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The Sahara of the Bozart? Still?

NCWN member Dannye Romine Powell wrote a column for yesterday’s Charlotte Observer remarking on a travel piece that appeared recently in the New York Times.  The Times article focused on center-city Charlotte’s new Wells Fargo Cultural Campus and the city’s other museums and cultural offerings, under the headline “Arts Oasis in a Sporty Town.”

Dannye discussed how that word “oasis” implies that the Cultural Campus is surrounded by a cultural desert, and wittingly or not refers back to H.L. Mencken’s 1919 essay in which he called the South “the Sahara of the Bozart.”

(I admitted to Dannye that I first came across Mencken’s essay as a college freshman, but I first came across the phrase “Beaux Arts” as a college junior, so I spent two years wondering what in the world a “Bozart” was.)

Dannye goes on to discuss Southerners’ lingering sensitivity to the common stereotypes about us, sharing several examples.  My favorite is the New York City publicist who didn’t send Dannye a review copy of a new Reynolds Price novel, because he or she “wasn’t really sure that North Carolinians read literary fiction.”

Apparently this publicist didn’t know where the esteemed Mr. Price was born, raised, and educated.  Dannye says this happened in the late 1980s, too, so apparently the publicist had never heard of Thomas Wolfe, John Ehle, Doris Betts, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, or Algonquin Books.

I’ve had my own experiences with these stereotypes, as I imagine most of us native Southerners have.  I was once in New York City (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to New York City, by the way, so it’s not like I’m some awestruck hayseed) for Book Expo America, and was invited to join a buddy of mine and some of his friends for dinner.  They were all very pleasant, but as we talked before placing our orders, I could read on their faces their surprise that I was well-versed in literature and current events; that I could be witty; that I was not, in a word, a rube.

I love New York, but Manhattan is the most provincial town in America.  If it’s not happening between the East and Hudson Rivers, they could care less about it.  I guess that’s why they don’t know that North Carolina is the writingest state.

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