Southern Literature Is Alive and Doing Well

Article excerpt

Southern literature is, and has been through most of the 20th

century, a favorite topic of study, discussion, criticism among

academics, writers and readers.

Why so many great Southern writers?

What's different in the South that produces Ellen Glasgow,

William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker,

Peter Taylor and hundreds more?

Traditionally, the explanation is that the South that nurtured

many of its greatest writers was a community of shared values,

where everyone had a place and everyone was in place, and

virtually all had a common experience and at least rudimentary

knowledge of the Bible that enabled writers and readers access

to powerful language, metaphors, symbolism.

After he won the National Book Award, Walker Percy was asked

why the South was different. His answer: because the South lost

the Civil War. The lost war became, for the South, a fall,

shaping its inhabitants as people of lost innocence, providing

its writers with a context unlike any other in America.

Flannery O'Connor adds to Percy's observation: ". . . we were

doubly blessed, not only in our fall, but in having means to

interpret it. Behind our own history, deepening it at every

point, has been another history. H.L. Mencken called the South

the Bible Belt, in scorn and thus in incredible innocence.

"In the South we have, in however attenuated a form, a vision

of Moses' face as he pulverized our idols. This knowledge is

what makes the Georgia writer different from the writer from

Hollywood or New York."

O'Connor (1925-1964) was born in Savannah, lived and wrote in

Milledgeville.

Perhaps there are better books about writing than Mystery and

Manners, a collection of O'Connor's occasional writing edited

after her death by her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, but

I don't know one. Mystery and Manners, first published in 1969,

has just been re-released in a trade paperback edition by The

Noonday Press ($12).

Following her through an analysis of writing, particularly

Southern writing, is as fresh and pithy and to the point as when

the work was new, though the South, of course, is quite

different from the way it was when she was alive.

O'Connor discusses the Gothic and grotesque aspect of much

Southern writing, including her own, and says most Southern

writers are viewed as an "unhappy combination of Poe and Erskine

Caldwell."

She says that the grotesque and freakish rules in many Southern

tales, because Southerners are able to recognize a freak.

In 1960, she told an assembly at Wesleyan College for Women in

Macon, Ga.: "To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have

some conception of the whole man, and in the South, the general

concept of man is still, in the main, theological. . . . from

the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that

while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly

Christ-haunted. …