On Flannery O’Connor And The ‘Tackiness’ Of The South

Author: News Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2022 12:00 AM
Categories: Faculty/Staff | School of Arts and Letters | Pressroom

Macon, GA


This summer sees the release of two distinctly Southern-flavored books edited or co-edited by Dr. Monica Miller, Middle Georgia State University assistant professor of English.

The Tacky South, released on June 15 by LSU Press, is a collection of essays Miller co-edited with Dr. Katherine Burnett of Fisk University that examines connections between “tackiness” and the American South. And scheduled for release on July 15 by University of Georgia Press is Dear Regina: Flannery O'Connor's Letters from Iowa, with Miller as editor. O’Connor, an influential writer known for her Southern Gothic style, spent much of her life in Milledgeville living at Andalusia Farm, which today is a museum maintained by Georgia College.  

In this Q&A, Miller discusses the origins of these two books and what she hopes readers learn from them.

So, The Tacky South. Where did the word “tacky” come from and what’s the connection to the American South?

The word "tacky," meaning a negative judgment, has its roots in South Carolina horse culture, of all places. In the nineteenth century, the people who tended the tack horses were dismissively called "tackies"--as in, "He's nothing but a tacky." Over time, what started as a class-based judgment has evolved to mean someone who misses the mark, usually through excess: too big, too loud, too garish, too much. And in some southern places, this is celebrated--though usually with some amount of irony, as in the saying, "The higher the hair, the closer to God."

Describe the content of The Tacky South. And how did Dolly Parton end up on the cover? 

The chapters in The Tacky South run the gamut from nineteenth-century literature to the history of red velvet cake to reality television, with so much in between. There is an entire section of essays on Dolly Parton, because she comes up again and again in discussions of the southern culture and tackiness. She has famously described her look as a cross between Mother Goose, Cinderella, and the town prostitute, and as her success has skyrocketed, she has fully embraced and shown joy at flouting the rules of appropriate appearance. In addition to her genuinely wonderful music, she is absolutely fascinating to study, given her singular business savvy, philanthropic empire, and wide spectrum of fans. Is there anyone else as universally beloved as Dolly Parton?

How did this book come about? 

I was at a conference in New Orleans with my friend Michael Bibler, a professor of English at Louisiana State University. He was writing about the band the B-52s, and we were talking about their nickname as the "tacky little dance band from Athens, Ga.," trying to figure out the significance of their frequent characterization as "tacky." In trying to work out the differences between descriptors such as tacky, campy, silly, and playful by Googling definitions, we were delighted to discover the southern etymological roots of tackiness. We texted our discovery to our friend Katie Burnett (who was at home in Nashville, where she is a professor of English at Fisk University), and the three of us made plans to put together a conference presentation on the theme for the upcoming Society for the Study of Southern Literature. That first conversation was in 2015; since then, Professor Burnett and I put together several conference panels on the subject--through which we found many of the contributors in this book. Much of the nuts and bolts work on the book took place since the pandemic, and Professor Burnett and I have spent countless hours on Skype and in our Google docs and folders, putting the book together.

You co-edited The Tacky South and also wrote one of the essays. What is your essay about?

My essay is titled "Southern Women Don't Wear Sweatpants: Southern Mothers and the Deceptive Policing of Appearance." I wanted to know why, when people talk about tackiness in the South, so often motherhood is evoked. There are countless articles in magazines like Southern Living with titles such as, "What Mama Says is Tacky." Why? I look at a variety of sources, from Steel Magnolias to Reese Witherspoon's book Whiskey in a Teacup to think about why rules about tackiness are so connected to enforcement by mothers.

Let’s talk about the O’Connor book. Describe the content and how you got involved with it.

I've been a fan of Flannery O'Connor's writing since I first read her when I was 19. In my academic career, O'Connor's work has been important. I attended a month-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on O'Connor in 2017, where I lived on campus for a month with eighteen other scholars to study O'Connor and learn from each other. I've been the president of the Flannery O'Connor Society since 2018. And when I moved to Atlanta for a postdoctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech in 2017, that was the same time that Emory University's Rose Library acquired an enormous collection of Flannery O'Connor's papers. I started researching in that collection as soon as they allowed scholars access, and I was especially drawn to these letters that O'Connor wrote to her mother from graduate school. We see a different O'Connor than most of us are used to: in addition to her talking about the classes she's taking and what she's learning from respected authors such as Robert Penn Warren, she also talks about getting her hair done, her changing taste in clothes, and food. So much food! 

In the process of editing this book, did you learn anything about Flannery O’Connor that you didn’t know before?

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how it has changed my understanding of O'Connor's relationship with her mother. So many of her stories involve contentious or strained mother-daughter relationships, and we've generally understood these relationships to be based on her own relationship with her mother. However, these letters show a much closer relationship than I realized. Flannery wrote to her mother Regina every day - sometimes twice a day! It's true, they certainly had their differences (Flannery begs her mother to stop sending her aprons in the mail, for example), but it's a much chattier correspondence than I expected.

O’Connor and her writings are not everyone’s cup of tea but she is a significant part of the American South’s literary history. What do you hope readers gain from this book?

There's so much! We see a young writer honing her craft, developing the discipline and skills she will use to create some of the most important literature of the twentieth century. We see a young, white, southern woman, away from home for the first time, exposed to so many new things: new people. New experiences. New ideas. A new climate! I hope that readers gain insights into O'Connor both as an author and as a person, seeing her as a much more complicated and more human artist.

Dr. Monica Miller holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Louisiana State University. A former Georgia Governor’s Teaching Fellow, she is president of the Flannery O'Connor Society and secretary-treasurer of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. In addition to the two books discussed here, she is co-editor of another book scheduled for release this summer, “The Routledge Companion to Literature of the U.S. South.”