Book Review: ‘Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South,’ by Chris Queen

Chris Queen’s new book Football, Faith, & Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South is just what the title promises, a breezy, fast-moving brochure for a somewhat loosely-defined slice of America. One of the most quintessentially Southern things about the South is that it’s not easy to say exactly where it begins and ends.

At one point, Queen makes a brief case for including Missouri, or at least the parts of it that made such an impression on Walt Disney. Speaking of Disney, three full chapters of the book are devoted to Florida… right after a passage in which Queen reviews the arguments over whether Florida should be considered part of “the South” at all.

That balance of pages gracefully captures the elusive nature of Southern identity. Florida is almost a microcosm of the nation in that regard. The coastal regions are filled with Northern transplants and retirees, while the southeast coast is melting into the Miami metroplex, which has a lively and distinctive culture but isn’t Southern in any meaningful sense. Head inland, and the deep South is less than an hour away from even the most pricey, modern beach-hugging retirement or resort community. Go north past the Disney World entertainment complex, and the rural communities are a lot like old-fashioned Georgia towns. The South is there, always influential, forever inviting… but not always easy to see.

Queen aims to make the South a bit more visible to those outside its loose borders. His mission statement is to dispel media myths perpetuated in the rest of the country, offering intensively-researched chapters to celebrate Southern history, culture, and industry. Copious statistics for everything from demographics to agricultural production and sales of Southern music are provided. One chapter goes to great lengths to describe the success of Southern municipalities in attracting Hollywood film and television production, using tax breaks and taking advantage of the fact that so much important history took place in the South, while it is relatively difficult to simulate in any of the other tax havens Hollywood favors. Just after reading this chapter, I caught the new Robert Redford – Nick Nolte film A Walk in the Woods at a matinee showing… and sure enough, the great peachy logo of the Georgia film industry filled the screen as the credits rolled.

Another, far more profound bit of synchronicity is that Queen’s book includes a discussion of the Confederate Flag, and its increased, defiant use by Southern fraternities and sororities. “Though many people who display symbols of the Confederacy do so with no racist intent whatsoever,” he writes, “the use of the Stars and Bars flag during the segregation years has left a bad taste in the mouths of many people over the use of Confederate symbols.” Little did he know that by the time his book was ready for publication, the Confederate battle flag would have been almost completely erased from American history, to the point where toys bearing its image were ripped from the shelves, and the Dukes of Hazzard TV show (which Queen references at some length during his Hollywood-in-the-South chapter) was flung down the memory hole.

That’s how quickly things move in the modern Internet-driven age of neurotic freak-outs and flash-mob activism. It’s an ill fit for the slow, graceful, polite Southern culture Queen reveres. There are a few points in the book where he takes a shot at explaining how the South was reshaped by the Civil War and Reconstruction, producing a passive-aggressive mixture of pride, long historical memory, fighting spirit… and weary, defensive resignation. Hollywood might do a lot of business in the South, but the dominant real-time media culture shows little but contempt, hostility, and ignorance, even at CNN, whose Atlanta digs are surrounded by a wide non-Southern buffer zone.  

That’s probably why Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor is so heavy with statistics, the names of prominent individuals, and easily-digested blog-post slices of history. It speaks the language of real-time media creators and their heavy consumers. Fast-moving and data-driven, it holds only a few specific topics for more than a few paragraphs of consideration before moving along. The loose framing device of the Queen family’s vacation trips from suburban Atlanta to Orlando provides an apt metaphor for the feel of the book, as everything zips by with the speed of exits shooting past on the Interstate.

Atlanta to Orlando isn’t a very long drive, and it hardly covers the full panoply of “the South,” so Queen goes off that path to bring in more of the region’s culture, industry, and history. The book nevertheless tilts heavily toward places the author has personally visited at length, resulting in a penultimate chapter dedicated to the history of Disney World — the only location explored in such depth. That might seem like a curious choice, in a volume whose chapter on Southern music gives Elvis, Southern rock, and Garth Brooks but a paragraph each, but it is metaphorically appropriate for a region of the United States that often seems in danger of becoming a theme park.  

The South, like the West, is a romance, a mixture of spirit and history. Walt Disney understood that romance, and expressed it through portions of his theme park as skillfully as any painter might render it in oil… even as his clever, often humorous real-estate machinations and money-printing tourist enterprise changed Florida forever. Visitors to Disney World will enjoy the delightful bits of the Old South described by Queen… while never quite forgetting about the enormous sea of money and high technology surging beneath the surface of that park.

That’s the South in a nutshell, and Queen does a fine job of giving the reader impressions without drawing too many conclusions for them, aside from a personal preference in food, sports, or music here and there. Contrary to what the title might imply, this is not a lengthy analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s writing — she gets a few pages in the chapter on religious faith, mostly devoted to contemplating her wonderfully evocative description of the “Christ-haunted South.” Faith is otherwise discussed mostly by looking at how religious institutions seem more numerous, and robust, in the South, and looking at how Christian faith was so important to abolition, both sides in the Civil War, and the civil-rights movement.

Football wins a good deal more ink, but only briefly at the end of the chapter does Queen explore why Southern football fans are different from the devoted followers of college and professional teams elsewhere in the nation, suggesting that “Southern pride is a powerful motivator for sports fans below the Mason-Dixon Line.” He does an excellent job of capturing how life in a Southern college football town is unlike fandom anywhere else, but offers only a few concrete thoughts about why.

This is, as the subtitle suggests, a “love letter to the South,” not a polemic. Queen lays out the sights, sounds, tastes, and memories of the region, and leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions about deeper meaning, because drawing those conclusions would make this a more aggressive, less polite book, and good manners are a hallmark of Southern culture. The author knows what he’s up against, although he’s also too polite to lay out the ugly stereotypes about hayseeds, rednecks, racists, and dirt-road backwaters in painful detail.  

Only lightly does he touch upon the clearest evidence that the South is far deeper and more appealing than its detractors say: Northerners keep moving there. The flow of human and industrial capital into the South is one of the most amazing stories of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, but for obvious reasons, media-elite writers don’t like to dwell on the stream of moving trucks and corporate jets departing from their zip codes and heading for Dixie.

This population shift, along with the concentration of Southern populations into a few monster metropolitan areas that become more generically urban and less Southern as they grow, presents a whole new challenge for the Southern identity. Will the new arrivals change the social and political character of their adopted homes, erasing much of the charm — and growth-oriented politics — they headed south to experience? Some of what a middle-aged Southerner experienced in his youth is already gone, as can be seen from Queen’s delightful, nostalgic chapter on the vanishing roadside tourist traps, or his meditation on how some Southern music has lost its flavor as it gained mainstream appeal.

Football, Faith, & Flannery O’Connor offers a snapshot of what the South is today, and a scrapbook of what it was yesterday. It’s not exhaustive, but neither is it exhausting. It makes few demands in return for what it offers, aside from heartily encouraging proper appreciation for the way Southern military culture still stands on the front lines of America’s defense. Some of history’s worst villains came to regret crossing paths with the sons of the South after picking a fight with this one, indivisible nation under God. Leave it to a Southerner to explain why good cheer, gracious manners, and a ferocious fighting spirit are a natural mix, not a dichotomy.


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