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Southern culture by the volume

David Hopper

For those longing for a source of reference concerning all things distinctly Southern, look no further than the University of Mississippi.

Since 2006, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss has produced volumes of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.”

The encyclopedias contain material based on recent scholarship and updated material first published in 1989 in the landmark onevolume “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.”

Each volume centers on a particular subject, such as religion, literature or geography.

Around four volumes are published each year.

The entire collection will contain 24 volumes with the final volume expected to be released in 2012.

The next volume will be No. 14, and is a study on folk life. It is currently scheduled to be released around Christmas.

Jimmy Thomas, managing editor of the encyclopedia, said that there is no set criteria used when selecting subjects to cover.

“We don’t have a mission statement,” Thomas said. “What we do try to keep in mind is that beneath the umbrella of various subjects the list is seemingly endless.

While we’re trying to be thorough, it’s impossible to be exhaustive. We’re looking at each one of these topics with their relation to culture.”

Each volume consists of three primary sections.

The first section has an essay on the topic by the volume editor. The second section includes thematic and investigatory essays, and the final section contains
shorter biographical and topical entries.

Thomas said one way the new encyclopedia is improved from the original 1,634-page volume is because it allows scholars to delve deeper into each topic.

“It allows us to spread out and investigate the subjects more thoroughly as editors and as scholars,” he said.

It is also better for consumers who are looking to buy a book on a particular Southern topic, rather than a volume that covers many topics.

“If someone is particularly interested in the music of the South, they can pick up the music volume,” Thomas said. “You can find a volume for whatever interest you
may have.”

Thomas said typically between 80 and 200 authors contribute writings to each volume.

“I’ll work with literally thousands of authors from across the world,” Thomas said. “We’ve had people from Korea and the Netherlands write for us. We like to have
people who are particularly specialized in a topic writing for us. A good number of Ole Miss professors and students have written for us.”

The writers are not paid fortheir work; it’s all done through contribution.

Thomas said it’s a testament to the encyclopedia and its reputation that so many people are willing to do so much work for even the smallest article.

Thomas works closely with Charles Reagan Wilson, the general editor of the encyclopedia.

Wilson oversees the project and is the last to edit each volume. The intensive editing process includes fact checking, updating statistics and making sure the tone of each article reflects where Southern culture is today.

Wilson, who also edited the original volume, has written numerous articles for the volumes, as well. Wilson mentioned some of the ways the South has changed in the 20 years since the original volume.

“I think the new encyclopedia reflects the time period we’re in,” Wilson said. “You have changes like globalization. The South now has Japanese and German automobile plants. We’re the new automobile belt of the United States. We have the coming of Latinos in very large numbers throughout the Deep South. You have cities like Atlanta and Charlotte that are business and financial centers, and you have the evermore diversity in the economy.”

Wilson said the encyclopedia demonstrates how Southern culture is interrelated
and constantly evolving.

“What happens in the South is part of a big web. Culture is a web,” he said. “What is happening in religion and foodways and music are related.

We wanted to give equal weight to all of those and understand how culture is
also a process, it’s changing.”

Wilson gave the example that millions of Southerners now live in suburbs and cities but still practice many of the customs that developed in rural areas years ago.

“They still listen to country music, which came out of the rural South originally,”
he said. “They still eat barbecue. Barbecue restaurants are more popular than ever. The interrelatedness, that’s what the culture is.”

Square Books employee Cody Morrison said the new encyclopedia volumes
have been selling well. “We sold hundreds of the [Encyclopedia of Southern Culture] over the years,” Morrison said. “The new volumes have done just as well.”
Morrison said the volumes that generally sell the most are the volumes edited by Ole Miss faculty.

Morrison said one of the bestsellers is the “Foodways” volume, which was edited by John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss.

Customers have been satisfied with the volumes, Morrison said.

“Overall the feedback from our customers has been really positive,” he said.
“The format is easier to handle. It’s not one giant, clunky book so I think they
like the portability and the narrower focus of each individual volume.”

So why are so many people fascinated with reading about the South?

“It’s a very dramatic story because of our history of slavery, the Civil War and
modernization,” Wilson said. “There’s a drama about our history and how we relate
it to each other and other people.”

Wilson also said people are fascinated with learning about the Southern writers, musicians and artists.

“I think it’s our creativity,” Wilson said. “Our writers, musicians and artists have dramatized the South’s story, not only for the nation but for the world.

We have scholars from around the world interested in the South. The South appeals
to the human imagination.”

Thomas said that he thinks it’s partly because Southerners like to learn more about themselves.

“I think we as Southerners are very conscious of who we are, perhaps more so than people outside of the South,” Thomas said. “We identify ourselves
through our culture more than other places do. We like to know where we
derive that culture from.”

The South’s uniqueness adds to the intrigue, Thomas said. “I think the South is more distinctive in nature than other regions,” Thomas said. “Our past has been displayed through news organizations, film and television. Our literature is widespread and celebrated. For some reason people want to know more about South, including ourselves, we’re very narcissistic like that.”

Center for the Study of Southern Culture Director Ted Ownby said the encyclopedia has helped put Ole Miss at the forefront of Southern studies

“The new encyclopedia helped establish the Center for the Study of Southern Culture as one of the most important places for studying the South,” Ownby said. “It helped establish the center and the university as a place that keeps up with the latest knowledge and publishes it.”

Ownby, who co-edited the latest volume on gender with Ole Miss associate
professor Nancy Bercaw, said the encyclopedia does not focus on a particular
class or race of Southerner.

“The encyclopedia embodies a perspective that says everybody and everything
matter,” Ownby said. “It shows that Southern culture doesn’t center around people in charge; all groups and all perspectives matter.”

Ann Abadie, associate editor of the encyclopedia, has been involved with the encyclopedia since the Center for the Study of Southern Culture began planning the original volume in the late 1970s.

Abadie said she believes the encyclopedia has had a positive impact on how Ole Miss is perceived.

“It made people realize that the University of Mississippi is a very fine institution
academically and has good professors and students studying the South and making contributions,” she said. “I think it has certainly helped the university’s
image and helped put the [Center for the Study of Southern Culture] on the map.”