Toward a definition of Southern literature that goes beyond twang.
Image by Alec Soth, Johnny Cash boyhood home, Dyess, Arkansas, 2002.
From his Sleeping by the Mississippi project. Courtesy Magnum Photos
Before I ever heard a recording of Robert Penn Warren, I had imagined, based solely on having read All the King’s Men when I was pretty young, that he had a very distinct accent. The kind of accent belonging to someone who, when describing a favorite friend or colleague to a third party, might settle on the word august. The sort of person who laughs hearty baritone laughs and is always reaching deep into a jacket pocket for their pipe, less to puff on than to gesture with. Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, in April of 1905, and he certainly did have an accent, though I discovered on finally hearing a recording of him (he was reciting some of his poetry) that its inflections and cadences didn’t jibe at all with what I’d imagined. A day or two after first hearing his voice, the memory of it began to revert to my impressionistic substitute. Shortly thereafter, the real thing was gone.
I have never had much of an accent myself and am often asked, when it’s discovered that I’m Southern and come from a town in central North Carolina, why that is. I say that I don’t know because I don’t. My parents have accents, and their parents did, and plenty of friends my own age do as well, so there must be something exogenous to the familiar or generational circumstances of my birth at play. But your guess is as good as mine as to what exactly that thing might have been.
I go back and forth about this. On the one hand, accents can tie us to our homelands (recall the recent colloquialism map in the New York Times that could pinpoint your city of origin based on your naming preference for a rolly-poly/potato bug/pill bug/whatever that, based on my social media feeds, was very popular). They are also a primary—if cursory—identifier of difference. This seems particularly true in the Southern case, which is a class of accents so readily identifiable and so symbolically loaded that it is somehow reflected even in certain kinds of Southern food (i.e. banana puddin’). We’re quick to peg judgments to such superficialities, despite turning our noses up at the thought of being pegged that way ourselves.
There is a pretty wide consensus about just what “Southern” writing means. It’s a definition that’s been around a long time, but also a bad one: it’s literature with a particular accent. It’s the bubbling gusto of Charles Portis’s eccentric simpletons, the understated Appalachian twang of the good folks who can’t catch a break in Daniel Woodrell. It’s a low-pitch gargle over beers in Larry Brown and a blind preacher’s hellfire wail in Flannery O’Connor. This definition is as comfortable and right-seeming as the sonorous drawl my imagination bestowed on Robert Penn Warren, and ultimately just as fallacious.
The destruction of the Southern elite in the Civil War, Mencken wrote, left only a “a mob of peasants” to people the place.
There must be something distinctly Latinate in my conception of Warren, hence august and not, say, the Nordic jolly or Germanic wise. There is certainly something Latinate in the bulk of Southern writing that predates the 1930s. A reflexive interest in the past, reverent rather than probing in temperament, was, a century ago, both a central feature of Southern letters and its most egregious failing. Warren, along with eleven others—Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Donald Davidson were the most prominent among them—constituted a group known as the Southern Agrarians, and they were principle defenders of that tendency.
That embrace of the past, given concrete philosophical shape by the Agrarians, had already made the South the subject of trans-Atlantic ridicule. In 1917 H. L. Mencken, the Baltimorean journalist and critic, published “The Sahara of the Bozart,” an essay skewering the South for provincialism and backwardness, a “curious and almost pathological estrangement from everything that makes for a civilized culture.” At the time, Warren and his colleagues were far from offended. They were, instead, inspired by the tirade, which helped to catalyze many of the ideas that would later constitute the Agrarians’ manifesto. Mencken held up the antebellum South as the region’s cultural high point. The destruction of the Southern elite in the Civil War, he wrote, left only a “a mob of peasants” to people the place. In response to the critiques of Mencken and his many imitators, the early twentieth-century Southern intelligentsia became consumed with explorations of regional identity.
In 1930 the Agrarians published a collection of essays, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, outlining their political and artistic vision for a utopian South. These essays, as they put it in their introduction, “tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial” (emphasis theirs). They went on: “The theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.” The Agrarians saw industrialization as a threat to religion, to the arts, and, more generally, to individuality. They raised the specter of the Soviets as exemplars of this tendency (1930 being, as it happened, the year the Communist Party weekly paper, The Southern Worker, first went to print in Chattanooga), and were aghast that many young Southerners, seduced by talk of a “new South,” would welcome “a system that has so little regard for individual wants.” That Southern agriculture had been predicated first on slavery, then on sharecropping and tenant farming (fewer than half of all farmers in the South in 1930 owned the land they worked, and they were subject to brutal exploitation at the hands of landowners, a situation made worse by the deepening Great Depression), didn’t seem to put them off the idea. I’ll Take My Stand was, in short, an embrace of the ideals and lifestyle of the antebellum South, minus the out-and-out slavery; a very perverse volume of nostalgia.
Nostalgia as a term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a doctor investigating strange symptoms—weeping, insomnia, relentless thoughts of home—that kept appearing in Swiss mercenaries who’d been hired out abroad. It seemed to affect the Swiss with particular intensity, which led some physicians to hypothesize that all the cowbells forever clacking away in the green valleys of the Alps had damaged their brains. This is to say, nostalgia and agriculture have gone hand in hand from the beginning. And Latin, being the West’s most prominent and storied dead language, lends itself well to Agrarian-style daydreaming—John Wilkes Booth’s alleged and unironic cry, sic semper tyrannis, comes immediately to mind. Or perhaps a venerable author from Kentucky, gesticulating with a pipe, calling people august in a made-up drawl.
I’ll Take My Stand was, in many ways, divorced from economic and socio-political realities and could rightly be called reactionary (however prescient the wariness of industrialized agriculture proved to be). Take Warren’s contribution to the collection as an example. “The Briar Patch” argued the necessity of continued racial segregation in a resurgently agrarian South; it was nearly cut from the book, not for being racist but because Davidson believed it was too progressive.
Mencken and the Agrarians agreed that the South was culturally behind the curve, but they disagreed quite vehemently on why, and what to do about it—Mencken seeing industrialization, and urbanization, as the way forward, and the Agrarians believing that the South’s problems were in large part due to industrialization’s already excessive influence—a split that became more apparent in time. In 1925, eight years after “Sahara,” Mencken went down to Dayton, Tennessee, to cover the trial of John Scopes for the Baltimore Evening Sun. Scopes was accused, in what Mencken famously termed the “Monkey Trial,” of violating a Tennessee statute that forbade the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools. Mencken’s dispatches from Dayton were acerbic. He ridiculed the judge, the jury, the crowd that gathered to watch the proceedings. One early piece, written in the weeks prior to the trial’s beginning, he titled “Homo Neanderthalensis.” He went on to describe the audience there as “morons,” William Jennings Bryan, who led the prosecution, as an “old buzzard,” and complained of “degraded nonsense…rammed and hammered into yokel skulls” by the country preachers of Tennessee.
Public perception of the South as a cultural wasteland peaked in the 1920s, in large part due to Mencken and his imitators. For Mencken, the South’s problem was religion, not industry, and he railed against the Baptists and Methodists and their conservative politics and inflexible theology. In 1931, as the back-and-forth between Mencken and the increasingly incensed Agrarians heated up, he reviewed I’ll Take My Stand. “[The South],” he wrote, “will get nowhere by following sufferers from nostalgic vapors.”
In the midst of this feud a new Southern literary culture emerged with a flourish from its prolonged adolescence. What had begun in the back half of the 1800s with Mark Twain and George Washington Cable, Southerners who had eschewed Lost Cause mythologizing about the chivalry of Confederates and the justice of the Southern martial cause, matured in the 1930s in the forms of William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, and the like. In no way was the spat between Mencken and the Agrarians solely responsible for this. The great modernist shock of the First World War certainly played a role, as did the work of James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, T.S. Eliot, etc., as did the Great Depression and the New Deal—the list goes on. But the volume and tone of Mencken’s complaints helped spur efforts to redefine the South, through fiction, on Southerners’ own terms.
In 2009 The Oxford American polled 134 Southern writers and academics and put together a list of the greatest Southern novels of all time based on their responses. All save one, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were published between 1929 and 1960. What we think of when we think of “Southern fiction” exists now almost entirely within the boundaries of the two generations of writers that occupied that space. Asked to name great American authors, we’ll give answers that span time from Hawthorne and Melville to Whitman to DeLillo. Ask for great Southern ones and you’ll more than likely get a name from the Southern Renaissance: William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Thomas Wolfe—all of them sandwiched into the same couple of post-Agrarian decades.
The two waves of Southern writers that crested in the wake of the Agrarian-Mencken fight, first in the 1930s and ’40s, and then in the ’50s and ’60s, didn’t build upon the existing tradition of Southern letters. They weren’t conceived of as new additions to the canon, but as an entirely new canon unto themselves, supplanting the old. They remade the popular notion of Southern literary culture, obscuring predecessors who had, in their time, seemed immortal.
Faulkner, Lee, Percy, and Welty were no more Southern than Edgar Allen Poe or Sidney Lanier or Kate Chopin, and yet their writing, in the context of the South at that time, definitively was.
“Southern,” as a descriptor of literature, is immediately familiar, possessed of a thrilling, evocative, almost ontological power. It is a primary descriptor, and alone among American literary geographies in that respect. Faulkner’s work is essentially “Southern” in the same way that Thomas Pynchon’s is essentially “postmodern,” but not, you’ll note, “Northeastern.” To displace Faulkner from his South would be to remove an essential quality; he would functionally cease to exist in a recognizable way.
It applies to the rest of the list, too (with O’Connor the possible exception, being inoculated somewhat by her Catholicism). It is impossible to imagine these writers divorced from the South. This is unusual, and a product of the unusual circumstances that gave rise to them. Faulkner, Lee, Percy, and Welty were no more Southern than Edgar Allen Poe or Sidney Lanier or Kate Chopin, and yet their writing, in the context of the South at that time, definitively was. There’s a universal appeal to their work, to be certain, but it’s also very much a regional literature, one grappling with a very specific set of circumstances in a fixed time, and correspondingly, one with very specific interests: the wearing away of the old Southern social structures, the economic uncertainty inherent in family farming, and overt, systematized racism (which, while undoubtedly still present in the South today, is very much changed from what it was).
Note the absence from the list of a great essayist, or a philosopher-writer in the vein of Emerson or Baldwin or even Orwell. The tepid institution of Lost Cause fiction that had preceded the Southern Renaissance, and the general absence of introspection in white Southern intellectual circles prior to the defensive upheaval that Mencken set off in the ’20s, left a vacuum that the new generation of writers were drawn inexorably toward—the need to explain the place, both to its detractors elsewhere and to themselves. Hence Faulkner’s popularity with Central and South American writers (Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Louis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez, among others), who loved not only the rigmarole of his formal constructions, but the broader social similarities between Faulkner’s world and their own—the inseparability of history from myth, of past from present, of tragedy from any of it.
In that reflective regard, the serious fiction that emerged from the South between the late 1920s and early 1960s was a triumph. The Sound and the Fury; A Good Man Is Hard to Find; All the King’s Men; The Old Order; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; As I Lay Dying; The Moviegoer; Light in August; Tobacco Road; A Curtain of Green; Look Homeward, Angel; Absalom, Absalom!; Lie Down in Darkness; To Kill a Mockingbird; Wise Blood; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; and on and on. Faulkner’s output through the interwar years was arguably the greatest literary achievement of any American writer, ever—but there are no next steps in Faulkner. There is no use in asking him where we go from there. In reflexively identifying the South of Southern literature today with that South, with Faulkner’s South, or Welty’s, or Lee’s, we cease to identify the South at all.
There’s a line in The Sound and the Fury: “Clocks slay time. Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” The success of “Southern writing” in that golden era was so total, so enduring, so iconic, its triumphs so alive, that the South as conceived of in literary terms entered into a kind of stasis, and has remained in that state since: one that has been challenged, and shaken, but not yet fully broken.
A couple of summers ago a friend and I made a pilgrimage to Oxford, Mississippi, where, in a sprawling cemetery that spans a few low-rolling hills, we visited the grave of Barry Hannah. The only distinct memory I have of a full-blown set-the-book-down-and-close-your-eyes-and-sigh first encounter with a writer is of reading Hannah. I was sitting in a chair on a porch on an island in North Carolina, facing out on a concrete channel full of dark water, its surface rippling steadily under a breeze that was just a little too chilly for proper outdoor relaxation. The first story I read was “Testimony of Pilot,” and on finishing it I immediately commenced asking everyone around if they were familiar with the man’s writing.
Hannah, who burst onto the scene in the 1970s with two back-to-back novels, Geronimo Rex and Nightwatchmen, and the short story collection Airships, is most immediately distinguished by his prose, which is ecstatic, vital, and surprising. His writing, at first glance, checks many of the same boxes as his predecessors’: there are Confederates and monster fish, young lovers under the trees, proud horses, old-timers telling stories in the gloam. This might sound like a recipe for sentimentalism, and in the hands of a lesser practitioner perhaps it would have been. But Hannah succeeded in divorcing those imagistic fragments of the Southern aesthetic from their grounding in nostalgia.
In Hannah there is a shift, and the evolving realities of the South itself are reflected in it, from an attempt to understand a place and its history (how that history is made manifest and how a subject might respond) to an exploration of what it means to live in that place and move forward, coupled with a celebration of individuality and nonconformity. In other words, Hannah was less interested in coming to grips with the past than in using it as a lens through which to find meaning in the present.
Hannah grew up in the ’50s, in the storified Deep South of the Modernists, but by the time he was entering his mid-career in the 1980s, that South had largely disappeared—it was fast becoming, like the rest of the country, suburbanized. This adolescent post-industrial South, strip malls popping up like pimples, would have made the Agrarians shudder. In the intervening time were civil rights and Vietnam, the two foundational events of the contemporary South, and Hannah was very much occupied with both. By the 1960s the living memory of the Civil War had all but faded away, but that martial sensibility, the idea of a great unfinished fight, was perpetuated in, among other things, its permanent reflection in public space—the statues, for example, of Confederate soldiers that can be found in so many towns and cities across the South. Faulkner famously commented that “for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863,” and for a generation of them that dream became a kind of warped reality.
Vietnam and the Civil War were, in the context of white Southern culture, cut from the same tattered cloth: wars without a sense of closure, which is to say wars that were lost. But Hannah was not content only to describe this relational process, its origins, etc. Instead, he blew it up. It’s evident in his Vietnam stories, where the Civil War and the chivalric quality of the Lost Cause are explicitly addressed, but particularly effective in his Civil War stories. Hannah makes the homoerotic tones present in the mythologizing around figures like the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart explicit. He abuses the rhetoric of war, the conditioned responses to soldierhood and heroism and honor and nobility, taking them apart and tossing them aside. He attacks the notion that satisfaction in warfare is possible, even in victory. Where Faulkner found, in an honest past, the seeds of meaning in the present, Hannah recalibrates understanding of the past, in light of what we’ve learned since, into a sort of advice. And yet beyond Hannah, in much of what is thought of as “Southern” literature today, that recalibration is absent.
I hope it’s become clear over the course of this survey that “Southern fiction” as I have employed it, with emphasis on the quotation marks, means that accented writing so often identified with the South. It is an extremely exclusionary way of categorizing and a terrible definition—it leaves you with a “Southern” that is almost exclusively white, for example, which obviously makes no sense—but when you think of writers deemed Southern today—Tom Franklin, say, or Wiley Cash, or Daniel Woodrell (hell, Donald Ray Pollock gets thrown into this sometimes, and he’s from, lives in, and writes about Ohio)—the grit-lit voice is a common denominator.
Put a character in a tobacco field and give them a shotgun and an accent and it will evoke, without fail, a sense of the South; this is true.
Put a character in a tobacco field and give them a shotgun and an accent and it will evoke, without fail, a sense of the South; this is true. If they pop off with a “Hey there, y’all,” it will sound fitting, correct, like the accordion bleats that mark transitions between stories in a public radio program; useful in pushing you toward a desired emotional state, and fun to listen to when done well. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t mean anything. If this is, in fact, “Southern fiction,” then it is becoming as stale as it was a century ago—updated only in that, instead of regurgitating the Lost Cause ethos, it is now Faulkner’s South that’s subjected to the regional nostalgic impulse, a double reverberation.
There is nothing wrong with these writers because of this. It’s not that they’ve failed somehow to keep up, or are stupefying readers, or anything of the sort. It’s that this kind of writing is no longer reflective of the South—or, it reflects a South that is no longer. We wouldn’t think of someone writing whaling novels as quintessentially “New England” anymore, either. The South isn’t so homogenous a culture as it once was, and the societal tropes that Faulkner and Welty and even Barry Hannah grew up with and explored in their fiction are, in large part, gone. The rise of industrial-scale agribusiness, rapid suburbanization, the death of traditional industries like textiles, the corresponding growth of high-tech industries, a major increase in the Hispanic population: all these things and many more have contributed to a wildly different South than the one summoned in what we casually call “Southern writing.”
That old South, though, is the one fixed in the contemporary imagination, held there by the enormous weight of the Southern Renaissance’s incredible success—and, in an unfortunate recent development, furthered by a mass media fetishization of stupidity and its still lingering association with the region. How did Paula Deen get famous? Could she have, without the hair, without the butter, without the accent? Consider also the continuing success of Duck Dynasty, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and soon, apparently, some idiotic thing about people dressed in white and drinking mint juleps on a porch that I’ve seen posters for in the New York City subway. This is not the South, and the sooner we stop pretending that it is, the better. What Woodrell and Franklin and the like are doing is not a distinctly Southern fiction. It is a Southern accent. The stories shed no new light on what it is to be Southern or live in the South or whether any of that still has any meaning anymore, anyway. They’re primarily the stories of poor country people, and that experience transcends regional delineation.
Southern fiction doesn’t need revitalizing anymore. The chain reaction of artistic excellence catalyzed a century ago is still well under way, though its parameters have shifted significantly in that time. The South, through much of its history, was a static place—even emancipation, followed as it was by sharecropping and Jim Crow, failed to seriously disrupt the status quo. But the past century, beginning with the First World War, has been defined, in its second half especially, by change. There are some things all but gone now from the South that are worth mourning, and plenty more that aren’t, but the more pressing concern is and ought to be what’s replaced them. This is the kind of work being done by Percival Everett, Kevin Brockmeier, Padgett Powell, Adam Atlas, Tony Earley, Kiese Laymon, and many others. Some of it falls within the scope of the pejorative “Southern writing,” but much of it doesn’t, far outpacing the old definition. In those cases, sadly, the tendency has been to find some other place to lump it in. Powell is “experimental” and Laymon “African American” and Everett either one or both—as though these things and “Southern” were mutually exclusive, and the accent a prerequisite. The literature of the South has indeed evolved, but the idea of what literature fits under a Southern label has failed to change with it.
The work of these writers is as varied in scope and form and voice as the modern South it comes from, and all the more Southern for it. It’s work that approaches the old problems, the always-problems—questions of identity, how to make your way in a changing world—and the new ones—what we make of our digitized lives, what it means to be Southern in a time when American culture writ large is increasingly homogenized and commercialized—with vigor, and an eye to the ways the evolution of our culture necessitates a similar evolution in literature to effectively reflect and interrogate it. This is a Southern literature deserving of the name: revolutionary, contradictory, and complex. And maybe just a little bit nostalgic, which isn’t the worst thing.
There was a thunderstorm coming, one of those big, quick, violent things that churn up on August afternoons in Mississippi, so we didn’t linger as long at Hannah’s grave as we would have liked. Walking back up a hill toward the older parts of the cemetery I began to cry a little bit. I don’t cry very often, but I did then, walking away from the grave. Mostly it was because he has come to mean a lot to me, through his work. I was moved to be so close to him and also pained at his being gone. But partly I cried because—I remember realizing this at the time, and thinking it consciously—I wanted, even needed, to be able to say that I’d cried when I went to Barry Hannah’s grave. I don’t really know why, or maybe I just don’t care to think too much about it, but I do have a feeling that it was a very Southern thing to think. Curving around the hill, on the side of which you’ll find Faulkner, under a slab of white stone, we could hear the sounds of the road again. Jogging against the wind whipping up ahead of the rain, we returned to the municipal parking lot and found the car. On the way back to our chain hotel there was a string of fast-food restaurants. We ate at one of them, made some jokes, went back and slept. The next morning we got up and visited Rowan Oak. Then we left, driving up through green, rolling country in Tennessee and Kentucky. Nothing magical happened. We both got back to New York. I said to someone of the trip, It was good. We saw Barry Hannah’s grave and I cried a little bit. I put my copy of Airships, which I’d taken with me, back on the shelf. Then a couple of days later I took it out again, and climbed up to my roof to read in the sun, and think of home.
Ed Winstead is a writer and editor from North Carolina. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Miami Rail, The American Reader, and Guernica. He holds an MFA from New York University and is an associate editor of Guernica Daily and an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster. He lives in Brooklyn.