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In another topic, we have discussed "place," focusing mainly on the West. I thought I'd open a new topic for anyone to discuss the South. I grew up in North Carolina. When I decided to write, all my professors said, "You should read Welty," You should read Peter Taylor." I took a course in "The Literary South."
For a long while, I wanted to be Flannery O'Connor. Her eccentric and somewhat dark views of humanity appealed to me. So did Carson McCullers's.
The label of being a white, Southern, woman writer followed me around. Soon it was an albatross around my neck.
I'd like to hear from anyone who is a Southern writer, who has read literature from the South, who has lived in the South, or who is curious about the South or Southern Literature.
Prior to this, I spent 22 years in Atlanta, a real Southern City. I moved there with my parents in 1966. It was not more than a large bump in the road, not too far from being Marthasville or Terminus. We were with the first big wave of northern immigration, right after the introduction of industrial air conditioning in office buildings. It was the Atlanta of Flannery O'Connor and Lester Maddox, the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind still stood with a historical marker at the front, turned into a slum by time and circumstance and was occupied by one of the first hippie communes there.
I saw Atlanta change from a very large provincial town into a truly international , sophisticated city, it's slogan for a time was the City that Works, and for the most part, it did. The genius of Atlanta was in the white power structure seeing the handwriting on the wall and gracefully yielding power to all of its citizens, unlike Dallas, which still keeps power close.
My in-laws live thirty five miles north of Atlanta, in Cherokee county. They have lived there for the last two hundred years and are the prototypical Scots-Irish southern rednecks. They were not the Regulators or the Klan, just hard-working, hard-scrabble farmers trying to eke out a living from what land could be farmed at the southern terminus of the Appalachian's.
I have observed over the years, that the South has the reputation of being racist, which it was, God-fearing, which it is, and a place for hard living. Most of the hard-living, hard-fighting, hard-drinking I've seen was done by a species I refer to as northern rednecks. People who emigrated from the North wanting to be Southern Good Ole Boys. A most unfortunate and unpleasant group.
Natives to a place carry off the mores and sensibilities of that place with grace and ease, while interlopers who try, usually come off as caricatures, often unpleasant ones. There's an idea for a book, investigate how the influx of northerners has ruined the South. Most southerners I knew were formally gracious with strangers, somewhat taciturn and suspicious of foreigners privately, but once they got to know you the kindest, gentlest people I ever met. But don't stray beyond the lines of community defined appropriate behavior.
Anyway, prior to Atlanta, I lived in Pamlico County, North Carolina during my high school years. After Just those four years I still consider Oriental my home. It's funny how certain things are imprinted on us at different stages of life. It must be because it's the only place I ever lived where I made real, true friends.
Pamlico County is the point of land where the Neuse River, seven miles wide at that point, flows into Pamlico Sound, the larger of the two bodies of water trapped between the Outer Banks and the mainland of North Carolina. It is directly across the river from Cherry Point Marine Air Station, and only a few miles as the crow flies from Jacksonville, where TheresaWilliams grew up.
There were two main occupations in the county at the time, shrimping and tobacco. With the tobacco came a very rigid cast system. these were Faulkner's people, poor white trash and the masters who guided their lives and attitudes while abusing them with hard work and slave wages. the children of these people were either perpetually angry or diligently struggling to get out. For all that blacks and whites worked side-by-side picking, sorting, and budling tobacco for drying Jim Crow died a long, slow death there.
The slow death of Jim Crow was a result of the structure of Southern Plantation society, of which the tobacco farms were the last real vestige, and was mostly driven by the lower class whites protecting their social status. Many of them were scum and knew it, but as long as there was a black man around, by golly, there was always someone else to kick around and Jim Crow, while not exactly aiding such activity certainly abetted it.
Since tobacco has become such a controversial crop many of the tobacco farmers have sold out and the land is being used for Agri-business hog farms. Pamlico county is now a polluted land, the Neuse a polluted River infested with Pfisteria and dangerous to be in. The fish in the river are dying and the face of paradise has been erased.
Lastly, and my congratulations if you have made it this far. I spent a couple of years in Green Cove Springs, Florida. The big news when we moved there was that Walt Disney was in the beginning stages of negotiating for a large tract of swamp land around Palatka for an amusement park. The citizens all felt they had just sold the proverbial acres of land in Florida to the dumb stranger. Hah, little did they know. I wonder how many of those folks were displaced by the dumb strangers?
At any rate, Green Cove Springs was just a sleepy little town on US 17, the main road to Miami, down the east coast of Florida, much like any other Southern town of the '50's. Buzzing with flies, moving slowly yet with purpose through the hot days and muggy nights, filled with earnest folks, living the lives of their fathers and their fathers' fathers before them, celebrating Confederate Memorial Day and the Fourth of July with parades and picnics lazing next to the St. John's River, the only (one of two?) rivers in the US that flows south to north. I was surprised a month or so ago to find Green Cove Springs mentioned in Their Eyes were Watching God. It was such an unremarkable place.
Before Green Cove Springs I lived in Albuquerque for nearly a year, too young and not long enough to get the flavor of the Southwest.
I will never be anything but a Southerner, but not necessarily a good ole boy. I have a love/hate relationship with the South. I can't wait to leave, but when I visit my daughter in Frostburg, Md. or my step-daughter in Boston, Ma. (both Southerners who think they have escaped, he he) I can't wait to get back home. Oh, Lord, what am I going to do?
I fear I will always be a "Yankee" -- a secular, pragmatic, stoic, liberal yankee that cannot abide by how long it takes folks to respond to a light turning green down these parts. I have lived in North Carolina now over 10 years. Admittedly in the Triangle which is quite a melting pot these days. I love Southern literature and trying to get a feel for the authentic "old South" I have been reading Carson McCullers, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Reynolds Price (horrid!) here lately trying to get my mind around the rural South. Fascinating! But I think will always be a bit foreign to me.
I wonder why most people always feel more "home" where they grew up -- regardless of how long they live somewhere else.
What I do appreciate about the South is its quiet charm, its "front porch, sit-a-spell" hospitality you can still find in some places. Its history more passionate, some how more hard-fought though equally disagreeable.
As far as authors, I could never get through Faulkner. I like Harper Lee. I didn't even like Cold Mountain though I did like the movie. I haven't really read much Southern fiction. I'm more of an Anglophile!
I grew up in Jacksonville, which is a military town. A military town has its own aura. Jacksonville was partly rural, the division between white and black was very pronounced, there was an up and coming middle class, and there were some people of means. The feeling was transient.
Gene (geneg) will know what I mean.
What I do like about Southern writers such as Faulkner and O'Connor is how they deal with race and social class in the South. In Faulkner's work, I often feel that cramped, hot, smothery reality that I often felt trapped in, and I strongly identify with that.
I do love my adopted home though -- I love the lush heat, the honeysuckle, the magnolias, the creeks, hush puppies, the chivalry, being called "shug."
Oh and #4 Cleo -- sacriledge! -- I love Cold Moutain - it is one of my all time favorite books (and movie adaptations.)
I agree with the 'evil' that lurks behind chivalry here in the South. When I first moved here from Boston having scrapped my way thru college and grad school, with several womyn's ;) studies classes under my belt -- I thought I would smack the first date that opened a door or paid for a meal for me.
However -- I've mellowed. Somehow, I do not find it incompatible to allow myself to be taken care of by a man; yet still be a stong woman of independent means. Go figure.
My favorites are Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Nelson Lytle and Larry L. King.
A key reading for my view of The South is The Southern tradition at bay; a history of postbellum thought by Richard M. Weaver.
I love the South, even with its history, because that's the root of me. It's hard to explain, especially if it's intrinsic, it's something you carry with you. Centuries of vicious racism does leave its scars, and everyone deals with it differently. I don't take it personally because I consider racism to be something hurtful to its bearer, not its recipient. And now there are legal protections, so I don't worry about overt snubs much.... It's an ugly thing to dwell upon.
I recently carried my husband to my birthplace, Atlanta, for the first time, where he was blown away (I think he wanted to move there). People have a lot of misconceptions.
Literarily (a word?) speaking, I love the voices of the South, from Gone with the Wind to the Ya-Yas.
And, yes, the South is mysterious. It's supposed to be.
I have to agree that Texas is not really the South, though. It is a weird amalgam of the Southern chip-on-your-shoulder reaction to the Civil War, which still has not been overcome (though things are changing), and the Western cowboy individualist culture, which also has a certain chip-on-your-shoulder quality. Sometimes I wonder whether the U.S. in general doesn't have a genetic pool of quick-tempered throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater types, a legacy of our descent from all those restless souls who found it preferable to just leave Europe (or wherever they left from) rather than do the hard and often dangerous work of building a better society right where they lived. Or maybe that's just the story of the human race itself. The more history I read, the more I realize it's all a story of restless wanderers fanning out across the face of the Earth, mixing and mingling and setting off again in a new direction.
I think that in the southern literature that has really made a mark, family has been a huge theme. The generations are connected to the land.
geneg, Gene, that is a sweet remark. I've always been a little ashamed about my accent. My voice is low, soft, and lilting. Sometimes people on the phone think I'm a child. I've always wanted to be a strong person, but my voice doesn't seem strong to me. I've done readings of my work, and people seem to enjoy it, but I've often wished I had a more powerful voice. It is surprising how many accents there are in the South. Most people don't realize this. Even in NC there are so many accents. Do you have an accent? I bet you do.
As for how it affected me and my 'inner life' and sensibilities, I am really not sure. Southern literature was never an interest of mine, so I have read very little of it.
We don't live in that way any longer. It's not only that we move around so much, though that's a big part of it. We come to a new place, and don't know the stories of that place. But also, the places where we live go through so many changes. A new skyscrapers go up where a store or someone's house was, fields and vacant lots become covered with buildings, and a place that once had stories attached to it goes out of existence. And for those old landmarks that do stay in existence, the multitude of people that pass in and out of them, on its own, tends to discourage the development of a common story, because there are simply too many stories and too many people attached to it. We live in a society that is largely anonymous, not so much because of any particular flaws in the way we relate to each other, but simply because we can't be intimate with even a small fraction of the huge number of people we live among.
All that frantic change (and, too often, ugliness) makes me sad. We have a compensation, though, in literature. A good novel or memoir can capture a sense of place so that anyone can share the experience, even if the place becomes (or already is) irrevocably changed.
Donald Davidson talks eloquently about regionalism in his book of essays Still Rebels, Still Yankees, which, due to some of Davidson's unpopular, and often rightfully so, views, is largely unread. But, back to the Aristotelian comment, throughout Faulkner you see characters from the North who are exiles and outcasts, and Faulkner usually presents them as such because their characters are, at core, abstractionists. The South, when it was still a distinct region, focused more on the concrete world, and was rooted more in very tangible and fundamental natural cycles than the north, largely because of the agrarian economy. While Thoreau lived on Walden a few hundred yards from his mom's house, where he could enjoy nature from within a safe context, the agrarian southerner's life depended on rain, sunshine, dirt, drought and flood. Books like I'll Take My Stand argue eloquently for the agrarian cause, and, more recently, the Southern dynamo that is Wendell Berry has led the way for Southern agrarianism, though his work is often claimed by the more new-age environmental conservationists (it makes sense, Berry was friends with Timothy Leary back in the sixties). Other contemporary agrarians in the Southern style are Fred Chappell, James Kibler, and George Garrett (I would say).
But, all of the agrarian talk is geared toward distinguishing what was, and what might still be, the distinctive traits of the South. The South seems to me to be a region that thinks, or thought, from the ground-up instead of from the heavens-down. I think this separation is at the core of Robert Penn Warren's life-long struggle with Emerson. Warren both loved and hated the abstract, transcendentalist tradition rooted in New England Calvinism, and, I think, finally, couldn't bring himself to believe in Emerson's tradition (his "Homage to Emerson" is stellar). Toward the end of his life, an interviewer asked Warren if he considered himself a Southern poet still, after years of living in Vermont. His response was "What else can I be?"
My understanding of the Midwest is limited, but I think the frontier culture of the Midwest that you find in someone like Willa Cather isn't more than a stone's throw from the frontier South's beginnings (say, Kentucky). Midwesterners and Southerners just work well together. For instance, that great Midwesterner, Twain, basically lifted his realist/regionalist style from the, arguably, first American realist, A.B. Longstreet, whose famous work is Georgia Scenes.
I too am interested in Sherwood Anderson's relation to the South. The story goes, if I remember correctly, that Faulkner, while in New Orleans writing his first two novels, was a sort of pupil under Anderson. And, fairly obviously, Faulkner, and so many of the Southern fiction crew (O'Connor, Welty, Crews, Larry Brown, etc.) owe their characters to the lonesome folk of Winesburg.
The thing I love about Anderson, and about these fiction writers, is that they take the same characters you find in local color stories, but the characters are no longer aw-shucks cartoons. They're real people, and these writers were able to present them in a sophisticated way, which, to my mind, marks a significant change in American culture when the hinterlands stormed the transcendental blue-blood's castle.
Once the characters are no longer abstract outlines, things rendered so small by the distance of removal as to seem miniatures, a flea circus, once we start zooming in on the characters, we see, no matter how preposterous their situation, they are people, and react probably as we would react within their bleak circumstances. When we recognize them as people, when we see them not from the safety of abstract distance but with a perilous immediacy, these characters stop being stumblebums and start being existential exemplum, contemporary interpretations of Chaucer and therefore Boccaccio and the tradition of art as moral criticism.
Of course, the local color is still popular, which is why a lot of Northerners read Lee Smith, or watch the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and, it seems, decide every Southern man is either a drunk-ne'er-do-well, a fiery old feller devoted to whittling and the tormenting of whippersnappers, or a slow-talking illiterate with great looks: none of whom should ever be taken seriously. That's just old George. That's just Papi. That's just his way, etc.
But, back to the Midwest, Ohio's poets seem to work well in (what I think of as) the Southern mode: James Wright, Rita Dove, William Matthews, (ok, so not Ezra Pound): these poets have the same sort of earthy, grounded, mentality that you find in Southern poetry, which, to my mind, explains why most Ohio poets' work will stand up to the New Critical standards as outlined by the Vanderbilt Fugitives. These Ohio poets keep you minding your feet, even when they're gracefully waltzing you through eternity's ballroom.
But I guess I can't answer your question because I'm not familiar enough with the actual area. I don't know the landscape or more than a few people from Ohio, and, while art can often hint at the mysteries and manners of a culture, I think without living in Ohio I would be remiss to make any argument involving its culture. But, to venture a guess, I imagine Ohioans aren't much different from frontier Southerners, except they didn't lose a war, so their sense of Gothic beauty might not be quite as entrenched.
Sorry to have gone on. I wish I could give a more substantial answer.
"These Ohio poets keep you minding your feet, even when they're gracefully waltzing you through eternity's ballroom."
This is certainly true of Wright. He uses the rudimentary elements of earth (rivers!) to evoke gorgeous moments of transcendence, such as when he says his body breaks out into blossom. Southern Ohio has much of a feel of the South, I think, but you are right. They did not lose a war and therefore lack that gothic quality. For, although Sherwood Anderson seems to have much in common with the southern writers that I love, I don't find his stories to be gothic. There are not many more wonderful stories on earth than Anderson's I think. His characters breath. And I had forgotten that Faulkner was a pupil of Anderson. I guess all of this must have started with Twain for prose, Whitman for poetry.
Ezra Pound was born in Idaho, and then lived in both Pennsylvania and Indiana. But he went to Europe to make his reputation. Talk about abstract stuff. Always with the "new." Imagism, Vorticism, Blast! I have always been much more drawn to his late, late work: what thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross. The stuff he wrote in St. Mary's. His very last cantos.
Thank you so much for your postings here. Take your shoes off and stay.
And yet when I studied Plato and Aristotle in college, I found Aristotle's view of life eminently sensible and Plato's maddeningly impractical. I particularly disliked Plato's metaphor of the shadows on the cave, which makes the point that earthly life is to be despised. Perhaps I am more of a Texan than I realized. My ancestors were farmers only a couple of generations back, so that has probably shaped me as well.
My family was not poor, but we were far from genteel, and I always knew there was a clear division between "them" and "us." I can remember overhearing a professor in his office saying something condescending about "first generation college students," of which I was one. So I have some idea how Breece felt. I wasn't rebellious like he was, though. (smiles)
Now, see, when you speak of graciousness, care in appearance, culinary skills, connection to family, and hospitality, a lovely home, I don't associate those things with my experiences of the South at all. Part my my problem with growing up and becoming branded as a southern writer was that people expected me to be like that, but the problem is, I'm not. I see a much darker aspect of the south, the knife behind the words. Not that all the south is like that, but my experiences were like that.
Dorothy Allison's experiences are closer to mine: ramshackle homes, trailers, drunken husbands and fathers, abuse, broken dreams. That is part of the south, too. The class system in the south is breaking down, but at the time I was growing up, vestiges of it were still very much in tact. And that spilled over into my college experience that day I heard that professor's words.
Like all places, the south is very complex, and it is helpful to get as many views as we can. Maybe from the myriad experiences and views we can begin to get a clear picture of this "place."
I wish I were more surprised. Does no one read southern literature? I've gotten much more history from literature than I have from history books. (I'm careful to take it in critically.) For example, it is because of Gone with the Wind that I understand (one view of) the roles of carpetbaggers during Reconstruction and privateers during the Civil War. Roots should be required reading, along with quite a few others.
varielle: I can recall the first time I saw Hoiday singing Strange Fruit. I later read the song came from a poem that a university professor wrote. Her rendition is simply chilling. If I were to teach a course in Southern Lit, I would show that to my class.