The Water In Which You Swim

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First of all, we’re looking in a much more open way at the taboos, like race and religion. Relationships that simply were not discussed openly within a classroom are being discussed frankly and candidly by faculty and students. There’s also a whole new chemistry at work in our program that allows us to deal with religion, race, literature, and music with connections that were never before possible. If you studied the South earlier, you studied it through Southern literature, or as a history major. You certainly couldn’t bring the various fields into a holistic portrait. Doing that is especially exciting. Every day the parents of students visit the Center and say, “If only we could have had this opportunity when we were growing up.” To study the South when I was a student, you had to dig it out yourself. If you were interested, as I was, in folklore, there were no courses. You had to locate things yourself—say, Library of Congress recordings of Leadbelly by the Lomaxes. We discovered them on our own rather than find them fully blown and in place within a university setting. That is why our world is so gratifying.

We’re not unlike what Ireland is to England. Some people always expect the worst, and if they see it, they’ll feel vindicated in their prejudice.

Were you surprised by the national success and impact of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture ?

We were. Obviously we always believed in the project. But we thought that if we could have a few thousand sales to libraries, and good reviews within the academic journals, it would be considered a success. Instead it’s now sold well over a hundred thousand copies in hardback and four-volume paperback editions. And it really has done what we hoped, which is to reach beyond the academic halls and into the community at large. Many people who’ve bought it don’t even have a high school education, but they find some aspect of their life reflected in the book. It’s been a nurturing world for people interested in the South, and as you look through the pages, it unveils the diversity of our region.

It’s an extraordinary book. It’s a volume that you can study as a scholar. On another level, and most enjoyably, you can just browse through it. It’s a treasure trove. There’s even an entry on GooGoo Clusters.

I’ve got to say that my colleague and collaborator Charles Wilson was the key to the book’s success. He labored more than a hundred percent of his time on it. He’s an extraordinarily diverse scholar who has a wide range of interests. And he wrote many of the entries himself. Charles and I and two other editors, Ann Abadie and Sue Hart, read every entry two times, so there was a winnowing process as we tried to move the publication from thousands of disparate entries into a single flowing text that I think we achieved.

Much has happened since the publication of Wilbur Cash’s The Mind of the South , in 1941. Maybe such a book would not be possible today. What is different from it about your Encyclopedia of Southern Culture ? Is yours more inclusive? Is it the South looking at itself?

I think Cash’s book is, and will always be, a classic. If you wish to understand the mind of the South, lay it out on the couch and do a little analysis. Those compulsions and obsessions of race and class and gender that he explores so beautifully are still there and, I would think, will always be a part of our culture. ‘Ours is a different kind of book. While it does deal with the mind of the South, it offers a cataloging of items in a thoughtful way that we rarely, if ever, associate together. If we approach the South as literary critics, we know about the rich array of writers, but we may not know about country music, or if we do, we may not know about the blues, or if we do, we may not know about education in the South. There are encyclopedias of Southern history, religion, or literature. But nowhere has there been an attempt to synthesize the full range of the region’s intellectual and cultural activity in a single volume. Increasingly, people in other countries and in other regions are modeling major encyclopedias on this one. Encyclopedias of New England culture and Western culture based on our work are currently being developed at the University of New Hampshire and at Stanford.

How much does your encyclopedia weigh?

More than eight pounds.

Outside of the Encyclopedia , Bill, what programs at the Center have you been proudest of over the years?