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
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
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