Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Lost Childhood in Southern Literature

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Lost Childhood in Southern Literature

Article excerpt

Lost childhood has been one of Southern literature's most pervasive themes, informing the fiction of writers across generations. From Mark Twain to William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, from Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor to a legion of contemporary Southern writers-lost, orphaned, and abandoned children have emerged as some of Southern literature's most memorable characters. Huck Finn, of course, is the prototypical lost boy in American fiction, his sense of displacement and psychological lostness echoed in such literary descendants as Quentin Compson (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!), Eugene Gant (Look Homeward, Angel), Mick Kelly (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), and the character of Ellen in Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. Indeed, lost children abound in modern Southern literature, their lives upended by family conflict, dissolution, abuse, and trauma. Social and cultural upheavals, particularly in fiction since the 1960s, also affect their lives and often their very survival. Issues of race, gender, social class, and religion add complexity to the child character's experience of lostness in a rapidly changing South.

For many years, the theme of lost childhood in Southern literature has driven my work as a teacher and scholar. The significance of the topic did not become clear to me until Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in late August of 2005. Like millions of Americans, I watched the horror unfold on television as children and families suffered losses of unimaginable proportions. Coming on the heels of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina represented yet another national tragedy, one brought about by Mother Nature and perpetuated by human indifference, ineptitude, and, dare I say, racism. I had just taught Wolfe's The Lost Boy and Ellen Foster in my summer course, "Growing Up Southern," at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The overwhelming feelings of lostness in these works mirrored what I saw the people ofNew Orleans and the Gulf region experience. Although I was miles away and safely removed from the tragedy, this was ground zero for me, the real starting point for looking at representations of lostness that has defined my work since. For me, The Lost Boy and Ellen Foster epitomize lost childhood and function as touchstones for teaching and writing about Southern literature, something that Hurricane Katrina made patently clear was my obligation to do. These texts, the storm, and the profound dimensions of grief and loss are forever intertwined in my mind. I cannot think of one without thinking of the others.

First published in 1937, The Lost Boy gives name to the theme of lost children that has permeated much of Southern literature.1 Wolfe's moving account of his search for his older brother Grover recounts a period of personal and family trauma. In its haunting treatment of a sibling's life and death, The Lost Boy captures the lostness that informed much of Wolfe's fiction, which includes such well-known works as Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Of Time and the River (1935), and You Can't Go Home Again (1940). The four-part novella, told through the perspectives of various family members, including Grover himself months before his death at age twelve, was one of the last works Wolfe published during his lifetime. It reveals an acute sense of lost time and youth, a theme that resonates throughout the writer's oeuvre. The Lost Boy first appeared in edited form in Redbook Magazine in November of 1937, just ten months before Wolfe's death from tuberculous meningitis at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of thirty-eight. His rendering of loss and lostness in the novella provides a sensitive expression of human sympathy, stemming in part from the world in which he lived. The Lost Boy spans a thirty-year period marked by serious loss on many fronts-World War I; the 1918 influenza pandemic that claimed Grover's twin brother, Ben; the Great Depression; and the beginnings of another cataclysmic world war. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.