Fuzzy dice don’t count: They can be found from coast to coast. A water pitcher shaped like Paul Revere’s head doesn’t count because it’s purely New England kitsch, while a Golden Gate Bridge pencil-sharpener is Californian to the core. Plastic pink flamingos, however, do qualify, and so do stuffed armadillos, sandstone replicas of the Alamo and a pop-up cardboard model of Graceland. A poster of Elvis bound for the pearly gates exemplifies the art form at its finest. “It’s hard to define,” says Charles Wilson, “but I know it when I see it.”
He refers, as the subculturally attuned may have deduced, to “Southern Tacky,” a particular strain of cheap, gaudy objets d’art bought and sold below the Mason-Dixon line. Wilson, an associate professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, coined the term four years ago when he began collecting the lurid trinkets. Since then he has become the world’s foremost (and probably only) expert on the stuff. His tiny Ole Miss office has become a virtual shrine to the genre. His walls are plastered with posters that hawk indigenous delicacies like Moon Pie cakes and Goo-Goo Clusters, “the South’s favorite candy for 70 years!” Several paperweights depicting various Civil War battles adorn his bookshelves. Wilson even has a vial of honest-to-goodness Elvis sweat. “Elvis poured out his soul for you,” proclaims the accompanying card. “Now you can let his perspiration be your inspiration.”
One would be hard pressed, in fact, to find a tasteful square inch in Wilson’s office, and that’s just the way he likes it. Hired by Ole Miss in 1981 to help compile a scholarly Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Wilson became smitten by the region’s lower-brow arts after a pilgrimage to Graceland. “I had been fascinated with Elvis’ role in the area,” he says. “He was a Southern poor boy who hit it big but remained loyal to the South, and Southerners identify with him very much.” Their devotion, he discovered at Graceland, finds expression in everything from Elvis ashtrays and satin pillowcases to bottles of “Love Me Tender” shampoo. Overwhelmed by this “mecca of Southern Tacky,” as he now calls the King’s home, Wilson decided to study other inexpensive local artifacts with an eye to what they might reveal about the area’s identity.
Being proud of his heritage no matter what its artistic level, Wilson is quick to point out that the South has no monopoly on mass-marketed gewgaws. “Coney Island has lots of them, and artifacts related to the Miss Liberty craze are common,” he says. “The Vatican is full of tacky stuff too.” But the American South’s history, he believes, has left its people with a peculiar affinity for inexpensive, brightly colored bric-a-brac. “The South since the Civil War has had very little material prosperity,” he notes. “There hasn’t been much money to spend, and gaudiness has a certain appeal for people so poor.”
Since poverty also tends to strengthen religious beliefs, Wilson says, much of what he collects has fundamentalist overtones. Take, for example, one of his more prized possessions, a primitive drawing of the Highway of Life. Along one side lies the Path of Righteousness, dotted with shops named Health, Prosperity, Love and Rest. Dens of iniquity—Rock Club, Porno, Abortion Clinic—lie across the street on Satan’s Pathway. “The Southern evangelical religions teach that everyone is sinful—we’re all going to fall short of the glory of God,” Wilson explains. “But they also teach the potential for redemption through confession of sin.”
A Southerner by birth, Wilson, 39, began analyzing the ways of his homeland long before he purchased his first Elvis key chain. He grew up in Nashville and in El Paso, the son of a postal worker and a housewife, then studied history at the University of Texas at El Paso. After completing a doctoral thesis about Southern attitudes after the Civil War, he taught U.S. history at Texas Tech University before Ole Miss recruited him.
These days Wilson has little free time to expand his gaudy gallery. Most of his energies go into editing his Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, due out next year. His office is crowded anyway, and his wife, Marie Antoon, 33, a producer in the radio and TV department at Ole Miss, is less than enthusiastic about tacky curios spilling over into the couple’s antiques-filled house. But when Wilson hears of a unique love seat for sale in Houston—one with Jim and Tammy Bakker carved into its back—his collector’s eyes light up. “You’re kidding, that’s amazing!” he cries. “I’d love to look at that! Can’t you just see it over there in the corner…?”