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Vintage Moonshine

What if “The Dukes of Hazzard” was the last Southern narrative?

I don’t want to hit this too hard. The Dukes are not the Snopeses, and Hazzard County is not Yoknapatawpha. If anything, “The Dukes of Hazzard” is a kind of cracker “Brigadoon.” But it’s amazing that this featherbrained kids’ show--now made into a featherbrained feature film--managed to crystallize so much of the region’s long and foreclosing literary tradition.

Something has to account for the enduring appeal of “Dukes.” It was a top-rated show from 1979 to 1985. It still plays in syndication all over the world--the “Dukes” in Hebrew must be something to see. And it sold enough lunchboxes and Daisy Duke hot pants to sink the Monitor and the Merrimac. Something about this slight and slightly moronic show was compelling, but what?

Maybe it’s just the moonshine talking. But it occurred to me as I was watching old reruns that “Dukes” belongs to a resonant tradition of white Southern parody, a self-deprecating tradition that reaches from Mark Twain to John Kennedy Toole.

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The Duke boys are themselves archetypal, classic outlaw heroes, vigilantes, moonshining Robin Hoods forever at odds with the corrupt system that oppresses them--rebels, in other words. “Dukes” could hardly have made it any plainer than the Confederate battle flag atop the 1969 Dodge Charger named after General Robert E. Lee, the Southern Caesar.

Have you ever wondered where the Dukes’ fathers are--why does Uncle Jesse lead the clan? And by the way, where’s Jethro Bodine’s father, and Aunt Bee’s husband? They never came back from the Civil War. Missing Southern men are stock characters defined by their absence.

Why are there two Dukes, one blond and the other brunet? The Dukes are part of a long Southern literary tradition of trickster twins, a plot device that often had racial overtones of light and dark. Yes, Luke and Bo are Huck and Tom, but they are also the half-brothers of Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson.”

The South is not actually a place but an imagined construct, a collection of themes and stereotypes that don’t have much to do with people’s experience but satisfy as narrative. The South is Arcadia with cotton.

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And Hazzard County was smack in the middle of it. As the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture puts it, Hazzard County is a “land of swamps (complete with alligators!), fertile valleys, pine barrens and mountains; in short, the fictional county’s geography is that of the South as a whole.”

The movie doesn’t feel much like the TV show. TV’s Hazzard County was a place out of time. The decades blur together, with steel-wheeled tractors and moonshine and crank telephones and CB radios all happily coexisting.

The film version of “Dukes” is mired in the present--cellphones, e-mails and “Dat’s whut I talking about.” And the “Dukes,” like Southern literature generally, doesn’t thrive in the present.

The TV show ran during a period that saw the real South finally pick itself up off the canvas. A generation after the shame and repudiation of segregation, the South rose again, in politics--every president since Jimmy Carter has either been Southern or affected Southernism--in economic development, and certainly in culture. Red-statism spread from the Christian conservative South in the 1980s like an ocean dye-marker.

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Yet as the South gained its feet, stories about the South evaporated. After decades of Southern-fried comedy on TV--starting with “The Real McCoys” in the 1950s and including “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres” and all their spinoffs--the rural farce vanished after “Dukes” went off the air.

It almost had to. After all, what is the status of rebels when their side wins? Robin Hood never went to work for the Sheriff of Nottingham. In the present day, the Dukes’ antics seem less rebellious than wilding and selfish, a redneck victory lap. Flying the Confederate flag feels less nostalgic than taunting.

Is the South even there anymore? It’s a question that vexes fans of Southern lit, much of which seems contrived or conveniently set in a past more redolent of magnolia, the dead-mule school. Southerners’ ability to laugh at themselves also seems compromised. The jokes on “Hee Haw” had a charming humility. They came at Southerners’ expense, their foibles and limitations. The jokes on the WB’s “Blue Collar TV” are edged with a sense of superiority and skewer the Other, such as Left Coast liberals.

The TV and film versions of “Dukes,” separated by a quarter century, suggest how much the South has changed, and change is one crik that just can’t be jumped.

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