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Front Page - Friday, February 8, 2019

Rogers column: Reed’s Southern accent a bit on the pretentious side

A question for my fellow Southerners: Which South are you from?

I don’t mean which part of the South. I mean, what kind of South.

A while back, a friend and fellow Mississippian passed along a book of columns written by yet a third Mississippian. My friend’s thinking was probably that, given our mutual geography and writing forms – columns, essays – I would appreciate the author’s work.

And to an extent, I did. The book, “South Toward Home,” is well-written. True, the editor in me flinched at things like the misuse of “begs the question.” And the transition “but I digress” quickly grows tiresome.

Still, it’s funny, which, believe me, ain’t easy to pull off. And humor covers a multitude of grammar sins.

Should it be on your reading list? Probably. Maybe. The author, Julia Reed, spins a lot of good tales. She’s a pro, having written a number of other books and regular pieces for magazines like Newsweek, Vogue and The Wall Street Journal.

The book even has a Nashville angle, of sorts: Reed’s mother grew up in “the well-manicured environs of Belle Meade,” “on the banks of Richland Creek,” before departing for a married life in the Mississippi Delta.

Consider that foreshadowing.

It didn’t take long to realize that Reed was drawing on experiences from the kind of privileged Southern life that a guy just one generation removed from a small-town machine shop can’t really relate to.

Clues included the Madeira School, “the all-girls boarding school in McLean, Virginia, where I happily spent my junior and senior years.”

And her private tour, with a cousin, of the White House. Being a guest at Liza Minnelli’s wedding. Having a riding instructor. Her mention not of her grandmother’s cooking, but of her grandmother’s cook.

And this line: “As a child, I really loved escargot.”

She makes a game effort at claiming every(wo)man status by professing her fondness for a “perfectly cooked burger on a bun,” then spoils it by adding parenthetically, “preferably accompanied by a nice red burgundy.”

I suggest to you that these are not standard-issue Southern attributes.

If it appears that my critical antennae were set on high, they were. I always read columns and essays with particular attention, in the same manner that one magician might scrutinize another’s stage presentation.

Turns out I was slower on the uptake than I should have been. Reed, it eventually dawned on me, is the daughter of Clarke Reed, a Delta businessman, investor and chairman of the Republican Party in Mississippi back in the day, 1966-76.

True, those were wilderness years for Mississippi Republicans, with only a handful of state legislators at best and no statewide elected officials. The party was thought of as the domain of the moneyed class. It still is, but it’s also the party of a whole bunch of other folks, too.

What’s more, all the columns in Reed’s book were originally written for Garden & Gun’ magazine, an upscale, ostensibly Southern publication for the kind of people whose hobbies might include skeet shooting, fly fishing and cocktail concocting.

A few years back, the editors produced “The Southerner’s Handbook,” which I’ve always found more than a tad too precious.

Granted, it was great to read John T. Edge in the handbook on “Why Southern Food Matters (So Much).” And I’m always game for anything from Roy Blount Jr., which in this case is “Tell a Great Story,” “Sipping Whiskey” and “Man vs. Weed” (in a gardening context, not recreational drugs).

But, in general, it’s a book for men who favor white bucks and seersucker, and women who entertain. Reed’s piece for it, by the way, is “Secrets of a Southern Hostess.”

I suppose my halfhearted endorsement of her book comes down to a class thing. Fact is, Reed’s a nice red Burgundy kind of writer; I’m a good cold beer kind of reader.

From the same Mississippi. But different Souths.

Which is yours?

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com