“Finding Purple America,” by Jon Smith

Jon Smith

Jon Smith

Reviewed by Sadie Shorr-Parks 

The songs of American Idol winner Ruben Studdard may not be the typical vehicle for dismantling the myth of the solid South, but author Jon Smith did not intend to write the conventional southern studies book. Clearly disappointed with the current state of American Studies, Southern studies, and the oh-so-hip American Quarterly, Smith sets out to break an impasse in his debut book Finding Purple America: the South and the Future of American Cultural Studies (University of Georgia Press), a book he describes as a “scholarly exercise in “Taking It Down A Notch.”

Jon Smith co-edited Look Away: The U.S. South in New World Studies. He currently teaches English at Simon Fraser University. His work can be seen in American Literary History, The Global South and Modern Fiction Studies. He serves as coeditor for the University of Georgia Press series The New Southern Studies.

Smith begins the book by addressing the American Studies “crisis fantasy,” an unsustainable mode of discussion where one always writes as if in a state of emergency. He believes this fantasy “has become central to our [field’s] symbolic order.” He critiques American studies scholars for their “urban blue state narcissism,” and the “bleeding ponytail” Baby Boomers whose politics are no longer progressive. He questions if academic “scholarship really [a]ffect[s] political interventions, or does it function more like consumption choices that, in turn, help to maintain a certain structure of feeling, like shopping at Whole Foods.” He urges scholars to exit the crisis mode and to deal with the hybrid cultures that exist in the American south.

After detailing the crisis fantasy in American Studies, Smith places it in a Lacanian framework: “What is the objet a of American studies? What is it we take pleasure in continually circling without achieving?” This line of questioning is the catalyst for my favorite section of the book, “Disrupting Everyone’s Enjoyment,” which includes essays such as “Songs that Move Hipsters to Tears: Johnny Cash and the New Melancholy” and “Our Turn: On Gen X, Wearing Vintage, and Neko Case.” In the essay “German Lessons: On Getting Over a Lost Supremacy,” Smith looks at how the German and Southern American identity have both been shaped by losing a morally charged war. Using popular music to support this investigation, Smith works to uncover the roots of the American south’s ideological conservatism.

By focusing the bulk of the book specifically on Alabama, Smith intervenes in the practice of discussing the South as a whole and shows the benefits of working on a smaller scale. In the second section of the book, “Reconciliations with Modernity,” Smith undergoes a particularly fruitful comparison between Birmingham and Atlanta, by way of Rubin Studdard’s music video “Flying without Wings.” He demonstrates how the video serves as a good model for a new southern modernity because “Nobody is forgetting the past that looms so large in the background, but nobody is stuck in it either.” The second section is complete with an in-depth look at Faulkner’s neckties, post-hip gardening, and a fair share marketing theory. Smith suggests we switch to viewing regional identities as brands because doing so “offers a more inclusive and hybrid range of participation in imagined identities.”

Much like Smith works to complicate our monolithic view of the South, he also changes the tone of an academic text in Finding Purple America. Fast paced, hip, and — yes! — funny, this book does more than inform the reader, it delights. It views the region through trendy black-rimmed glasses. Smith’s smirky prose keeps what could be a dull discussion entertaining and accessible for a person who is interested in cultural studies, but perhaps less informed in new southern studies.

Smith’s emphasis on music is part of what keeps Finding Purple States so accessible and enjoyable. I wondered, however, about Smith’s choice to exclude southern culture’s reinterpretations in hip-hop, which occurred nearly alongside the alt-country movement. It would be interesting to see how the music of Atlanta rap duo Outkast fits with the idea of a reconciled modernity in the South. Outkast’s 1994 album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, a foundation building record for Southern hip-hop, reflects on the musicians’ lives in Atlanta as young black men while, stylistically, nodding to both the old and new South. The music of Outkast, and the southern rap that followed, could shed light on how different groups resolve the South’s past with its urban-present. This seems like a piece of the puzzle worth exploring, especially for scholars interested in hybrid cultures.

Smith succeeds in demonstrating an alternate route for Americanist scholars. By moving away from the crisis model to a more nuanced focus on hybrid cultures, Finding Purple America creates a space for a new, exceptionally less exceptional, type of discussion about the South.

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