The South | Kentucky | UK

Why Are There So Many Great Southern Writers?
by David Todd

R.W.B. Lewis, a major literary critic of [the 20th] century, once gave this evaluation of Southern literature: “It is impossible to name another region in this country with so massive and virtually unbroken a display of literary genius.”

What is it about the culture below the Mason-Dixon line that produces so much “literary genius?”

The unbroken line of great Southern literature started during the American “Southern Renascence” of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when there began a brilliant outpouring of writing from such authors as William Faulkner, Allen Tate, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren.

Marvelous Southern writing has continued into the present, with fine writing by Walker Percy, William Styron, Lee Smith, Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, Marsha Norman, Peter Taylor, Bobbie Ann Mason, and others.

Still, it’s hard to define “Southern literature.” Some authors in the South, such as Guy Davenport, write of places outside the region. Other native Southerners, like Barbara Kingsolver, have moved away to write of other places, yet still tell stories that look and sound “country.” And there are still others, like Warren, who, though he left his native Kentucky after he graduated from high school, often said that he could not imagine writing a novel about any other region than his native South.

Much of the work of the Southern Renascence authors—especially Faulkner, the era’s leading writer—shares certain common themes. It evinced conflicting feelings toward the territory, an acknowledgment that Southern “gentility” masked a region deeply divided by racial injustice.

Also, though, in reading the Southern Renascence authors, we can absorb their powerful sense of the land, of its history, of small-town peculiarity, of long hot summers and biting cold winters: the sense of place.

But the images presented by Southern authors have changed since then. In the 1940s and ’50s, Southern writers began to confront the changes brought into their homeland by modern industry and political progress; communities were altered by the loss of small farms and by the migration of rural Southerners to cities or to the North. (Some of the tensions between the old ways and the new were powerfully portrayed, for example, in Warren’s most important work, his 1946 novel All the King’s Men.)

Still another big shift in Southern literature’s subject—the feel of Southern places, and the conflict between the old and new relations among races, sexes, and generations—began coming through in the ’60s. That shift continues into the present. In a recent essay, Lisa Alther, a contemporary Southern novelist, described the changed environment:

“My generation of Southerners has come of age during the civil-rights years, during the years of rapid urbanization and industrialization.... For me, the South of the Southern Renascence writers—the rural and small-town South—represents some kind of vanished golden age. My South is one of bustling industrial cities with crammed franchise strips. Southerners used to have to go North to confront the wonders of urban civilization, but now we don’t have to budge.”

As Alther says, the economy of the South has changed as the nation’s commercial landscape has become homogenized. Yet the region’s people still talk with Southern accents, walk more slowly than Northerners do, and make distinctively Southern music (Nashville, bluegrass, country, Southern rock, and Appalachian). They still think differently. And the place keeps producing well beyond its share of great writers.

Perhaps, then, we can still define “Southern” writing. Yale University professor Cleanth Brooks, a Southerner and friend of Warren’s, suggests that its “changeless aspects” include not only a sense of place, but also a sense of the past and an aptitude for oral as well as written storytelling. The South is the home of “a culture that loves to talk,” says Brooks, “to remember its roots ... and to cherish its identity ... family and homeland.”

Alther puts this idea another way: “If you’re a Southerner writing about the South ... you are blessed with the tendency to mind everybody else’s business.” She observes as well that Southerners, having been taught good manners from birth, learn to express their feelings indirectly, “to slip them into conversations in the form of amusing stories.” And, she suggests, “It’s the only part of the country where people can sit still long enough to write.”

Flannery O’Connor also noted the abundance of Southern literature and suggested that “the Southerner knows he can do more justice to reality by telling a story than he can by discussing problems or proposing abstractions.... It’s actually his way of reasoning and dealing with experience.”

So, as for why the region produces so many good writers, perhaps it’s because Southerners especially value a good story told well.

Selected Bibliography

Alther, Lisa. “Will the South Rise Again?” New York Times Book Review, 12/16/79, pp. 7, 34.

Castille, P. and Osborne, W. Southern Literature in Transition. Memphis State University Press, 1983. Includes essays on Southern literature by Cleanth Brooks, Elizabeth Hardwick, C. Hugh Holman, Noel Polk, and others.

Chappell, Fred. “A Good Listener in a Talking Country: Review of A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul.” National Review, 2/24/89.

Lewis, R.W.B. “A Confederacy of Geniuses: Review of The History of Southern Literature.” New York Times Book Review, 1987.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1969.

Percy, Walker. “Southern Comfort.” Harper’s, January 1979, p. 78-83.

Smith, Lee. “Shopping for Body Parts” (review of a story collection by P. Lear). New York Times Book Review, 4/12/92.

Smothers, Ronald. “South, in One Volume: Myths and Moon Pies.” New York Times, 5/89.

Ward, William. A Literary History of Kentucky. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

Welty, Eudora. “Place in Fiction,” in The Eye of the Story. New York: Random House, 1978.

This essay originally appeared in the teacher’s guide for Signature, a KET-produced series of documentary profiles of six contemporary Southern writers—including Bobbie Ann Mason and Ed McClanahan. The entire guide is available on our guides download page. The Signature series is also available on videotape. In Kentucky, call or e-mail KET Tape Duplication, (800) 945-9167. Outside Kentucky, contact Annenberg/CPB, (800) LEARNER.