Reading Down South

by Jessie Roberts

Ed Winstead contemplates what makes the fiction of the American South so distinctive:

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. …

“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).