Thursday, May 03, 2007

What is Southern Literature?: A Survey

The question for this month's survey is: What is Southern Literature?

You may have an answer and I would like to hear it. Meanwhile, I have collected some thoughts on this topic which I will add at various intervals. I have some thoughts of my own, which I may add here, or later. If I have a quote from someone that you feel doesn't fully express that person's usual opinion on the matter, feel free to post a correction.

The question stems from my thinking about the characteristics of certain writing classified as "Southern" with a capital S, that establishes it as a category. It is my opinion that this category does exist, but that it has boundaries based on certain characteristics. I'm just not yet quite sure what all of those characteristics are. I'd like to know what you think. What, do you think those characteristics are that contribute to the body of literature we recognize as Southern?

28 comments:

brd said...

Alan Gurganus, author of Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All--The very thing that makes the South difficult and odious and dark and scary for outsiders is precisely what makes it evocative and rich and lyrical and beautiful and complicated for those of us who were lucky enough to be born in the great tradition.

brd said...

Tina McElroy Ansa, Author of Ugly Ways considers herself a "Black-folk centric" writer. She sees one of the characteristics of Southern writing being related to the idea of storytelling, incorporating concepts related to the word spoken and the word written.

brd said...

Peggy Prenshaw, editor of Conversations With Eudora Welty says:

What's southern about southern lit? At what period of time? When? At present, there are profound shifts in notions of "southernness," which is being reshaped as "Caribbean rim," multil-cultural, multi-lingual, more urban than rural, etc.
When Faulkner was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, he was writing of a South that just two generations before had fought to the death to maintain slavery--fought even by those southerners who never owned a slave or thought they would ever be able to afford one! What he saw of the actual and possible of race relations was very different from what we see in 2007, don't you think?
A related question one often gets asked--why has the U.S. South been such a seedbed of literary activity? What is it about "southernness" that produces writers?--there are as many "answers" as questions. Storytelling/oral traditions; poverty (storytelling and writing are inexpensive entertainments); rhetorical politics, speechmaking; religiosity/ religious tradition/ literal readings of the Bible; rural settings; attachment to the land, to "place"; Scots-Irish antecedents with love of lyric, tall tales, otherworldly tales, etc; creative mix of African and European cultures; influence of French, Spanish cultures in lower South; few cities (with competing venues for creative people--who might have chosen music, theatre, book publishing, magazine work, etc., rather than writing in a small back room of Rowan Oak), and on and on.

brd said...

Wikipedia: Southern literature (sometimes called the literature of the American South) is defined as American literature about the Southern United States or by writers from this region. Characteristics of Southern literature include a focus on a common Southern history, the significance of family, a sense of community and one’s role within it, the region's dominant religion (Christianity) and the burdens/rewards religion often brings, issues of racial tension, land and the promise it brings, a sense of social class and place, and the use of the Southern dialect. (A simple non-complicated definition.)

Anonymous said...

"I'm allergic to the North."

--Eugene Onegin

brd said...

Susan Ketchen and Shannon Ravanel had this discussion on a tape from a series called Soundings from the National Humanities Center. One was an Editor of Algonquin Books one an Editor at Doubletake Magazine--I couldn't tell which was which or who said what. But they said some good things that I'll be posting here. Click here and buy the tape. You figure it out.


Southern literature is about
strange people living in strange places, doing strange things. Southern writers capture this idiosyncratic strangeness. Southern writers know how to recognize freakishness.

Southern fiction is molded by its relationship with blacks. There is no way around the fact that writers are working out white guilt. It is working itself out in white fiction. Today's writers have a new take on race and race has taken prominence expressed with more diversity.

Isolation

Southern Fiction is motivated by the person. Southern writers have always felt inferior in the realm of ideas. It is safer to talk about people. This characteristic of Southern writing is still at work.

Southern fiction exists because we lost the war.

Faulkner's name is synonymous with Southern Literature.

Voice is what is attractive about Southern literature.

Religion. Southerners are immersed in race and religion. As Flannery O'Conner says, the South is Christ haunted but not Christ centered.

As a publisher, I'm concerned about marketing. I can't publish something that is so Southern that the Yankee can't get it.

Southern writing is specific rather than general.


I can't quite put my finger on what defines Southern writing. There is a rootedness about it. Southerners visit cemetaries and graves. Southerners are willing to put different parts of Self out there. Perhaps it relates to the fact that you couldn't talk about certain things at the dinner table (race, religion, politics). Writers explode.

brd said...

Jill McCorkle, author of Creatures of Habit said in an interview:
"There’s certainly a wonderful tradition in history that I’m proud to be associated with. I think other characteristics of Southern writing, not that they don’t apply to other writers, is that there is a lot of attention to a strong sense of place, and there is also a wonderful tradition of oral storytelling. I think that any community or group that, for whatever reason, has been cut off from the rest of the world, usually does have an oral tradition—because it’s so important to make sure that the legacy is handed over. And of course in the South, not only was there the War, which of course is what everyone immediately associates with Southern people, but there were other roadblocks as well, literacy being one of the biggest. . . There was a lot of power in the spoken word, and it was revered as such, I think. I think a lot of that oral tradition is classic in Southern literature."

Her opinion there was verified in another in interview, when asked about Southern literature and she said, "My specific example speaks better than I can generalize," and then she went on to tell a story about I-95.

brd said...

The writer Barry Hannah (author of Airship) tells his version of a classic joke and provides an answer to this question: How many Southern writers does it take to change a bulb? Two . . . one to unscrew it and the other to talk about what a good old light bulb it was.

brd said...

Dori Sanders, author of Clover commented on differences between people. Perhaps this sheds some light on the differences between Southern writers and other writers. "To me. . . the thing that divides. . . is whether or not you like grits, okcra, crowder peas, skillet corn bread, and whether or not you put sugar in your ice tea. If you don't do that I start to look at you kind of strange."

brd said...

In Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain, Fred Hobson argues that the history of the impulse toward telling in the South divides roughly into two camps: the "school of remembrance" (those writers who defend the South) and the "party of shame and guilt" (those writers who are most aware of and critical of the South's racial burden).

brd said...

Is it true, do you think, that Absalom, Absalom is, like a story within a story quintessentially trying to answer this question, What is Southern? or perhaps, What is left of Southern?

Shreve says to Quentin: "tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all?" And that is the heart of the investigation of the novel, isn't it? Faulkner explains with the story within the story.

brd said...

Josephine Humphreys author of Rich in Lovesays of Southern writing: "There is a combination of self-doubt and at the same time, self-confidence hovering over this region. That combination makes living harder and writing easier." Later she said, "There's gotto be a real conflict within the southern brain."

brd said...

Kaye Gibbons, author of The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster, uses the phrase, "the landscape of the southern mind."

brd said...

Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, says, "If Southern literature is anything identifiable, and I'm not sure it is, it is certainly rooted in the senses and it's rooted in the sensuality of voice as well. We are enchanted with voices and it's those voices speaking and evoking the sensual life that is at the heart of not only Southern fiction but of all artistic fiction." Butler also has made some comments that gently, lightly juxtapose the heart and the mind, the Yin and the Yang, with Southern fiction and "Northern" fiction.

Dan Trabue said...

Does Jeff Foxworthy's, You Might be a Redneck IF... books count?

Okay, seriously, how about one of my favorite authors - Wendell Berry? I've heard him described as a Kentucky writer and an Appalachian writer, but I've never heard him called a Southern writer. Why's that?

Dan Trabue said...

Great site you have here, by the way.

brd said...

Dan, One of the things I'm exploring with this post is that interesting phenomenon of who gets the Southern lit label and who does not. It seems that folks want to pull Toni Morrison into the fold, but she is not from the south though she does at times write of the south. To me she in no way belongs in that category. I'm not sure why Wendell Berry is left off the lists, I'll think about that one. I hope to do a post sometime in the future with some thoughts I have about Southern literature with a capital "S" and southern literature with a small "s". Synopsis: most current writers, many of whom I have quoted here probably belong in the second category, but not the first, that is, they produce regional works of fiction. In that sense, perhaps Berry does more strongly identify with Appalachian fiction than southern fiction.

Dan Trabue said...

How about Kentucky writers Harry Caudill, James Still, Robert Penn Warren and Jesse Stuart? Am I correct in thinking none of them get tagged as Southern Writers?

Is Kentucky on some blacklist?? Does the SoLit line pass just south of Jellico? Are there any KY authors considered as Southern Writers?

Dan Trabue said...

Actually, now that I think about it, I believe Jesse Stuart's daughter, Jane, who wrote at least a little, did get tagged as a southern lit writer...

brd said...

I believe that Robert Penn Warren is considered to be in the fold of Southern writers. I'm not sure about all the others. Caudill suffers the same fate as others here in Eastern Tennessee, I believe. We are sons and daughters of the Appalachian Mountains not Mother South. We were on the "wrong" side during the war and our heritage is defined by the independence of the Scotch Irish who seeped down the mountain chain rather than the planters who paddled up the Mississippi on the other side of the state.

This is just speculative talk. I'll have to send an email to an expert to see if I can get you a real answer.

Dan Trabue said...

This is interesting. I'm a huge fan of Kentucky writers (do you recognize the Paynehollow allusion? Harlan Hubbard wrote several books about his life on the Ohio, including, "Payne Hollow: Life on the Fringe"), but I've never really thought about the fact that they're not considered Southern writers.

You're probably right, they're probably separated out as distinctly Appalachian writers instead.

Prof. Fury said...

Oh no! Sad to see that I'm just now finding this great discussion. Dan, Warren is certainly considered a southern writer--one of the greats. James Still, too, though the problem I think is less that people don't consider him southern and more that people just don't read him much anymore.

I would suggest a small shift in the way we're talking about this: rather than talk about southern "writers", we should talk about "southern writing": which I would define, loosely, as writing about the South. So, you could certainly talk about Beloved or Song of Solomon or A Man in Full in the context of southern writing in this way.

As a professional southerner, I can say with some confidence that this is where the field is headed. Attempts to define "southern literature" according to a set of genre-related criteria can be useful as far as finding (or forging) connections amongst writers goes, but it's ultimately too limiting to be useful.

Not to mention the fact that it has its roots in its attempts to exclude very southern writers like Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Erskine Caldwell from the canon because they were the wrong color or held the wrong political beliefs.

(I don't suggest that brd is doing this--I'm just pointing out that some of the "classic" definitions of southern literature" are beholden to a very specific political agenda.)

brd said...

I think that it is curious that contemporary writers who try to define what makes Southern writing unique, fall to concepts like, "storytelling, voice, and cultural idiosyncrasy." I agree that this is true of contemporary Southern writing. But it is also true of pretty much all regional literature, so it does not add clarity to the discussion of what has raised Southern literature to the status, that, I think, it holds in the literary world. I guess I might quote Hodding Carter, in regard to what may be the fate of what was a really distinctive literary existence, "The South is no more." Doesn't Percy say something like that too?

brd said...

Another authoritative answer to Dan's question:

I think all of these are spoken and written about as "southern." Also Bobbie Ann Mason, Marsha Norman ("'Night, Mother")--earlier, James Lane Allen--and isn't Allen Tate a native Kentuckian? no one more "southern" in articulating "southernness than he! Inescapably, Kentucky is "southern," I should say. Though I should add that "southern" in recent literary/critical circles encompasses all islands and countries of the Gulf of Mexico rim--my old Kentucky home now traffics with the Yucatan!----so it goes. Cheers, Peggy Prenshaw

brd said...

Here is, perhaps, an answer to Dan's question that smacks of a different direction of thought. A quote from William Faulkner from a work entitled "Mississippi."
"Mississippi begins at the lobby of a Memphis, Tennessee hotel and extends South to the Gulf of Mexico. It is dotted with little towns and concentric about the ghost of the horses and mules once tethered to the hitch-rail enclosing the county courthouse and it might also be said to have only those two directions, north and south. . ."
I'm not sure what this means exactly, except that to Faulkner, perhaps, Mississippi epitomized the South as he perceived it. Why seek those boundaries established on maps or in lists of writers of southern literature. Mississippi is enough and very tall.

brd said...

And then in another place Faulkner says,
"But in the South art, to become visible at all, must become a ceremony, a spectacle, something between a gypsy encampment and a church bazaar given by a handful of alien mummers who must waste themselves in protest and active self-defense until there is nothing left with which to speak--a single week, say, of furious endeavor for a show to be held on Friday night and then struck and vanished, leaving only a paint-stiffened smock or a worn out typewriter ribbon in the corner and perhaps a small bill for cheesecloth or bunting in the hands of an astonished and bewildered tradesman." And again, somewhere else, "Art is no part of southern life."

This is interesting stuff that sheds light, albeit diffused on the question that I have asked, for I think I am asking, "What is Southern Literary art?" not just "How many people could potentially fit on a list of people who have written stories vaguely related to the South or who were born in a house or hospital with an address on the equator side of the Mason-Dixon line.

brd said...

Jill McCorkle in the preface to a collection of stories, New Stories from the South, The Year's Best, 2005, says, "Nostalgia."

brd said...

Jack Butler responded to my question with a quote from an essay he had written some time ago entitled, "Still Southern After All These Years." The essay appeared in a book edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe, called The Future of Southern Letters (Oxford U Press, 1996).

"The question gets asked a lot. Let me phrase it like this: Is there still such of a thing as southern writing, what with the New South and all, and technology? And if there is, what makes it southern?

I'm grateful for the question. The question has become a sort of small industry helping to ease regional unemployment. Answering the question brings in some useful if not life-changing checks, and it doesn't hurt your reputation either. If you answer the question two or three times, you're an expert. In fact, if you think about it, answering the question is one of the things that infallibly identifies you as a southern writer. In fact, if you think about it some more, the question itself has served as a good way to keep southern writing going, at least as a panel topic."