though now it's cotton genetically engineered to withstand the boll weevil, the pre-Easter cold snap and probably the H-bomb, too. But what the world really wants to buy from us is good Southern culture _ music coming out of the bayous, the Delta, Austin and Nashville; movies made by Victor Nunez and Billy Bob Thornton; writing from Bailey White and Alice Walker.

Over at the multiplex, they're still showing Ulee's Gold, the Oscar-nominated film by Tallahassee-based writer and director Victor Nunez. Ulee's Gold has, weirdly, generated tourism in the Dead Lakes area around Wewahitchka and ignited sales of Tupelo honey to people who like to imagine Peter Fonda bottling it.

Trawl through any Barnes and Noble and you find alpine displays of Charles Frazier's National Book Award-winning Cold Mountain, about a wounded Confederate soldier, and Before Women Had Wings, the harrowing novel (since made into an Oprah Winfrey television film) by Connie May Fowler. There are new books from Elizabeth Spencer and Ellen Gilchrist, old books from William Faulkner and Harper Lee, books called Hell's Belles, A Southern Belle Primer (the belle thing is big), Confederates in the Attic, Dixie Rising, The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South.

In the magazine section, there's the Oxford American, a Mississippi-based answer to the New Yorker; Brightleaf, a literary review from North Carolina; and the granddaddy of them all, Southern Living, the rules-of-pruning and centerpiece-management lifestyle bible of the suburban New South. Southern Living sells so spectacularly that it's finally true what they used to say in 1861: One Southern magazine can whip 10 Yankees _ say, Martha Stewart Living.

By now, the South was supposed to have disappeared, become like everywhere else, in the relentless, mass-culture driven "Americanization of Dixie," as John Egerton put it. But that seems not to have happened.

"The South surprised everybody by surviving," says Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American. "You can't rip out the roots here _ they go too deep."

Peter Applebome, author of Dixie Rising, reporter for the New York Times and self-proclaimed convert to "the Southern way of life," says, "for most non-Southerners, the South is still a foreign country," a region that resists homogenization. "Is the South as distinctive as it used to be? No. Is it still the most distinctive part of the country? Hell, yeah."

If this seems strange, just try imagining a book called 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the Midwest.

"When something's distinctive, you can put a price tag on it," adds Smirnoff. And make a living off it.

The Oxford American, subtitled "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing," started off six years ago printing 8,000 copies. Now it prints more than 50,000, with a 900-percent increase in subscriptions nationwide.

That profitable distinctiveness, that revenue-generating "otherness," is tangled up with the South's pathological relationship with the past. "There's so much context in the South," says J.R. Moehringer, Atlanta bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. "Everything that happens here has reverberations that go back 200 years."

The rest of the country behaves as if it has been absolved from the past, buying the American dream rhetoric of self-reinvention and progress. But in the South, the past is omnipresent; history is itself a product. Two new books illustrate this in different ways. In Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz explores the "unfinished Civil War," the world of battle re-enactors, "heritage violation" vigilantes and Rebel flag-wavers who just never got over what Shelby Foote calls "the Wawer." In Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball painstakingly and painfully traces the history of his slave-owning kin alongside the descendants of the slaves they imported from Africa and put to work in the rice fields of South Carolina. Ball tells of feeling not "responsible" but "accountable" for what his ancestors did. Ball discovers that some of the black people from old Ball lands are actually his blood cousins, a living metaphor of how the secrets of the repressed Southern past return to haunt its uncertain present.

"There's the drama of Southern history," says Fred Hobson, Lineberger professor in humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of several studies of Southern literature and culture. "Defeat is more interesting than victory, failure more interesting than success."

According to Hobson, the South sells because it acts out and sometimes romanticizes the extremes of American society _ violence, racism, poverty, aristocracy, sexuality, eccentricity.

Moehringer agrees. "There's a Gothic element to life in the South, with exaggerated tragedies and triumphs and a sense of its own melodrama." Moehringer suggests the South is the nation's richest story mine. After writing last fall about a teenager in Pearl, Miss., who went on a possibly cultist murderous rampage, he got calls from Hollywood producers who wondered aloud "if there was a movie in it." He says that if the crime had been committed in Ohio, no one would care.

In reality, of course, most Southerners lead quiet, blameless, middle-class lives, not so different from citizens in other parts of the country _ despite the grits in the cupboard and the occasional "American By Birth, Southern By the Grace of God" bumper sticker on the back of the Buick. Lots of people live in the South for years without wearing a hoopskirt (or a white sheet), chewing tobacco, marrying a cousin or getting murdered in ritualistic fashion.

But normality doesn't sell like eccentricity.

"Plenty of Southerners revel in their weirdness and traffic in it," says Applebome.

First, we identified a market in the general American fear, and then _ good post-rural capitalists that we are _ took to peddling febrile dioramas that fit somewhere on the spectrum between Birth of a Nation and Mississippi Burning, Tobacco Road and Forrest Gump. There's the image of dissolute but sexy aristocrats eating fresh-killed meat off cracked Limoges in the dining room of their plantation house. There's the opposite image: Trailer-dwelling white trash eating fresh-killed meat off paper plates before scratching off to town in pickups to commit random acts of racist violence. There's not much in between.

We sell _ and everybody buys _ the wildest nightmares and balmiest dreams of Southernness.

This is not new. Before the Civil War, apologists for slavery concocted an ideology for owning other human beings that depicted the South as an agricultural Eden where strong, chivalric white men protected pure, saintly white ladies and gave gentle guidance to happy, child-like black folks. Abolitionist books such as the magisterial Uncle Tom's Cabin _ which can claim to have invented the Southern Gothic _ countered with a South of institutionalized rape, casual incest and decadent cruelty. Post-1865, the white South may have lost the war, but it certainly won the peace with "Lost-Cause" plays and novels, with titles like Colonel Carter of Virginia and Marse Chan, that reestablished the South as an Arcadia of racial and sexual decorum unmatched in the mortal world. Gone With the Wind in 1936 capped that romantic South with its images of a dashing, rich hero and heroine, combined with a racial hierarchy that suited whites in Depression-era America _ and still suits some of them today. Gone With the Wind continues to sell as book, film, video, source for spin-off and assorted bibelots _ Scarlett O'Hara dolls, china plates with pictures of Mammy and Rhett Butler lampshades.

The South-as-product has endured, and the market, at the moment, is booming. But what do Southerners get out of selling ourselves, other than a reputation for studied oddity that can't be shaken by all the Mercedes plants in Alabama and the banks in Charlotte, N.C.? Are we exporting to the world our real culture or the cartoon version?

"'I have to say," says professor Hobson, "that I get a little tired of Southern chic." The commercialization of the South has led to "

"Oprylandification' _ making what was once organic and real into a theme-parked fake."

Mississippi-raised novelist Beverly Lowry agrees. She often just doesn't see what people are buying in the South's image: "It's a puzzle to me what the rest of the country can look at and find wonderful or sexy or funny." She assumes the rest of the country values the South because it has a strong sense of community. "I guess only the South and New England still have that, and in New England they're mean and don't tell any jokes."

In the past, Southerners could claim that Yankee cultural imperialists came down and stole our stuff _ our music, our writers, even our food _ and profited from it. But now things are a bit more complex. John Berendt, who wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the perpetual bestseller that out-Gothics Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers in its story of sex, drugs, good antiques and murder in Savannah, Ga., is a New Yorker. But rather than rise up in indignation, the people of Savannah have embraced the picture of themselves as one big happy Addams family. They call Midnight "The Book" (an appellation their grandparents would have reserved for the Bible) and rake in Yankee dollars conducting tours that show you where it all happened, selling cookies like the ones Berendt describes, and generally making sure that the city conforms to Midnight's version of it _ life following art with an eye to the bottom line.

Lowry says that "some version of the South is constantly being reinvented and endlessly commodified." Sometimes this is not a bad thing.

There's a company out of Mississippi that sells things like black-eyed pea soup mix from Clarkesdale or salad dressing from Yazoo City. "It's these women from these dying towns," says Lowry. "You can see the husband sitting there practically putting the gun to his head, because the land is gone and there seems to be no way to make any money; then the wife says, well, they sure do like this cake down at church so maybe I can sell that."

The company's name is Mississippi Madness (raising all sorts of potential Faulknerian jokes), and it sells not just food but, as the label says, "Food and Fables from the Heart of the South." Each product has a story, printed on the box. And maybe, in the end, that's the rare and valuable item the South supplies. Whether all the stories are true or not is beside the point. People above and below the Mason-Dixon line willingly pay $7 for the movie, $15 for the book or 50 cents for the newspaper that tells about the South, even if _ maybe especially if _ it is, as Lowry says, "some dream of something that probably never existed."

No matter what else we have to sell here _ Sun Belt service industries, retirement villages, 15 varieties of watermelon _ our best product will always be our self-generated drama, our weighty past, our vexed present, our store of insouciant or guilt-haunted cliches. Never lacking stories for a newspaper 3,000 miles away, J.R. Moehringer says that in the South "people live their lives as if they're the star of a movie." Fifty years ago, Faulkner understood this as well when he had a young Canadian shake his head and say to his tormented Mississippi roommate, "Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than Ben-Hur, isn't it."

Diane Roberts, the author of Faulkner and Southern Womanhood and The Myth of Aunt Jemina, teaches English at the University of Alabama and is a commentator for National Public Radio.