Writing against the odds - the South's cultural and literary struggle against progress and modernity

Thesis (M.A.), 2008

98 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Introduction: Resisting and Loathing Modernity

1. Southern Literary Tradition
1.2. Historical, Cultural, and Literary Roots
1.2.1. Historical Roots
1.2.2. Cultural Roots
1.2.3. Literary Roots

2. Southern Avoidance of Progress and Modernity
2.1. Form: Novel and Short Story
2.2. Motifs, Themes, and Symbols
2.2.1. Humor
2.2.2. Despair and Brutalization
2.2.3. Place
2.2.4. Nature
2.2.5. Man and Beast

3. Cultural and Literary Identity

Conclusion: “The Grave in the House”



Introduction: Resisting and Loathing Modernity

“The past is never dead. It is not even past” (Faulkner 1976: 81), the lawyer Gavin Stevens unforgivingly says to Temple Drake in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun during the trial against her maid Nancy, who is accused of killing Temple’s child.[1] Temple has told him, “Temple Drake is dead” (ibid. 80) to emphasize her allegedly changed and improved self and to express her determination not to take any responsibility for her actions in the past. She wants to put everything that has happened behind her and open a new chapter in her life. Stevens can neither accept nor understand such an attitude. For him, Temple’s plan to entirely leave the past behind is futile and impossible to ever become reality. Nothing is ever forgotten or overcome, and the past will influence and haunt anybody trying to escape. The past not only won’t but can’t be subdued.

The ever-reappearing topic of the past overshadowing the presence and determining the future is a Southern subject par excellence. A persistent urge to look back and an almost loathing attitude toward progress and the modern way of life and fast-paced society are omnipresent in Southern culture, literature, and life. Author Allan Gurganus[2] says about his childhood and youth in North Carolina in the 1950s that it was like growing up in the nineteenth century. The South’s past is in its present almost to the point of complete denial of the latter (see Grant 105f.).

The Civil War and the Reconstruction Era left the South economically and culturally isolated. But the War Between the States only finished what had started much earlier. The Southern claim to a special position, its feeling of moral and cultural superiority and distinctiveness, and its chosen isolation have its roots as early as in the beginning 18th century. These feelings and the need to cultivate and preserve a certain type of community and individual perceived as being superior only recurred even stronger after the shameful defeat the South suffered. The gap between the North and the South deepened tremendously, and soon the extreme isolation and seclusion became both voluntary and involuntary. The downfall and the exploitation during the era of Reconstruction left a scar that has been hurting until this present day. The unique situation first brought forth a literature that was mainly concerned with the conflict caused by a vicious, mostly Northern, antagonist but soon shifted to looking inward for the source of conflict, despair, and misery (see Tate 1968: VII). Literature became the expressive means of the peculiar Southern situation and its history of the war that had left the inner and outer Southern landscape wounded and drained.

Reviewing Southern literature and the cultural development of the last century, formulating a set of typical characteristics, and investigating the changes and developments, one will soon find that the works of contemporary authors like Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, or Cormac McCarthy[3] still circle around and debate the old themes and issues already disputed during the Southern Renaissance. They are in their core entirely unchanged presenting themselves traditionally in form of the novel and short story.

In my thesis I will argue that while modern society was on the rise and literary cosmopolitism was in full bloom in the rest of the United States, the South not only persistently ignored this, but also actively resisted and opposed such contents and agendas. Instead of too many choices, opportunities, and responsibilities, the Southerner is confronted with an impermeable, rigid society that draws both its pride and dysfunctions from its history and constant perpetuation thereof.

In a first step I will shortly review the Southern literary tradition with its historical, cultural, and literary roots. Then, in a second step I will put analytical focus on the constantly perpetuating choice of theme and form of the period examined, which hasn’t undergone any noteworthy changes for the last century. This constant perpetuation results in a stubborn state of keeping alive the old motifs, ideas, and issues, and essentially in not overcoming the paralyzing state of guilt, depravation, and misery seasoned with a pinch of pride and a feeling of exceptionalism and peculiarity. In a third step I will investigate the literary and cultural reasons for the stagnation described and examine the Southern identity that derives from the living in the past on every level possible and its continuous melancholic look over the shoulder.

Formally, the center of examination will be novels and short stories, which are to be analyzed regarding both literary and cultural background and origin. William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, and contemporary anthologized authors of short stories will be the main focus.

The most prominent representative of the Southern literature and flagship of the Southern Renaissance is William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, but the works and ideas of contemporaries and other representatives of the Renaissance, e.g. Allen Tate, Eudora Welty, or Flannery O’Connor[4] are similarly important. From the end of that literary period in the 1950s until today many authors like Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown and others, also show the specific characteristics defined by their predecessors. These unchanged choices and their reasons and consequences will be the main subject of this thesis.

The answers to the question where the literary and cultural reasons and roots of this backwardness, this longing, melancholic living in the past lie, are of utter importance to reach a deeper understanding of both Southern literature and culture of the last century and the present, with all its symbols and extensive use of myths. Both the historical and cultural circumstances create a very fertile breeding ground for a unique type of literature; they form, define and distinguish it, setting it apart from literature from other parts of the United States or Europe. This distinct atmosphere creates a certain type of self-perception, which draws a lot of its pride and identity from an inferiority complex paradoxically mixed with a sense of moral and cultural superiority. This cultural and historical environment and its consequences lead to an innate melancholic longing for the bygone, for the South as it once was. May the missed have really ever existed or not.

For Allen Tate the Old South was “the last great moment in culture” and “all that was left was […] to commemorate its glory” and realize the “loss and […] failure” (Gray 3). Such a heavy historical baggage has been academically described from several different angles and in diverse contexts. Wolf Kindermann examines the historical reflections and references in Southern literature and its genealogy from the early 18th century until the Southern Renaissance. He argues that historical references are one of the most important constituents of Southern literature. They do not only occur after the Civil War but go back to the very hour of birth of the United States (see Kindermann 12). James C. Cobb describes in his Most Southern Place on Earth the construction of Southernness employing music and literature as an expressive means of its uniqueness. Cobb concludes that history has been shaping the South until this present day and declares the Mississippi Delta, the Deep South, even though seemingly “a most unlikely literary oasis” (Cobb 306) to have brought forth more writers than any other region in the South or the United States. In Writing Southern Culture Richard Gray attests to the South the gloomy celebration of the Southern past and sees an avid drawing towards and longing for the gone and lost. In addition to this he identifies its large influence on both cultural and literary development.

Even in the seemingly modern and modernist[5] development in the South, the rise of the New Criticism with its core group of the Southerners John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and later also Cleanth Brooks, many traditionalist and reactionary notions can be identified (see Halfmann).[6]

I will combine all these perspectives: identity defining, isolating, and gloomily commemorating, historical, cultural, and literary to attain a multilayered viewpoint. This will serve the purpose of showing the strings that constantly pull the South back, and to illuminate the cultural and literary paths trodden by the sorely historically aware Southerners.

It cannot be my intention to broadly trace all these arguments, but I will bundle them to exclusively put emphasis on the reach for history for the definition of identity and culture and the defiance of progress and modernity in the South, and to show it on all levels mentioned. For this, I will employ the examination of novels and short stories from the Southern Renaissance until today. Then I will identify characteristics and traits, such as the South’s relationship with nature and animals, its sense of place, and its use of humor to deal with despair and brutalization, to find a way to live with the lethargic remaining in an unsatisfactory, wearing situation leading nowhere. These characteristics all point to the past and serve the treatment and processing and in the end the perpetuation of an unresolved historical burden and cultural heritage.

1. Southern Literary Tradition

Southern literature can be described as literature about the Southern part of the United States or as literature by authors from this region. As important geographical location is for Southern literature, it is not merely the geography of the birthplace that matters. Southernness is an inner place and an outlook on life as much as it is home soil.

Features of Southern literature include a recurring focus on the common history, sense of family, community, and the role of the individual within. Slavery[7], the Civil War, the Lost Cause, and the Reconstruction Era are common subjects and also constitute the Southern individual’s identity, due to its internalization of these issues. These subjects recur often mythologized and altered, having entered the collective memory as universally valid and applicable. Barry Hannah, for example, extensively uses myths and mythologized historical events, while Elizabeth Madox Roberts interweaves Greek legend, ballad and folk songs, Scriptural stories, and well-known tales (see McDowell 30). She thought of the “wandering tenant farmer [as] a symbol for an Odyssey of Man as a wanderer buffeted about by the fates and the weathers” (ibid. 37). These images of the Odyssey, of the journey of man, and the mixture of historical images with myths are often used in Southern literature to emphasize both the trial and hardship of the South and the universality of the issues addressed.

The look over the shoulder to the past had already begun with the Southern literature of the early 19th century, which was heavily influenced by classicist ideals of the old world. This literature always had an eye on Great Britain, for both audience and models (see Schulze 106). An educated class of planters determined the taste. After this early period, the Southern historical novel emerged, introducing the typical cast of the Southern belle and her male equivalent, the Southern gentleman. The historical novel has strong romantic tendencies and is socially and politically very traditional (see ibid. 107). Even in this time before the Civil War, the picture of the South as a unique place with a certain type of inhabitants and a special role within the United States was beginning to evolve, or in other words, its construction had begun. The South felt its people, way of life, gender roles, and cultural norms to differ from other regions’ and it thought them worthy of prevalence and preservation.

After World War I a new literary period emerged: the Southern Renaissance, a period of bloom for Southern literature and the emergence of many Southern writers with recognition lasting to this day. It is a term used for the literature of the American South in the 1920s until the 1940s. It is called Southern Renaissance to indicate a height in productivity and popularity of the literature of the South. The choice of name is somewhat surprising and misleading, the term Renaissance implying a previous high time of Southern literature, which did not exist. For this reason Allen Tate even argues to call the Southern Renaissance Southern Naissance (see Tate 1968: IV).

Thematically, the Southern Renaissance is deeply rooted in the literary tradition of the South: its past, the defeat, and common guilt are on the plate (see Kindermann 1f). Before the Southern Renaissance Southern literature mostly glorified the antebellum period and the plantation tradition. Especially the Northern audience was merely interested in historic novels with beautiful and morally strong Southern belles and virtuous Southern gentlemen glorifying the old Southern way of life. During the Renaissance this had made room for a guilt-ridden, mythologized portrayal of Southern society, using nature, culture, and history as tools to perpetuate the innate longing for a long lost past and social order. This longed for society and history may even have never existed in the way it is portrayed. In the process of reproduction, mythologization, and instrumentalization there must occur deformation and reshaping according to the respective needs and perspective. It is always partly constructed once it is handed over to retelling and remembering of following generations. Walker Evans stressed this notion when he said to the art critic Hilton Kramer, „You can’t write anything but lies about the past“ (Kramer 16). During this process of tradition the past and historical baggage and heritage become the very own of every generation. While it is not overcome and readily incorporated into the present, it is nevertheless always partly constructed.

Although the literature of the antebellum South is not as widely acknowledged as the literature of the period after the Civil War, there are strong indications that the literature of the Southern Renaissance draws from the pre war-period thematically, figuratively, and narratively (see Kindermann 2). War, defeat, guilt, and racial conflicts are dominant themes of the Southern literature of this postwar period, and this presentation is in an obvious tradition of Southern literature presenting and describing history and constantly reflecting upon it (see ibid.). There are indications that building a communal spirit and the sense of belonging and social distance from other regions began in the Southern states as early as the beginning 18th century (see ibid. 3). References to the past on all levels, thematically, symbolically, and literary, are omnipresent.[8]

Leading figures of the Southern Renaissance are William Faulkner, Katherine Ann Porter, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts (see Tate 1968: IX). William Faulkner can be rightly called the most prominent and most influential representative of the Southern Renaissance and beyond. One has a hard time finding a Southern author who doesn’t state Faulkner as influential personally or artistically, or who doesn’t mention him explicitly or implicitly either directly in his or her work or talking about it.[9] He is exemplary for the South of his time and due to the continuous thematic and formal perpetuating until the present, his is still the important vanishing point contemporary writers draw towards, or least have to acknowledge and find their position in relation to. William Faulkner is the flagship of the Southern Renaissance, the period when Southern literature was paid attention to countrywide and internationally, and the subjects of literature shifted from unquestioned glorification of the old ways and the planter tradition to dealing with the defeat, guilt, and the loss of the world once praised. Faulkner has been and remains a major reference for Southern authors, for example Larry Brown, whose literary well of inspiration is “sunk deep in the same ground Faulkner once called his little postage stamp of native soil” (Watson XIV), Barry Hannah whose stories have both by “psychological content and the language […] a clear connection to the wider scope of Faulkner’s fiction” (Weston 25), or Cormac McCarthy who “is one of the very few writers to walk through the shadow of Faulkner’s high style and survive the experience […] and yet, his style is hugely indebted to Faulkner’s” (Bell 4). He took “the long circuitous route Faulkner took” (Arnold 1). Faulkner’s unyielding importance for Southern authors is symptomatic for the actuality of the past. In his story The Agony of T. Bandini Barry Hannah describes Southern college students in the state of New York, who “were crazed over the work of William Faulkner, and even more crazed as their homesickness grew” (Hannah 1996c: 127f.). William Faulkner is the South, and he and his subjects are not overcome; they are still perpetuated by contemporary authors. Literary magazines like the Oxford American“are still riding the crest of the wave created by the [Southern] Renaissance” (Wittenberg 21). Faulkner is so important because his situation is typical for the tension and strain the Southern author felt and still feels. While Faulkner’s contemporary Ernest Hemingway was part American part cosmopolitan, Faulkner himself was part American part Southern. He surely does address American themes and subjects, but is sure to come back to the great division of America, the Civil War and its aftermath. Born twenty years after the end of the war, he grows up to recognize and address in his work the “unresolved and ambiguous issue of Southern attitudes to modernism, chiefly its fierce opposition to modernization as a kind of foreign intrusion” (Karl 3). The South he and the authors who followed him portray presents itself as though the war was not over, yet. Violence permeates everything: marriages, attitudes, racial relations, and conflicts of all kinds attempting desperately to preserve the known and to hold on to the dwindling (see ibid. 5).

The tradition and pattern of Southern literature since the beginning of the Southern Renaissance in the 1920s need to be systematically examined in order to constitute a background to which the new Southern literature with its continuing melancholic look over the shoulder to the past can be compared to.

In the following chapters I will identify its roots and a set of defining characteristics in Southern literature during and since the Southern Renaissance and discuss its perpetuated motifs, strategies, and most importantly its almost non-existing divergence from the traditional Southern Gothic.

1.2. Historical, Cultural, and Literary Roots

In Southern literature, as I will present, life, lifestyle, language, and culture are inseparably entwined. The home soil with its history and the language of the native people is not just inspiration but driving force for the Southern author. Often motifs, such as heavy drinking, a melancholic longing for the past childhood, a mythological approach to the historical baggage of the South, a connection and infatuation with nature and the wilderness, and last but not least, the perception of personal and collective history as formable and subject to interpretation and enlargement, essentially as the very beginning of storytelling, are repeated biographically and literarily. Just like Faulkner who turned his native Lafayette County into his mythical Yoknapatawpha County (see Taylor 137), first introduced in his novel As I Lay Dying, Barry Hannah said he had breathed Southern history all his life and turned it into literature (see Weston 45). James Dickey[10] even lived the reckless destructive life of his characters himself. Southern history is the ghost that is ever present in their literature, even when it is not explicitly addressed. It is the mythologized and constructed Southern history that for its authors is simultaneously curse and blessing. It is told and retold, and therefore subject to further alternation. For the Southern storyteller this does not even exclude personal history. Faulkner and Dickey have both enlarged and modified their personal history to create a persona they feel fit. Faulkner added the letter u to his name, invented an honorable military career for himself, sometimes spoke with a false British accent, and even walked with a cane for a while, implying a war injury. Dickey also enlarged his military history, turning his position as a radar operator into a pilot in a night-fighter. His son Christopher writes about him, “my father had begun to make himself up. […] He would not tolerate for a minute the world as it was” (C. Dickey 30).

1.2.1. Historical Roots

The Civil War did not end the conflict between the former Union and Confederates. The emancipation of all slaves shook the white South to its core. White former mistress Gertrude Thomas emphasizes the depth of the gap when she writes in 1865,

the war is over and again we become a part of the United States – how united will depend alone upon treatment we receive at the hands of the North. It will prove to their interest to be very discreet for the South will prove a smouldering volcano requiring but little to again burst forth (quoted in Harris 229).

Reconstruction proved tumultuous and full of conflicts, but the volcano did not erupt as Thomas predicted, but kept smoldering for the years to come. The Civil War, the Reconstruction, and its aftermath left the relations between the former war parties tense. This tension and the following events and conflicts had great influence on the effort to preserve, cultivate, and praise the damaged social order. The influx of Northern “carpetbaggers”[11] angered Southerners and pressured them into a defensive position. It aroused the wish to clearly distinguish the South from so-called “foreign intrusion”. Modernity, modern society, and modern way of life were identified with the Northern intrusion and thereupon despised and averted. Allen Tate describes this historical situation with the following words:

[t]he destruction of the Old South released native forces of disorder and corruption which were accelerated by the brutal exploitation of the carpetbaggers and an army of occupation; thus the old order of dignity and principle was replaced by upstarts and cynical materialists (Tate 1966: 276).

Foreign intrusion is despicable, but intrusion from Northerners is even worse. It is the symbol of defeat and can hardly be stood. In Faulkner’s Light in August Joanna Burden, isolated in her large decaying house, is from a family who had moved to Jefferson after the Civil War. The community sees in her the enemy and punishes her with exclusion (see Lloyd-Smith 119).

The cultivation of historical memory, namely of the prewar era and the Civil War itself, also plays a great role in the coming into being of the – also partly constructed - picture of the South. The South perceived and still perceives the war as the most important event in American history. One hundred years after the end of the war, Robert Penn Warren wrote that the “war still grows in our consciousness […] larger than life, massively symbolic in its inexhaustible and sibylline significance” (quoted in Grant 93).

The preservation and cultivation of Southern antebellum culture and historical memory is closely connected to commerce and tourism. It is the commercialized “celebration of the South’s architecture, landscape, and history” (Brundage 184). At first appealing to the Northern tourist because of its mild climate, the railroad and growing numbers of paved streets, the tourist sector evolved into one of the most important economic branches. The late 19th century witnessed a sudden change in the perception of the South’s climate from contagious and deadly to therapeutic and healthy, which triggered a great interest in the South as a vacation destination. After the period of slow reconciliation after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Northern traveler focused more on the “sublime, romantic, [and] serene” (ibid. 186) of the Southern towns and landscape than on animositous feelings. A tourist infrastructure had to be built when the demand and change in perception became obvious, because none had ever existed, not even before the Civil War. In the beginning the focus of tourist promoters lay on the climate, but soon it shifted to nostalgia with Charleston as the leading city in this approach (see ibid. 194). Soon historical associations, the celebration of historical events or sightseeing, and the general reference to the “Old South” in advertisement, became a large part of the tourism industry in the Upper and Deep South.[12] The commercialization of the recent history - slavery, the microcosm of the plantation, the Civil War – combined with the advantage of the beautiful landscape and the mild climate was perfected by the “modern comfort [of] the paved highway” (ibid. 198). Now everything on display was also easily accessible. Soon a re-evaluation of this recent history took place (see ibid. 199). Racial issues were covered up, and the picture of the childlike black in need of guidance with the benevolent Southern gentleman to readily provide it was perpetuated. The institution of slavery was glorified and said to have made the Southern civilization, culture, and morale what it is. The common tourist attractions and advertisement portrayed race relations as harmonious, and this fact was taken as factual proof of the benevolent white rule during slavery. Nevertheless realities were very different; white supremacy was continuously ensured through dishonest practices. Black elected leaders were driven from office and massive fraud took place to anticipate democratic victory in districts with a black majority (see Harris 246) and to guarantee “the fundamental socioeconomic supremacy of all whites over all blacks” (Cobb 184).

Northern tourists in the South were often under the impression of the migration of African Americans from the South to their own home states, which had created social tensions there. They often found the portrayal of the bygone situation convincing and had the impression that it had not been so bad after all. The tourist industry was very racist and instrumentalized “picturesque” market women and servile workers, while it completely ignored the black middle-class and tried to hide it from the tourists’ eyes (see ibid. 212). Its existence didn’t fit in the picture of blacks being inferior, childlike, and content in serving positions. The tourist industry was in white hands from the very beginning and in Charleston and elsewhere it triggered segregation and the dominance of whites over the public space and the interpretation of history (see ibid. 221). It clearly were “whites, not blacks, who looked back with nostalgia on” the old days (Harris 247). Even the centennial celebrations of the Civil War seemed very much to be only a celebration and commemoration of the Confederacy and its cause (see Grant 93). The advent of tourism in the South gave the white elites even more of a platform to present, defend, and preserve “their version of the past” and at the same time “renew their cultural power” which was left broken or at least injured after the Civil War (see Brundage 224).[13] The privileged group of the white part of the Southern people is “privatizing the past” (ibid. 342). Until today, the question if white Southerners are willing to accept an “inclusive version of the past” (ibid. 317) is continually raised on many different occasions. At the moment, two different versions are still paralleled and no integration of the two is in sight, while both sides work agitatedly to promote their interpretation (see ibid. 327).

The “old ways” were romanticized, memorialized, and bemoaned. The “romance of the Old South” was and is being exploited. Racial harmony, grand impressive colonial architecture, nostalgic atmosphere, and the famous Southern hospitality were put on display and up for sale for tourists (see ibid. 201). It was a “mix of nostalgia, revelry, and boosterism” (ibid. 221). History was boiled down to romantic remnants and only those aspects of the past that suited the purpose of the romanticization of the South were honored and remembered. A certain idea and image of the South was turned into a commodity (see Gray 8).

Soon there was the need for an even more commercialized preservation and presentation. The late twenties of the last century witnessed a shift from women-led private volunteerism to male-led government initiative for the presentation of the historic heritage. The city of Charleston in South Carolina serves as an outstanding paradigm of the exploitation of history and the entrepreneurship described. Interestingly, in midst of this creation of such a modernizing and revolutionary new economical branch, there was a strong anti-modern sentiment in the arts and architecture. No cubic forms, no “form follows function”, clear lines, or merely functional and rational buildings can be found. Southern architecture is inspired by classical motifs, has strong playful elements and many details such as pillars and picturesque decoration. Southern paintings showed natural settings, hunting motifs, horses, game, dogs, or untouched landscapes. People were depicted stereotypically regarding race, class, and gender.

The preservation movement served the purpose of preservation and celebration of the old ways, and the defending and glorifying of them for Northern tourists, and if there was money to be made while doing so, the better. Charleston more and more turned into a museum; a historic district was created in 1931 (see ibid. 203). The “restored” Charleston evoked in the tourists a feeling of regret for the “vanished old way of life” (ibid. 208), which was innate in the Southerner all along. The preservation of Charleston was supposedly not only for the sake of Charleston but also for the entire United States. It was supposed to portray and educate about a superior social structure, order, and functioned as a “protocol […] of the past” (ibid. 209). Modern life had deprived the people of such an easy, relaxed, and classy way of living and substituted it with the hassle of a rushed and stressful life. The lost art of living was supposedly still preserved in the South. This version was over time also accepted by most Northerners and foreigners (see Harris 248), and displaced other possible interpretations and depictions (see Fuller 40). The preoccupation with the history and making it central in the tourist industry was a means “to escape the banality of modernity” (Brundage 222), and artifacts by African Americans found great popularity among tourists serving as “antithesis of machine-age production” (ibid. 212).

Even today the South holds pride in having resisted the unhealthy and disturbing modern ways. The city of West Point, Mississippi, advertises itself on its website by saying it is a place that has defied modern society and still upholds last generation’s values. Life is simple but the best kind to be found. “West Point captures a simplicity of life rarely found in today’s fast-paced society. [It] embodies what was best about America a generation ago” (www.wpnet.org). Editor Ray Wittenberg writes in The Oxford American that Southerner “must foster Southern culture, one of the grand achievement in [the] region’s history” (Wittenberg 21).

The South has tried to preserve and perpetuated an image of culture, honor, bravery, and manhood from the antebellum era and war times. Andrew Lytle’s[14] novel The Long Night is a novel about such values, about a frontier set of attitudes towards justice, community, honor, revenge, and family, which are threatened by modernity. Andrew Lytle had himself called modernity a state of only “artificial pleasures” (Owsley 2f.).

Reconstruction has left the white South drained and with vanishing economical and political power (see Harris 247), and it was never was ready for the end of its grand time of bloom. Amanda laments about this in Tennessee William’s Glass Menagerie,“Well, in the South we had so many servants. Gone, gone, gone. All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me” (Williams 50). Or as the narrator in James Dickey’s Deliverance puts it more harshly,

“You would think that the South did nothing but dose itself and sing gospel songs; you would think that the bowel of the southerner were forever clamped shut; that he could not open and let natural process flow through him“ (J. Dickey 33).

1.2.2. Cultural Roots

Since and even before the Civil War the history of the relationship and perception of the Northern and the Southern states of the United States have been marked by stereotypes and prejudices. But one can rightly claim that some “traits and details are purely Southern” and some “are open to a broader arena of people” (McCorkle VII).[15] “There is an innate awareness of ‘the war’ even when you are liberal minded and very relieved about how it turned out” (ibid. VIII). Along with this comes a great sense of nostalgia and melancholy already planted in small children. The unspecific feeling of an unnamable loss is a large part of Southern self-perception and state of mind, and as a result it holds crucial parts of literature. This lamenting of the lost, the better past, is expressed in numerous stories. In The Faithful Paul Prather[16] depicts a sad last gathering of a small Southern church, while in Stephen Coyne’s[17] Hunting Country an old man bemoans the deep and untouched woods he used to hunt in (see Coyne 200), and in Lucia Nevai’s[18] Faith Healer a man criticizes modern people’s nonexistent patience when it comes to food and its preparation (see Nevai 225).

Cynthia Shearer,[19] who names her teacher Barry Hannah as the most important catalyst of her writing, says in an interview

I think this world is full of books written by people who want to whine about how their parents failed them. I wanted to write about how the world failed my parents, and how their children got caught in the crossfire between history and my parents’ marriage (www.shs.starksville.com).

Shearer does not blame personal failure for her family’s misery but history itself. The world failed her parents; history did them in.

The South as a poor and somewhat isolated region with the cultural humiliation of the lost war has, as any other such group, a great need to tell its story. This need has not yet subsided and is perpetuated and kept alive through constant retelling. Southern literature is about despair, tragic comedy, destruction and longing (see McCorkle VII). All of these traits make Southern identity, outside perception, and its literature very unique. Southern literature receives a lot of praise and attention and it is widely celebrated. It is the South’s special situation that brings forth a special type of literature and a large body of work by Southern authors.[20]

The question remains unanswered to what extent this identity and these widely known stereotypes are based on literary and cultural constructions and to what extent on actualities and real experiences. It is a given fact that construction and re-construction is inevitable and the picture of the South right and left of the Mississippi is sketched partly by its literature and art. The photographer Walker Evans has heavily influenced the image of the South with his work and in particular with the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on which he collaborated with the journalist, poet, novelist, and critic James Agee.[21] They worked for Fortune magazine and were supposed to portray sharecroppers during the Depression (see Mellow 309). They portrayed white, poor tenant farmers in the Deep South showing their hard lives, simple houses and belongings. Walker Evans’s pictures show run-down shacks, people dressed in rags, bare wooden rooms, filthy children, and plain schoolhouses looking like small barns. Prematurely aged faces showed poverty and hardship, children had the serious faces of adults.[22] Evans and Agee managed to walk the thin line between exposure and the satisfaction of voyeuristic wants, but portrayed the people and their desperate situation respectfully. With Evan’s disdain for “artiness” and anything fashionable about photography he showed the poor South with attempted objectivity and a “hard-edged and no-nonsense approach” (ibid. 24). Even before Evans worked on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was published in 1941, he illustrated a book about Southern antebellum architecture in 1935 (see ibid. 625). He traveled the South visiting mansions, most of them in ruins and abandoned (see Appendix, picture 1). He portrayed “moldering and romantic plantations” (Mellow 238), some of them deserted, some of them still inhabited like the Belle Hélène plantation house (see Appendix, picture 2). It was in

incipient decay but still occupied by the remnants of the once-prominent du Plessix family. The chicken coop and hen yard […] indicated how low the family fortunes had fallen. A more commanding […] metaphor was the huge dead tree that had fallen, uprooted, in front of the once-grand but rotting colonnade – the ruin of a gone society (Mellow 235).[23]

In 1936 Evans traveled the South for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) with, as an agency member advises him, the purpose of “showing the relationship of the land to the cultural decay” (ibid. 287). A similar project was Erskine Caldwell’s[24] 1937 documentation You have Seen their Faces, which also showed the South’s misery in gloomy and hopeless pictures (see Schulze 448). He emphasized the importance to maintain and support the people’s connection to the earth and soil expressing his skeptical view on industrialism (see ibid.).

Twelve years later, in 1948, Vogue hired Walker Evans to photograph for a six-page spread for an article called Faulkner’s Mississippi (see Mellow 514). Again, the subjects were “ruined plantation houses, muleteams in the plowed fields, tenant farm houses with dog-trots, crossroad stores, […], cemeteries and stone monuments” (ibid. 515). Evan’s illustrations of the South, even Faulkner’s South, were obviously not only a documentation of architecture and landscape but also one of the passed culture and its remnants. They documented the decaying beauty and the miserable status quo and shaped the picture of the South both within and outside of its borders. Evans’s choice of objects is a statement in itself, something the assignment not necessarily had called for, and actively both mirrors and shapes the perspective on Southern culture, its defeat, and the necessity to turn to the past to utterly understand it. This pattern of reference and cultivation has started even before the Civil War, as early as the demarcation of the states of Virginia and North Carolina in the mid-18th century. The South started very early to draw the line between itself and regions that developed differently especially regarding ethics, gender roles, and morals. While this was perceived as isolationist tendencies and regression, the South tried even at this early stage to protect its ideals from progress perceived as deterioration (see Kindermann 15).

This awareness, this melancholy, and the picture of the South within and without its borders reflect upon literature and have immense impact on it. The social and cultural environment and the vivid oral tradition that helped preserve remnants of old ballads, tales, and myths from the times of the frontier and the antebellum period full of metaphors, irony, and melancholy resulted in richly mythical poetics (see Cowan 7). “There is still, even in twenty-first-century America, a quality unique to the South that permeates much of its fiction” Tyler writes when asked whether there still is a specific type of Southern literature (Tyler VII). This was a phenomenon that defies the coordination of America, she states, even contemporary fiction “has a Southern feel to it” (ibid.) that rather grows stronger in Southern literature instead of vanishing, as she had thought ten years ago (see ibid.).

1.2.3. Literary Roots

The genre of Southern Gothic, which is very typical for Southern literature, is a subgenre of the Gothic Novel. Just like the gothic style of architecture, gothic literature is often perceived as being inscrutable, obscure, deceiving, unpredictable, and dizzying. Traditional gothic literature is full of supernatural occurrences, and it tries to revive and incorporate folkloristic, mythic, and supernatural elements, which the modernity of the 18th century has tried to eliminate. Dark and gloomy castles are popular gothic settings, preferably wholly or at least partly ruined (see Blair X).

Horace Walpole is said to have invented literary gothic in 1764 with his novel The Castle of Otranto. It is set in medieval times, the dark ages from an enlightened point of view. His novel features fantastic, oversized occurrences, the obscure, and dark magic. The appearances and encounters with ghosts very much frighten the characters and spread fear and horror, but everything frightening happens outside of the human body or mind (see ibid. IIX). A ghost haunts a princess, an oversized helmet appears spontaneously in a courtyard, but the horror remains an outer horror, a fright of something other than horrific facets or perceptions of oneself one cannot cope with. Then, during the 18th century, with the shift from the beginning of Gothic literature to the classic Gothic novel, credited to Ann Radcliffe, we see a sudden change in the location of horror: it had moved inwards, it had a more psychological context (see Ringe 105). Weird occurrences now only may seem supernatural, but they are not; it all happens within the mind and imagination of the protagonist (see ibid. X), and has a firm basis in reality. The early European Gothic literature is defined by a set of characteristics, which can be found in American and Southern Gothic in different shapes and disguises, among them “extreme situations, anxiety, darkness, threat, paranoia; […] ancient houses, castles, monasteries, dungeons, […] ghosts, monstrous and grotesque creatures; pain, terror, horror, and sadism” (Lloyd-Smith 133).


[1] Requiem for a Nun is the sequel to Sanctuary. Eight years have passed since Temple Drake, the daughter of a rich judge who ended up being a prostitute, was raped and abducted by the psychopath Popeye. She now is married with two children. Her nanny Nancy is tried and sentenced to death for murdering Temple’s infant daughter.

[2] Allan Gurganus (1947-) is a contemporary author from North Carolina. His best-known novel is Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1984).

[3] Barry Hannah (1942-), an author from Oxford, Ms, is a renowned author awarded with numerous prices, whose work was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Price.

Larry Brown (1951-2004) was an author from Oxford, Ms whose work was coined Grit Lit due to its down-to-earth and realistic Southern content and language.

Cormac McCarthy (1933-) is a native Tennesseean and the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Price for his novel The Road. He is the author of The Border Trilogy.

[4]Allen Tate (1899-1979) was a Southern poet, essayist, and literary critic from Kentucky. He was a member of the group of the Fugitive Poets and the Southern Agrarians at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was an author, photographer, and literary critic from Mississippi. Her novel The Optimist’s Daughter won the Pulitzer Price.

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was a Southern Gothic novelist, short story writer, and essayist from Georgia with strong Christian tendencies in her writing.

[5] I will use the terms modernism and modernity, the former describing “aesthetic modernity“ the latter being “the modernity of technology and social life” (Whitworth 3).

[6] I will elaborate on this in Chapter 3 when I talk about the evolution of the reactionary group of Southern Agrarians from the seemingly progressive and cosmopolitan movement publishing the magazine The Fugitive at Vanderbilt University.

[7] Including both pro- and anti-slavery novels. For example Harriet Beecher-Stowe‘s Uncle Tom‘s Cabin (1852) and the responding so-called anti-Tom novels.

[8] Literary Modernism, emerging in the first half of the last century at the same time as the Southern Renaissance, is founded on the idea of an autonomous language without any reference. It tries to shed the historical baggage in favor of a fast, exciting, unpredictable present. This clearly is not the case with Southern literature, which is deeply embedded in history on every level.

[9] Often contemporary writers will link themselves or advert to other Southern writers, the rootage in the literary past being a very important defining constituent. The protagonist in Lee Smith’s story The Bubba Stories is an aspiring writer and says about her reading experiences that she has read Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon, but Flannery O’Connor became her favorite. She writes her senior thesis on O’Connor’s work „feeling a secret and strong kinship“ (Smith 18).

[10] James Dickey (1923-1997) was educated at Vanderbilt University, home of the Southern New Critics, and is a winner of the National Book Award. He is a renowned poet and novelist, his most famous novel being Deliverance, which was published in 1970.

[11] „Carpetbaggers“ is a term used for Northerners who came to the South during the Reconstruction Era, bringing only a carpetbag, a type of medium-sized travel bag, hoping to make a fortune and to gain political power exploiting the defeated South without intending to stay.

[12] The Azalea Festival in Charleston, launched in 1934, makes clear “the shift away from the climate“ and scenery the tourist machinery had undergone. It is a nostalgic spectacle focusing on “local color” (Brundage 219).

[13] In 1921 the town of Colfax, La, erected a monument that read „In the loving memory of the three heroes [who had fallen] in the Colfax Riot fighting for White Supremacy“ (Harris 248).

[14] Andrew Lytle (1902-1995) was a poet, novelist, and playwright from Tennessee. He was educated at Vanderbilt University, a recipient of the National Book Award, and was the youngest of the Southern Agrarians (see Owsley 5).

[15] Naturally, this, to a certain extent, also applies to the Northern or Western part of the United States, and although an examination of the set of Northern traits and details and their differences to the Southern set would be interesting, they cannot be subject of discussion here. I argue that the South has a special position within the United States and therefore its stereotypical presentation and actual peculiarities have a somewhat broader range than their Northern counterparts. I will restrict my inquiries to the Southern set and will only contrast them to the Northern correspondents when helpful for my argument.

[16] Paul Prather is an award-winning contemporary Southern author, minister, and newspaper columnist from Kentucky.

[17] Stephen Coyne is a contemporary Southern author and professor of English.

[18] Lucia Nevai is a contemporary author of short stories and one novel so far.

[19] Cynthia Shearer (1955-) is a novelist from Oxford, MS and former curator of Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner. She has published two novels, The Wonder Book of the Air (1996) and The Celestial Jukebox (2005) .

[20] A symptom of this phenomenon is that there has not yet emerged a successful and enduring Western or Northern counterpart to the celebrated annual series of short fiction New Stories from the South (see Gatreaux VII). During my research I encountered the annual series Best of the West, featuring short stories about or by authors from the West. Apparently this Western series wasn’t very successful, subsiding after only four issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Allison Graham argues that this is the case because the West has overcome its status as an imaginary stereotypical landscape, which is clearly not the case with the South (see Graham 335).

[21] Cormac McCarthy took bricks from the house James Agee grew up in and built a wall in his own house with them (see Arnold 4). This could be seen as a metaphorical attempt to incorporate the other writer’s spirit and genius in his own life and work, or at least as an honorary gesture. This is a pattern to be witnessed with much of Southern literature and many authors. As much as they share a body of themes, ideas, and formal characteristics, they are also often educated at the same universities, have the same attitude towards literature and the role of the poet, and a lot of times identical references.

[22] The Report of the President’s Committee on Farm Tenancy in 1937 stated that 1.1 million white families in the South were tenant farmers or sharecroppers, which forced them to live in extreme poverty with little hope of improvement (see Kidd 110).

[23] Often impoverished planters held onto their property, most of them never reconciling „themselves to the challenge of the new society“ (Harris 247).

[24] Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987) was a Southern author who addressed the problems and issues of so-called white trash people in Georgia (see Schulze 447).

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Writing against the odds - the South's cultural and literary struggle against progress and modernity
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (IEAS)
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Julia Merkel (Author), 2008, Writing against the odds - the South's cultural and literary struggle against progress and modernity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/112541


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