Surveying the South: A Conversation with John Shelton Reed

Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2001

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Surveying the South: A Conversation with John Shelton Reed

by Eugene D. Genovese, ElizabethFox-Genovese, John SheltonReed
Southern Cultures, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 2001

"I don't have much patience with folks who say the Civil War was not about slavery."

Editor’s note: On a Saturday afternoon in August 2000, John Reed sat down for a conversation with Betsey and Gene Genovese, noted historians of the South, at their home in Atlanta. The tape recorder was turned on—

JOHN SHELTON REED: Aren’t you supposed to read me my rights?

ELIZABETH FOX-GENOVESE: I’d like to start with what you mean by the South. You’ve written a lot about the South. You do all this mesmerizing stuff with how many more people eat Moon Pies down here than in other parts of the country, or go to church, or what have you. But what’s beyond that, beyond what those numbers add up to?

JSR: As I’ve often said, I’m less interested in the South than I am in southerners. I’m less interested in the region than I am in the group. And social psychologist that I am, I see the group as defined by identification with it. Basically, the question arises: Who are these people who describe themselves as southerners? And what does that mean? How has it changed? How is it changing? I don’t see southern identification as some sort of Platonic ideal to which people are in some sort of approximation. I see it as defined on the ground by the folks who choose to affiliate. And this means that the group is open to attrition and infiltration. It doesn’t mean the boundary doesn’t exist, it just means people cross it. What that boundary contains can change and has changed. What it contains is an empirical question.