One of my earliest memories was of being asked on the playground if I was a Yankee or a Rebel. I didn’t know, but my parents, being from Ohio and all, told me I was a Yankee. I have spent the last 50 years trying to live that down. This is not because I am a racist who wants a redo on the Civil War but rather because I identify with something in the southern psyche. Something you will find in both white and black traditional southern families.
I know this because I married a southerner – A deep-fried southern man born into family from the inland outside Savannah. These are people with a beautiful drawl, impeccable manners, and hint of steel running through their spine. One reason I like William Faulkner so much is that he is the only artist I know who captured the almost indefinable depths of these men and women. They may make easy caricatures but there is something else deeply hidden, lurking under all that civility. This is not hypocrisy as we moderns like to think of it. It is something . . . else-something that distinguishes any author who can come close to capturing it.
This odd mixture of dark and light has given a name to a whole side genre of literature called Southern Gothic. Think of Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily with its sweet, gentle title character living amid the mould of what-might-have-been in the most grotesque way. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. I once drove through south Georgia with a group headed to tour a college. A young student and I sat in the back seat talking of this story as we drove. The landscape demanded we remember the story. And then we had a flat tire. I am not making this up. We sat by the side of the road until a dirty, overall-garbed mechanic stopped to help us out. I looked up and the young student had a tire iron in her hand . . . just in case. I nodded my approval. The imagination is powerful and a sandy landscape dotted with eerie moss-covered oaks and a flat tire reminded us that truth just might imitate fiction especially in the wounded, haunted South.
Here are a few of my favorite Southern novels:
Penhally by Caroline Gordon.
Gordon was married, off and on, to Allen Tate who was one of the 12 famous Vanderbilt Agrarians. Penhally is possibly the best agrarian novel ever written in that in captures nuances often missed by lesser writers or modern writers. Tate has his own Southern Agrarian novel, The Fathers, but I like Penhally best. Gordon was from Kentucky. This is noteworthy because Kentucky has a huge base of excellent writers in the southern tradition including Robert Penn Warren, Janet Holt Giles, and Wendell Berry. I believe there was something about being a border state which affected the Kentucky psyche (I have now used this over-used word twice in this essay) and gave its writers plenty of angst to write from or maybe it was just the bourbon.
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. This is a delightful story which captures the patriotism of the South towards the South without reducing it to something we moderns can understand. Having spent many days in the town of Commerce, once really named Harmony Grove, I found this novel to be exceptional and doesn’t that name change tell a story in itself?
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
If you have ever doubted that Florida is a Southern State this book will clear things up for you. This book by a black author is a nice change from only hearing from white southerners.
Deeply moving. I especially liked that the clear descriptions of the landscapes had me walking in familiar places from Fort Lauderdale to St. Augustine.
The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy
This is not actually a novel but a memoir but it reads like a novel, an enthralling one. Conroy is very good at smudging the lines between reality and fiction to squeeze out the truth beneath the facts. He knows how to tell it slant. Here the likeable Conroy, son of The Great Santini, spends a year teaching off the coast of South Carolina on one of the poverty-stricken, Gullah-speaking isles.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
I am putting this here in case you were thinking it was too low-brow to read. Read it. This novel captures quite a bit of the bitterness Sherman’s March to the Sea created in Georgia and which still stalks about in the backwoods. Understanding this sort of long term consequence should not make us smug. War is hell. It leaves a scar.
Finally, let me recommend two newer books by Southern writers. The Well and the Mine
by Gin Phillips and Hanging Angels
by Neill Calabro both take place in Alabama, a state I grew to love when we lived in Elkmont for 7 years. Both novels display that mix of dark and light, natural and supernatural, of the Southern Gothic tradition.
I have not attempted to discuss Faulkner or Walker Percy here or even Harper Lee. I trust you have read them already. Faulkner is a tough sell. He captures the underground aqueduct of despair and destruction in the Southern spirit so well it is hard to enjoy reading his books. They are truly pathetic. Percy is much easier to read. He is always smiling and winking. He is a southern writer who has not forgotten there is always hope. Lee has simply written the perfect book.