Defining the South and Southernness is a favorite pastime of literary critics. Consider a sampling of terms: "calm grace and raw hatred," "guilt-stricken," "shared values," "bone-gnawing poverty and endless defeat." But I like the sense of the South conveyed in a reported conversation between Katherine Anne Porter and William Faulkner. Both writers were away from home and attending a social function. They looked at each other knowingly and, at the same time, said, "Blackberries." They knew instinctively what time it was down South.
Indeed, the sense of place is strong in Southern writing; likewise, notions of honor, devotion to kin, awareness of evil, and love of story. Violence, poverty, and good manners also figure in the mix, often grotesquely. H. L. Mencken derisively called the South the Bible Belt, pointing to the pervasive religious fundamentalism of the people. Flannery O'Connor had deeper insight. "[I]n the South," she said to a gathering at Wesleyan College for Women in 1960, "the general concept of man is still, in the main, theological ... from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted." Finally, we have Robert Coles' assessment of Southern faith as "the hard, hard religion" of Calvinism.
In offering a brief overview of contemporary Southern writing, I find the Christ-haunting perspective to be vastly helpful, for the Biblical influence is unmistakable in the major authors: Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, Reynolds Price, Denise Giardina, and others. Sometimes the sight through glass is very dark indeed, with distorted views of grace and God. Novelist Reynolds Price, for example, recognizes mercy alone, never divine wrath. But his prose is exquisite; his characters unforgettable. Robert Morgan, whose recent best-seller, Gap Creek, was chosen as an Oprah book-of-the month selection, creates authentic characters and treats faith and the church with dignity and respect, something seldom seen in modern literature, where preachers and church-goers are either deranged or entirely corrupt.
Before considering this patchwork further, it's helpful to look at Southern literature in a historical context. Novelist Walker Percy was asked how the South differed from other regions of the U.S. He said it was because the South lost the Civil War and this defeat became a fall, "shaping its inhabitants as people of lost innocence, providing its writers with a context unlike any other in America." O'Connor adds, "[W]e were doubly blessed, not only in our fall, but in having means to interpret it. Behind our own history, deepening it at every point, has been another history."
Beginning in the Twenties, the South experienced a literary flowering, what the region's leading historian, C. Vann Woodward, called "the Southern Renaissance." The year 1929 marked the publication date of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Other major writers associated with the Renaissance included Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O'Connor, to name a few. But by 1955, the flower had wilted. "Faulkner's powers as a novelist had waned considerably," according to literary critic Richard H. King in his book A Southern Renaissance, while Tate and Ransom had "all but ceased writing poetry."
The Twenties also witnessed the rise of Agrarianism, an intellectual movement seeking to reclaim Southern tradition with its belief in virtue and agriculture, and challenging what historian Richard Weaver calls "a monolithic culture of unredeemed materialism." Its fullest expression came with the publication of I'll Take My Stand, a book of twelve essays written by Vanderbilt University professors and former students. An excellent treatment of Southern Agrarianism can be found in Weaver's book The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (Liberty Press). His chapter on contemporary Southern literature offers this compelling insight: "A dominantly Christian point of view has preserved in the South the idea that man can fall. This is why Southern literature, within the context of Southern belief, has been able to recover the theme of the greatest literatures."
Biblical influence continues to show up in contemporary authors, who represent a literary revival and continue to gain national recognition for their work. In contrast with the previous generation, the work of these authors contains "hardly anything of the antebellum South ... no magnolias, white columns, or darkies crooning," writes Professor Richard K. Meeker. Their interest is more in the present. Jan Karon's best-selling Mitford series (At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, etc.) is not high art, but Father Tim continues to charm and please readers with his gentle spirit and wit. There is always Good News in Mitford, because the author's vision is redemptive.
Another popular writer is Sharyn McCrumb. Her mysteries, tautly-spun and woven deeply in landscape, are mostly staged in Appalachia. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter and She Walks Those Hills are two that absorbed me completely. If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book for 1990. It's on my list of books to read.
Of Fred Chappell, Lee Smith writes, "Anybody who knows anything about Southern writing knows that [he] is our resident genius, our shining light, the one truly great writer we have among us." A professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and the state's poet laureate, Chappell has written eight novels, fourteen books of verse, two volumes of stories, and a book of criticism. I loved I Am One of You Forever, a funny, brilliant book about a boy growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s. One critic describes it as "magical realism set to fiddles." A remarkable feature is the close ties among the males in the story father and son and Johnson, whom the family adopted as one of their own and the high comedy of the many "rusties" they pull on unsuspecting uncles. Though the men tend to be irreligious, the grandmother's Christian faith is honored. Of his poetry, Midquest is one of Chappell's most stunning achievements, which he describes as a novel in verse.
Saints and Villains, Denise Giardina's latest book, is a work of historical fiction based on the life of Deitrich Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer's liberal theology falls short, his courage in the face of Hitler's take-over of the church is magnificently conveyed. The book is powerful and painful. Giardina, an ordained Episcopalian minister, grew up in a West Virginia coal camp and is a person who acts on her convictions through her writing, and most recently, through her current run for governor of the state. Storming Heaven is a gripping novel based on a historic battle between the US Army and 10,000 pro-union coal miners. One may not agree entirely with her liberal views, but Giardina is without doubt a marvelous storyteller and passionate social critic.
Lee Smith shares the same gift for telling a story and creating memorable characters, but with a difference she writes of hill people with "joy and laughing sensuality," as one critic puts it. Here's a portrayal of one Mrs. Eunice Merriman in Smith's short story "Tongues of Fire": "Mrs. Eunice Merriman was a large, imposing woman with her pale blond hair swept up in a beehive hairdo as smooth and hard as a helmet. She wore glasses with harlequin frames. Mrs. Merriman reminded me of some warlike figure from Norse mythology."
Smith's books are rather too sensuous for this reader's taste: she serves up sex as handily as a platter of fried chicken, relating it to the "creative wholeness" of her female characters. According to Dorothy Hill, the core of her work lies in the "serious issues of female isolation and identity." Even so, Smith's characters are often Christ-haunted, and toward them she exhibits tenderness, as those torn inwardly by strange contradictions, like Ivy Rowe in Fair and Tender Ladies or Florida Grace Shepherd in Saving Grace. This is likely due to her own spiritual turbulence. "I still believe in God," she affirms in an interview with Susan Ketchin in The Christ-Haunted Landscape (highly recommended). "I've just never been able to find a way to act on that without it taking me over. It's something I struggle with all the time." Smith, who, like Giardina, grew up in a coal-mining region (Grundy, Virginia), has taught writing at North Carolina State University and has written nine novels and a collection of short stories.
Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer's Wildwood Flower (LSU Press) won the prestigious Lamont award for 1992. If you read no other contemporary Southern poet besides Chappell, read Byer. The poems in the book are written in the voice of a mountain woman named Alma and are set in the early twentieth century. Love and loss, hunger, harvest, beauty and belief figure into the tapestry of poems through exquisitely crafted imagery. "...I watch the gray sky/through the eye of each needle/my fingers have ever held up to the light/and I wait for the mousetrap to spring/in the pantry where peaches still cling/to their stone" (from "Extremity").
Earlier I recommended Robert Morgan's Gap Creek, whose protagonist is also a strong mountain woman, an authentic character who, in her hour of greatest trial, receives Christ as her Savior. Morgan is a fine poet as well as novelist. Groundwork (Gnomen Press) features such memorable poems as "Bricking the Church," "The Flying Snake," "Canning Time," and "Baptism of Fire." His lines are clear and true, often humorously rendered, as in "Slop Bucket":
Spirits cook in the undercupboard there
Noticed only at night
At family altar when the odors
Scrimmage along the floor like ghosts of appetite.
Finally, we come to Reynolds Price, distinguished author of twenty-five books and a professor at Duke University. His prose is beautiful in the way of Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Like them, Price is master of the sentence and of intense moments in his characters' lives, able to sound the depths of words and feeling. Susan Ketchin assesses Price's work, saying, "Many of the most compelling characters in his works are essentially good-hearted people whose lives are bound up in ultimate matters of guilt and redemption." Price confesses Christ as his personal Savior, but his beliefs can hardly be considered orthodox, including an antipathy toward "organized churches" and sometimes skewed moral sense. Blue Calhoun, A Generous Man, The Names and Faces of Heroes, and The Tongues of Angels are titles of some of his novels.
C. S. Lewis believed that "books enlarge our being." I hope that some of the writers and books mentioned here will draw the readers' attention, revealing that words of life still shine in Southern stories.
- Suzanne U. Clark
Suzanne U. Clark lives in Bristol, TN with her husband Al and daughter Emily. (Two other children are in college all have been home-schooled.) Suzanne has published five books of poetry and non-fiction, the most recent being The Roar on the Other Side, a textbook on writing poetry (Canon Press), and What a Light Thing, This Stone, a poetry collection published by the Sow's Ear Press. She teaches writing and literature part-time at area colleges. She can be contacted at [email protected].