Writers of the South

By Gillis, Anna Maria | Humanities, July/August 1998 | Go to article overview

Writers of the South


Gillis, Anna Maria, Humanities


"Is It True What They Say About Dixie?"

CREATIVE INSPIRATION often arises from tumult and from complicated history, but dramatic events do not by themselves explain why writers blossom. What is it about the South that made it an incubator for dozens of writers, including literary Nobelists, and Pulitzer and National Book Award winners?

In Tell About the South, an NEHfunded, three-part film series on the history of modern Southern literature, writers and scholars discuss how the Southern experience produced novelists as varied as William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Walker Percy,i Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright. As they attempt to answer this big question, writers tell personal tales describing how they chose their crafts, the challenges they faced tackling emotionally charged issues like race, and what some writers see as their ultimate obligation. The title of the series is borrowed from a scene in one of Faulkner's darker stories, Absalom, Absalom!, says Ross Spears, the project's director. In the story, Quentin Compson, a young man from a once-proud Southern family is asked by his Canadian roommate at Harvard to "Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all."

Compson tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who rose from poor white roots to become a large landholder and slave owner. Sutpen's motivation was a slight that he perceived from a house slave who had ordered him from the front to the back door as a boy. "His issue was how to make up for his pride being hurt," says Paul Gaston, history advisor to the series.

In his quest to salve the hurt, Sutpen's ambition drives him to have what wealthy whites had, but in the process, he destroys himself and the people around him in a tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks. "The story is a metaphor for the South after the Civil War," says Gaston, who assigned the book to students of Southern history when he was a professor at the University of Virginia. "The South crumbled not because Sherman came marching through, but because of an unaddressed moral flaw."

Gaston and other scholars and writers think the intrusion of unresolved history into the present has fueled many of the South's great writers-white and black-from Faulkner to Toni Morrison, both winners of the Nobel Prize. "What unifies them is the central dilemma[people's] inability to reconcile with the past," says Gaston.

Morrison, who grew up in Ohio, is considered a Southern writer because of her Southern roots and because she addresses the region's experience in her work. "For me, roots are less a matter of where we live than a sense of shared history; less to do with place, than with inner space; the freedom to be oneself. And to have this freedom, one must somehow reconcile the shared past, the Southern past, with the individual present."

African American and white Southern novelists have other commonalities, according to Ladell Payne. In Black Novelists and the Southern Literary Tradition, Payne wrote that "both literatures draw upon a folk culture, grow out of evangelical Protestantism, and rely on oral narrative devices; both literatures emphasize a sense of locus, stress the importance of family, are concerned about the relationship between man and history, and dwell on an individual's search for identity at a time of social chaos; finally, at their best, both literatures deal honestly with black-white relationships."

Southern writers have often spoken to readers about the pain in race relations and in the search for identity, perhaps none more elegantly than Ralph Ellison. The opening to his 1947 classic, Invisible Man, still stands as a challenge to people to look at other human beings: "I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. …

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