Peter Applebome plays the flip side of a tired old tune in "Dixie Rising." Instead of adding one more book to the bulging section on the South's homogenization, Applebome aims to show how the region's bedrock ideals are in fact driving modern America. "Only the blind could look at America at the century's end," he writes, "and not see the fingerprint of the South on almost every aspect of the nation's soul."
Applebome, a New York Times correspondent in the South, finds in the region the roots of a whole slew of cultural trends -- a flourishing national conservatism, the racial preoccupations of national politics, a wildfire addiction to country music, the obsessive gun debate, and the spread of states' rights groups and of Southern Baptist outposts. Though his thesis isn't entirely original (John Egerton tried first, with "The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America" in 1974), the concept is intriguing.
The book's most convincing chapters are on race, country music (a regional business turned $2 billion mega-industry) and politics, particularly George Wallace. Despite a surprisingly forgiving tone, "Dixie Rising" depicts Wallace as the politician who "tapped into the fears and resentments of white America in a way that has defined the political landscape" -- making a strong case that without Wallace's mobilization of that angry, alienated, working-class constituency, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress might never have happened.
Yet in other areas, "Dixie Rising" doesn't quite build the bridge. What promises to be a cohesive portrait of the South's ongoing influence often reads like historical rehash. Other sections are merely self-indulgent profiles of places that Applebome finds interesting, rather than significant contributors to the American scene. In spots, "Dixie Rising" isn't much more than Applebome reaching. Some might explain that he's just another outsider seduced down the well-traveled path of an enduring mystery, one impossible to simplify. Applebome describes one man who "got Southernized" -- which is a bit like saying moving to Paris makes you French. You're either Southern or you're not; you can marry into it or move into it, but no amount of deep-fried osmosis can make you of it.
"Dixie Rising"s value is that it forces us to think about the South's role in modern America and whether Applebome's perception will hold true: "We all need a calm in our storm, divine or otherwise. In ways both real and illusory, the South these days seems to promise one."