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Travel Writer Finds Soul Of America In Rural South

Paul Theroux has made a career of writing about his foreign travels. But until recently, he’d never traveled in the American South, and he wondered if the region was overlooked.

He wrote about the South for Smithsonian magazine, 50 years after the civil rights summer of 1964. He says he found many rural Southerners, black and white, who are proud of their roots and welcoming to a Northern writer.

He calls the rural South “an undervalued America” where the sense of defeat is a strong as the sense of pride.

Interview Highlights: Paul Theroux

On reactions to being a Northerner traveling through the American South

“I stuck to the rural areas. And rural America has its deep roots, and, I think, great values. I said to a man in Aiken, South Carolina, ‘I’m a stranger.’ He said, ‘You’re not a stranger, there ain’t no strangers here.’ And a woman said the same thing to me in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. ‘I’m a stranger.’ She said ‘You’re not a stranger, there are no strangers here.’”

On visiting the infamous Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Miss.

“Bryant’s Store where Emmett Till met his doom, is still standing. It’s on a crossroads. Money, Mississippi, is a back road, there’s a railway running through it. Train doesn’t stop. The walls are crumbling, there are vines and roots sort of holding it together. They don’t know whether it’s a monument, a horror — it’s a haunted building. And Money, Mississippi, is a very tiny place. I doubt there are two dozen people who live there.”

On unexpected encounters in the Delta

“I was in the Delta, in the town of Greenville [Mississippi] in the Delta. And I must say, the Delta is a very poor place — poor in money, great in spirit. I was asking a lady about the B.B. King Museum and this woman’s colleague said, ‘Should we tell him?’And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the [colleague] said, ‘This is B.B. King’s ex-wife.’ His last wife! Most recent wife. So we talked about B.B. King.”

Guest

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Paul Theroux is a travel writer and novelist from Massachusetts. (Steve McCurry)
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Paul Theroux is a travel writer and novelist from Massachusetts. (Steve McCurry)
Natchez, a historic cotton and sugar port on the Mississippi River, has seen its population fall by a third since 1960. (Steve McCurry)
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Natchez, a historic cotton and sugar port on the Mississippi River, has seen its population fall by a third since 1960. (Steve McCurry)
A quiet commercial area in Philadelphia, Mississippi. On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered near Philadelphia. (Steve McCurry)
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A quiet commercial area in Philadelphia, Mississippi. On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered near Philadelphia. (Steve McCurry)
Near Greensboro, Alabama, children play at the c. 1917 Rosenwald School, recently restored. (Steve McCurry)
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Near Greensboro, Alabama, children play at the c. 1917 Rosenwald School, recently restored. (Steve McCurry)
Rev. Virgin Johnson Jr., who is also an attorney, preaches at Revelation Ministries in Sycamore, South Carolina. (Steve McCurry)
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Rev. Virgin Johnson Jr., who is also an attorney, preaches at Revelation Ministries in Sycamore, South Carolina. (Steve McCurry)

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