What Was, Is, and Will Be Southern Literature?


SOUTHERN LITERATURE AS WE KNOW IT TODAY—and who does not know it?—caught the imagination of the nation in the 1920’s with the Southern Renaissance, led by the young gentlemen poets, the Fugitives, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the young college dropout in a tiny town in Mississippi, William Faulkner, whose novel Sanctuary became notorious.

By the end of World War II, poets, playwrights, and fiction writers—Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Evelyn Scott, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Shelby Foote, Peter Taylor, Faulkner, Lillian Hellman, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Zora Neal Hurston—had made readers throughout America and abroad well acquainted with the major distinctive characteristics of life in the South throughout its history and the artistic techniques they employed, especially in style.

The familiar elements of Southern literature are the landscape and the people, “characters,” who live on it, their food, religion, music, politics, folkways, their sometimes bizarre behavior, even in the New Millennium—and, obviously, the language, not just dialect and colloquialisms in dialogue but imaginative phrasing in narration, a sense that the writer’s love of language is the very air he or she breathes. Innovative techniques distinguish the masters—Faulkner, for instance—from northern masters such as Fitzgerald.

Within the past half century, new writers have reinvigorated those elements and techniques, stars bright in the Southern literary galaxy: Barry Hannah, Lee Smith, Harper Lee, Allen Wier, Ernest Gaines, Cormac McCarthy, Reynolds Price, Ralph Ellison, John Barth, William Goyen, Alice Walker.

Compared with any other part of the nation throughout its history, the South as a place of literary ferment stands out monumentally. Oh, yes, there was the New England Renaissance made famous with lasting effect upon American writers of all regions—including the South–by Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville. But that literary event was confined mostly to one state, Massachusetts, and its time span was much shorter, its achievements more philosophical, and its aesthetics less innovative, especially in style.

Soon after the waning of the New England Renaissance, Southern literature began to flower in Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans.

Great writers—Wharton, James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald—have come out of the North—New York, the Midwest—but they did not set out to express the character and spirit of those regions. There is no Northern literature as such. There is no such thing as northerners, except in the minds of Southerners; however, southerners are considered such by both the North and the South.

Consider these controversial pronouncements: All southern literature is about the Civil War, as enhanced by Antebellum and Reconstruction eras. Only a Southerner can write the Great Civil War novel and thus the Great American novel.

Internationally, one may take notice of the rise of a national literature, as in nineteenth-century Germany, but no region, north or south, of any nation has caught the imagination of the world as the American South has.

Of course, there is no such thing as THE SOUTH. There are many Souths, and within each Southern state there is a distinctive cultural and literary North-South divide, except for a few, such as Kentucky and Tennessee, in which west, middle, and east have produced very different writers.

And we really must stop referring to the literature of Appalachian states below Pennsylvania as Southern Appalachian literature, and consider referring to all writing out of Appalachia, from Maine to Georgia, as Appalachian Mountain literature.

Evelyn Scott is a recently rediscovered writer in all genres. As Southern literature adapts to and affects the ways of the rest of the world, we do well to search out other forgotten Southern writers and to hope that books about them will open our eyes over the coming years.—David Madden

Other titles of interest:
Appalachia and Beyond: Conversations with Writers from the Mountain South
Reading Faulkner: Introductions to the First Thirteen Novels
Ghostly Parallels: Robert Penn Warren and the Lyric Poetic Sequence
Robert Penn Warren’s Circus Aesthetic and the Southern Renaissance
Robert Penn Warren, Critic
David Madden: A Writer for All Genres
The Napkin Manuscripts
James Agee: Selected Journalism
James Agee: Reconsiderations
James Agee Rediscovered
Unwelcome Voices: Subversive Fiction in the Antebellum South
Shelby Foote and the Art of History
Flannery O’Connor
A Little Fling
The Last Book

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