Look Away, Dixieland by James B. Twitchell

Posted May 5, 2011 by Meoskop in Nonfiction, Race in America, Social Sciences / 0 Comments

An RV rolls down a vacant highway, the left shaded by sparse oaks Look at that extended title. I’m not sure who this book is being marketed to. That title is designed to alienate the Southern reader, which makes little sense as the North doesn’t care about us.  I would suggest that Look Away, Dixieland be featured in The Oxford American (if it hasn’t) because it dovetails nicely with the type of South they market.

So let’s pretend that I came across this book in the OA and leave the marketing to someone else. Twitchell is the descendent of a carpetbagger and a long time resident of North Florida. The thing about Florida is that you can live there your entire life without having to encounter the South. It’s not that the South doesn’t exist, it’s that Florida has created protective bubbles containing the Snowbirds, the Sh’tbirds, and the transplant who just wants the weather. (It’s sort of like residing in Number 6’s Village.) It is to Twitchell’s credit that he stepped out of that bubble.

Look Away, Dixieland is a fantastic read on several levels. In revealing his personal brush with the post Civil War backlash (and correctly calling those involved Death Squads) he proves himself an able teller of history. As he tells the events, there was little mystery to why things unfolded as they did. As well, I can certainly see why it wouldn’t be as clear to someone not raised in the culture. The second half of the book is concerned with Twitchell’s search for understanding of the South and a resolution of the events in the past. This ends with a powerful moment that brings Twitchell face to face with a Southern tradition – touching artifacts. Southern museums are often focused on the mundane and on touching those items with your own hands, so it is fitting that his journey ended this way. So many times in my youth I recall being invited to touch the ball that killed great uncle whoever, or to wrap my hands around a Nazi artifact and think about my jewish cousins. For the South, contact means context.

Twitchell’s Southern encounters are almost as entertaining as his historical tales. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions (I certainly disagree with his version of how the North operates.) it’s refreshing to find a transplant willing to open his mind to a different culture. At times naive (Why would a black president erase institutionalized racism?) and condescending, (Southern people! So nice!) Twitchell usually checks himself before the reader has to. I never felt the need to close the book or break out a “Bless his heart.” Aside from being a very entertaining read Look Away, Dixieland offers a great look at how the other half thinks – both about themselves and about us. We are still a nation as divided as we are united. There are many Americas in America but Look Away, Dixieland offers a chance for two of them to appreciate each other.