Raising Sons in the South

“Unemployed coal miner and wife living in old barn. Herrin, Illinois.” Arthur Rothstein, 1939. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress, fsa 8b36448.


We were driving to visit my hometown, and my elder son wanted to know if I thought that where I grew up was The South.

I did not think so when I was kid. Southern Illinois was still the Land of Lincoln, even if we had to drive a little north for the Boy Scout parade that went past his tomb every year. St. Louis, the big city we identified with, was the “Northern city with a Southern exposure.” We were an hour north of Cairo, which Grant made sure stayed in the Union. But even those defenses show the region was liminal.

Later I lived in several spots around what I had thought of as The Actual South—even The Deep South—and I saw the many connections between them and where I grew up. (My hometown was at the latitude of Richmond.) But the microgeography of Southern Illinois, located just north of an ancient sea, and just south of the glaciers that scraped the Midwest flat, was still its own thing, in my mind that held to its child’s understanding: centrally-located, French-and-Indian-War-ish, the channel to the west, and as prototypically American as they came—since I was an American and from there.

Now, of course, what I used to think of as Southern, politically and culturally, can be found in any state in the union, often (but not always) manifesting as urban-rural split. I tried to explain my feelings about all this to my son, who has his own mental microgeographies to compare, from Chicago to Acadiana.

While in my hometown we visited old friends, who served us homemade cobbler with peaches from an orchard just down the road. We went to the cemetery where my family is buried not far from men who were killed when they came down from Chicago during a coal strike. We stopped at the Hardee’s where I worked as a teen. The Dairy Queen, where my sister worked as a kid, is something else now, and closed. There is seedy gambling on Park Avenue. The pandemic has shut many businesses.

I told my sons about riding horses in a friend’s woods, and how the coal stove of an elderly relative glowed white-hot but left the edges of the room freezing. We shot the loop. On the way out we passed one of several WPA lakes and the bootlegger museum. It was a trip back in (various) time(s), as much as a journey south. But knowledge of older ways, it seems to me, could be understood as conservative.

Friends tell me some of my accent creeps back in after I have spent time around those from my hometown. (When I left home as a teen I could not hear the difference between pin/pen.) My sons were laughing but horrified when I drawled something to them quietly through my face mask about the cashier’s poor customer-service skills, in a McDonald’s drive-thru. They were afraid the crew would spit in our cheeseburgers.

“A day in his hometown, and our dad gets re-set to factory settings,” they said and laughed. That was very funny to me, but I had to take a minute to understand why expecting that someone would say hello, or thank you for spending your money at our business was southern, old-fashioned, or conservative. My kids, who I have tried to teach to be polite and professional by my definitions, would say them, even if they were minimum-wage workers at a mega-corporation. But I can see where those customs might seem now like an odd enthusiasm or affectation, out of step with our fraught time, because some societal covenant has been broken, no matter where in the country we might go.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.