Episode Three: Gilded Souths & S-Towns

In this episode, we sit down with David Davis, a professor of English and Southern Studies at Mercer University, to discuss the telling of a southern reality in S-Town. With around 40 million downloads, Brian Reed’s hit podcast S-Town prevails in the American conscious and understanding of the south. We look at how Reed’s telling takes a real story of human complexity and frames it as quasi-fiction, buying into southern gothic tropes and obscuring the lives of his subjects with a thin layer of regional gold.

John B. McLemore's grave in Woodstock, Alabama. Photo by Kelly Vines.

John B. McLemore's grave in Woodstock, Alabama. Photo by Kelly Vines.

All seven chapters of S-Town were released in March of 2017 to blockbuster success, two years after the suicide of the show’s main character. S-Town tells the story of John B. McLemore, a man living in a town that he likens to southern gothic landscapes like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Reed uses details about McLemore’s life such as his sexuality and masochistic behavior to create a character that is indeed reminiscent of archetypes from Flannery O’Connor and filled with his own tragic symbolism.

S-Town  cover art by Valero Duval

S-Town cover art by Valero Duval

We like to call this episode a podcast about a podcast. While we spend most of our discussion on the consequences of S-Town for southern identity on a broader scale, we are interested in how McLemore both creates a caricature of himself and provides Reed with deeply intimate information. We consider several lingering questions about the podcast, including: where are the limits of informed consent, and did Reed abandon those limits? Does telling McLemore’s story perform something productive in the seemingly-endless narrative quest to document and unpack the south? Exotic and dysfunctional, the south in S-Town plays a familiar role as one held up and scrutinized for holes in authenticity. Ultimately, we ask can the constantly reproduced “real south” ever be a real landscape?

David Davis’s book, World War I and Southern Modernism, will be out from the University Press of Mississippi in late fall. Listen to him talk about his journey to southern studies here: