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Is Anything Left of the Old South?

The American South has always had a special character or feel. But is that true any more? Has the red-clay South of twangy bluegrass and mournful gospel hymns, of mules and plows and tall cotton, of goober peas and crossroads churches and little-town squares been overwhelmed, even obliterated, by American mass culture?

Magnolia-draped cities like Atlanta, Georgia; and Charlotte, North Carolina, were once a-flutter with ladies in swirling dresses and men sipping brandy on their verandahs, in the style of the great Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind.

Today, with their gleaming skyscrapers and busy highways, these Old South cities look just like the steel canyons of Dallas or Denver or Detroit. And you see the same dizzying parade of fast-food outlets, discount stores, and national bank branches in Lynchburg, Virginia; or Gadsden, Alabama, that you do in Oregon or Maine. All through the South, you'll find the same kinds of golf courses and symphony orchestras, nightclubs and sports teams as anyplace else.

Of course, the South was never just the sleepy, mosquito-bitten, chivalrous or hate-filled place -- depending on your viewpoint -- that it was often depicted. It was, and is, a region of blacks and whites, Native Americans and myriad kinds of immigrants; and all manner of transplants from the East and North and West.

Those who know and love the South -- and that includes many African Americans despite the region's shameful history of slaveholding -- say there's one thing that has never changed. It's what Mississippi writer Eudora Welty called a "sense of place," rooted in the old hills and hollows, farm fields and piney woods. Nobody can quite define it, but like a southerner a century ago, a southerner today knows it and feels it and can't quite let go of it, even if he tries.