Is Geography Destiny?

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I’m wondering if maybe it’s time to go home.

I’ve just finished reading the comments section under a letter to the editor in another Knoxville publication. The letter writer identified herself as a transplanted Yankee, and went on to voice her opinion of a certain state senator who’s gotten a lot of media attention lately.

Some commentators blasted her for ad hominem attacks, saying she didn’t back up her ire with facts. But others simply berated her for daring to criticize any aspect of her adopted region. They found a variety of colorful ways to say the same thing: If you don’t like it here, go back where you came from.

It’s a sentiment I’ve bumped up against now and then in my quarter century as a Knoxville resident. I moved here from Chicago, but I’m from New York originally. Same difference, some would say. I’m from Away. From Up North. Not-from-around-these-parts.

Knoxville’s not really the South, people told me when I first arrived. Memphis is the South. Knoxville is Appalachia, a mountain culture, fiercely independent, wary of outsiders. Like all generalizations, this one falls short. As I see it, Knoxville is some of those things, some of the time. Some of the time, it’s a cozy small town in the Smokies disguised as a mid-sized city. There are days when it feels like a college town and there are days when it feels like a hick town and there are days when it just feels like an easy, safe, and comfortable place to live.

Today is not one of those days. The comments section has sent my blood pressure soaring. The mostly ungrammatical, misspelled posts that spew intolerance come from people who breathe the same air I breathe, who stand in the same supermarket checkout lines, and stop beside me at red lights. They live here, too. They were probably here first, long before I headed South with my East Coast establishment worldview in tow. And at the end of this column, under comments, they may well tell me just that, and suggest that I, too, should hit 81 North and never look back.

Whoa, some gentle readers are saying. Slow down. It’s not all wild-eyed reactionaries and Appalachian chauvinists. Woven into the online thread are reasonable observations and cogent arguments, liberal and otherwise. Take it with a grain of salt. Withhold judgement. Live and let live.

Easy to say. How can I stay in a place where my roots make me immediately suspect? Here, it seems, geography is destiny. Twenty five years or 25 minutes: once a Yankee, always a Yankee.

And then it comes to me. Knoxville has no monopoly on regional stereotyping. Growing up in the New York suburbs, I perceived the South as truly another country. My parents spoke of their time in Mississippi during World War II as though it were an interlude in some foreign land. As far as I knew, Tennessee was all about moonshine stills and coonskin caps. Anyone lucky enough to have left all that behind and moved to the Northeast would surely spend their days in gratitude for their deliverance. And if they discovered any downside, they would do what any polite guest does. They would keep their mouths shut.

In her famous short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor pits a liberal son against his bred-in-the-bone traditional Southern mother. It’s a shattering piece of fiction, and one that haunts me as I read about the state senator and his friends and foes. O’Connor would have recognized each one, and held them up unvarnished for our inspection. In her geography, the high ground can be a tricky place.

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