Paul Greenberg

NEW ORLEANS - "What's the South like?" said the man in the white suit, as if repeating a question. "That's what they all ask. Well, that depends on which South you mean - the antebellum mansion, the fly-specked roadhouse, or the latest of the New Souths, the Sunbelt? Or northern Mexico, aka Texas? Or one of the uncountable other Souths? And which image is the facade for which? One South fits into the last one like one of those Russian dolls. Do not be too quick to decide which is the real South. There is no such thing. Nor is it easy to see which South is supplanting the other at any given time. The professional Southerner is all leaf and no roots; the most Southern of us all may never think on what it means to be Southern."

The man in the white suit paused to sip at his mint julep. "Actually, I prefer Scotch," he said. "I drink these just to give the tourists something to talk about."

Then he continued trying to explain the inexplicable: "The essence of the South is the deeply ingrained superficial. The South is the Natchez Trace, that dream highway meandering through forests only as deep as the right-of-way. Faithful old retainers await, cannily posted at convenient distances to guide and refresh, and generally assure us that all is as it seems before they disappear to rearrange the scenery. I suspect Prince Potemkin was a Southerner at heart. The real South? The South is the most unreal part of this unreal America, and therefore the realest."

The sun shone bright on the tables at the sidewalk cafe, and the man in the white suit paused to set his drink down ever so carefully before going on.

"The South," he said, "is a high road that rises up green and lush beyond every curve and over every rise. The South is also Highway 61 that runs right alongside the picturesque old Trace, featuring misspelled signs and abandoned drive-in movie theaters. It is grass growing through the cracks of an abandoned parking lot. New dreams here fade before the old ones do. To be Southern is to want nothing more than to live by the side of the road and board up the windows to outsidersŠ.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.