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.
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.
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: