Europeans are fond of ridiculing Americans for being ignorant of history, of having an inferior, though often lively, indigenous culture. This is due partly to the fact that Europeans still see America as a brash youth, a country whose history is too brief to be consequential. The well-known American obsession with the instant and the short-term had produced, in the eyes of Europeans, a citizenry that had no affinity for the long view in any matter in which time was a central character. America, to Europeans, was no more than an upstart in the annals of human events, a country bedeviled by a memory shorter than a goldfish’s. Indeed, this view is vindicated by any number of man-on-the-street interviews with American college students who reveal that they don’t know which side won the Civil War and who believe that the Monroe Doctrine has something to do with a movie star.
Even Americans have to admit there’s some truth to this exaggerated portrait. For the American Southerner, though, it’s as much a pathology as a portrait, compounded by the awareness that they’re seen as the unique inheritors of a corrupt patrimony, inferior not only in the eyes of the world, but of other regions of their own country. As a consequence, the Southerner has learned to suffer his fate in silent discomfiture, holding within a deep-seated if lonely pride regarding himself and his region’s claims on history. They know the American South that lives in their bloodstreams grew out of complex beginnings in a fascinating, though often flawed, process. They know, too, that the region gave birth to and has sustained a culture rich with attachments to soil and soul, to ritual and romance. Its writers constitute a world-class tribe, acute investigators of the fallen human heart; its historians have examined and measured its pulse and health, its occasional bouts of sickness, with the same sophistication as their European brethren do for their native lands. In the belief that the Southern spirit is enriched by having its roots and branches regularly freshened and its memory deepened, the following list is offered as an inventory of some of its intellectual wellsprings, aiming to authenticate some of the claims and claimants to the South’s uniqueness.
- The Burden of Southern History by C. Vann Woodward
In 1960 the scholar who has come to be known as the South’s preeminent historian made an audacious prediction. “The time is coming, if indeed it has not already arrived,” he wrote, “when the Southerner will begin to ask himself whether there is really any longer very much point in calling himself a Southerner.” Half-a-century later, were the Arkansan C. Vann Woodward still alive, he would see that only a minority of the shoppers at a place like Atlanta’s Lenox Square were likely to be Georgians. In Chapel Hill, where he was an undergraduate, he would see that the technocrats from the nearby Research Triangle were similarly far-flung in their origins. The South was now a mosaic, not a monolith, a circumstance that Woodward would likely view, if not with satisfaction, at least without surprise.
Woodward’s central thesis, elaborated in the essays that make up his highly readable classic The Burden of Southern History, was that what had not changed in the South was its history, not as it existed as a document in the words of historians, but how its substance had imposed a collective experience on Southerners that was ultimately inescapable. In conspicuous ways, Woodward argued, the South’s history had departed from the country’s history as a whole. It had been poorer, less optimistic about its ability to overcome obstacles; it was not always assured that success would be its inevitable prize; it had been decisively defeated in a war; and it had the heavy legacy of the peculiar institution of slavery on its conscience. Those factors constituted the South’s “burden,” as Woodward put it, and its scribes would enshrine those qualities in literature, one whose subject matter avoided the usual optimistic myths of American history in favor of what Woodward called “the somber realities of hardship and evil and defeat.” The breakdown of that history has been Woodward’s scholarly mission, told in a prose style that was influenced by Southern novelists whose work he had immersed himself in, that made it possible to go deeper into his subject matter and to make its results more comprehensible than academic history typically allows.
- The Children of Pride by Robert Manson Myers
If there is a book about Southern history that warrants being called Tolstoyan, it’s Robert Manson Myers’s The Children of Pride. Its sweep—more than 1800 pages of text and notes—is matched only by its particularity, a thorough and unremitting description of events in the mid-1800’s in Georgia that slowly evolved into senseless tragedy, a tragedy that destroyed a place and a sensibility, a way of life that had been characterized by refinement and civility, but that was disastrously unable to understand the evils of slavery, the source of labor on which their prosperity was built. Although Myers’s task in putting together his masterpiece, culled from the thousands of letters exchanged among members of a Georgia family, was mainly that of editor rather than writer, it was his gift for narrative and synthesis that shaped what might have been an intractable trove of primary material into a moving, novel-like story.
Myers’s prologue to The Children of Pride sets the stage for his epic. He tells the story of the Rev. Dr. Charles Colcock Jones and his family, prominent in Midway, Liberty County, Georgia. Then he allows their letters to provide the details of their own story, which is one of good fortune in business affairs, piety to their God, and civic devotion to their community. By dint of hard work and clever instincts, the Joneses established a kind of fiefdom in their corner of coastal Georgia, which they oversee with what they believe is enlightened by biblical teachings, a vision by which all are intended to gain both worldly and spiritual wealth. All, that is, except the more than 100 slaves whose backs they own, and whom they treat as ignorant children dependent on whites for survival. This paradox is the moral fulcrum on which Children is balanced. As the destruction of the Civil War moves toward and ultimately overtakes them, the Joneses attempt to continue the civilized life they’ve known for generations. But finally their world is reduced to what one correspondent calls “a skeleton.”
In the book’s final letter, Mary Jones, the family’s matriarch, writes to one of her daughters about her recently deceased husband: “I have engaged a slab, and leave an inscription to be placed upon it. Wish I could have consulted you all, but I could not leave your father’s grave uncared for, and have done the best I could.” A hundred years later, Robert Manson Myers continued that care with the same kind of scrupulosity.
- Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
The most familiar image of Flannery O’Connor shows her standing awkwardly on the brick steps of the modest country dwelling where she lived the last years of her life with her mother. She supports her lupus-weakened body on a pair of stainless steel crutches, a tight smile, or perhaps a grimace of expectation, on her face. Although it appears that she might be about to tumble forward down the steps, she has a firm grip on the crutches. She’d be the first to say that the only prosthesis she ever needed was the everlasting arms of her Catholic faith.
She had gained an early reputation in the literary world from a series of novels and short stories whose religious themes and grotesque characters had attracted and repelled alike a growing assembly of readers. Her fictional world, often called “Christ-haunted,” was geographically Southern, populated by misfits, traveling salesmen, and ecstatic evangelists who preached self-invented gospels. She was acknowledged as the premier figure of a literary school that came to be known as “Southern gothic,” though she herself abhorred the notion of literary schools.
After her death in 1964, with her literary standing firmly established, a cache of her essays was gathered and edited by friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald under the title Mystery and Manners. These essays revealed another side of O’Connor’s genius. She had an uncommon understanding of where her writing came from and what the underpinnings of her religious beliefs were—that radiance which illumined everything about her—and she could cast both into essays that shed a bright interpretive light on what was her sometimes perplexing work. These essays, delivered during her life to an assortment of audiences at small colleges and at literary occasions, published in obscure theological and literary journals, provide a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a singular literary imagination.
In one crucial essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor builds a case for why she rejects the school of realism—a style growing out of the everyday lives of ordinary people—in favor of “experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day.” This approach, she believed, leads the writer toward mystery—that ideal destination of the seeker, removing the work from the world of sentiment to the universe of the moral and the intellectual. In other words, she was becoming more and more a poet, a detective of peripheries, willing to go against the grain to find the immutable in the midst of flux that had made her a believer in the first place. She died, confident that the grotesque she had written about held the key to understanding the darkness that was so much a part of the Southern sensibility.
- I’ll Take My Stand, edited by John Crowe Ransom
Part polemic, part elegy, I’ll Take My Stand is a unique document in the annals of American history. Its aim was to plumb the depths of one region’s psyche, that of the South, which was visibly sick at a time of stress and change in the nation, and to extract from that examination what most deeply defined the region’s nature and character, and turn that into a cure for its invalidism. No other region had been so homogeneous, so unique in its attributes, as to be susceptible to that kind of region-wide exhumation. The operation itself involved many physicians—poets, novelists, critics, educators, all Southern-born, most attached to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
It was the time of the Great Depression, and the South’s agriculture-based economy had seemingly run aground. The country at large had embraced for its economic restoration the promise of industrialization, turning to the machine and the assembly line. The romantic cast of mind of the Vanderbilt intellectuals, who called themselves Fugitives, rejected that solution as dehumanizing, the abandonment of a destiny. They viewed agrarianism as central to the South’s creation and sustenance, and proposed a radical return to it not only as an economic cure but as a way to restore lost Southern traditions.
The document they created was an uneven manifesto that included contributions from figures like Allen Tate, John Gould Fletcher, and Robert Penn Warren. Some were dense with obscurity, such as Tate’s contribution, a rambling exercise he called ”Remarks on the Southern Religion,” but which was a patchwork quilt that brought in Oedipus and the Symbolist poets, Tiresias and T. S. Eliot. Finally, Tate admits his ineptitude on the subject of religion, saying he did not pretend to be able to put before the reader “the full horse.” In Andrew Lytle’s witty contribution, “The Hind Tit,” he complained that the South had too long settled for less than it was owed, and that a full return to agrarianism was imperative. He resisted calls for modernizing agriculture as the way farmers could achieve prosperity. “A farm,” he retorted, “is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn.”
I’ll Take My Stand failed in its central ambition, of course. The South did not return to agrarianism, and today distances itself from agriculture more with the passing years. But it could be argued that the book’s prophecies were accurate, even more so if extrapolated to the present. The loss of the region’s identity that came with industrialization has continued with the rise of technology, whose swift conquest of the contemporary mind has left us strangers to each other, heads bent perpetually away from nature to better consult the avatars who reside in tombs of plastic.
- The Fathers by Allen Tate
In the late 1930’s the American reading public had their appetites whetted by a Civil War potboiler by Margaret Mitchell entitled Gone with the Wind. In typical copycat fashion, the country’s publishers sought to feed that appetite by rushing more books with Civil War backgrounds into the market place. One of those was a novel the Kentucky-born writer Allen Tate had been working on for years. Tate was a Vanderbilt graduate, a celebrated poet and critic who wrote from a place of considerable intellectual accomplishment, and whose abiding interest in Southern history, especially the Civil War, had produced biographies of Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. His most famous poem was “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” He was convinced that he had at least one novel in him, and decided that his long-standing effort to understand his troubled relationship to Southern history would be the subject of that novel. The final result was The Fathers, an amalgam of personal history and novelized imagination, which was urged into the marketplace in 1938 by his publisher in the hope that it would be another Gone with the Wind.
That ambition quickly fizzled. The Fathers is a novel of high seriousness, aimed well above the popular taste of the time. Where Mitchell’s book had traded in melodrama and dubious history, Tate’s came from a classically-educated intellect that was steeped in the paradigms of myth and the struggles of Greek and Roman warfare. His own family’s Southern roots had been deep, though they didn’t reach into the aristocracy as his mother had misinformed him when he was growing up. Tate knew the manners and morals of the Old South, though, how its people lived and what they lived for. In designing his novel as a clash between traditions and sensibilities, he wrote it in a tone of anguish, refusing to romanticize its tragedy, including the damage that such a clash inflicts on fathers and sons, on lovers and love. Tate might have been writing about The Fathers when he included these lines in “Ode to the Confederate Dead”:
“Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth—they will not last.”
- As I Lay Dying by William FaulknerHe was called Count No ’Count by his neighbors in Oxford, Mississippi, because he had an aristocratic disdain that his neighbors saw no basis for. He was fired for dereliction of duties when, through family connections, he had been made postmaster of the same town, preferring to read rather than put up the mail. He said he “refused to be at the beck and call of every SOB who had a penny for a postcard.”
William Faulkner was an anomaly in the place of his origin, where his ancestors, who originally spelled their name “Falkner,” had lived for generations. After stints in Europe during the war, and later in New Orleans, he resided in a rundown manse outside of Oxford, a town conveniently furnished with a decent university. There he had discovered and absorbed the literary influences that were being born in Europe, grafted them onto his own novels which he set in an imaginary county in Mississippi, spiced them with authentic Southern vernacular, and cracked open his narratives with a deftly-wielded hammer. These novels were barely noticed when first published but received a miraculous rebirth when they were later discovered by an influential critic named Malcolm Cowley, and Faulkner was proclaimed a Modernist master.
As I Lay Dying is a product of Faulkner’s most prolific period, a novel characterized by stylistic eccentricities and shifting points of view. A family of rustics named Bundren is crafting a coffin for the family matriarch, Addie, while Addie, in wandering states of consciousness, watches from her deathbed. The coffin finished, the Bundrens set out across the state to take Addie to her place of ultimate rest, encountering many obstacles along the way. The story is narrated by a constellation of voices and short chapters, each distinctive—comic, absurd, deeply lyrical, even mystical. One chapter ends in mid-sentence, one is a numbered list of directions for building a coffin on the bevel (“a body is not square like a crosstie”), and one is a simple observation when Addie, in her coffin, plunges into a river, “My mother is a fish.”
This bundle of shards is a moving tale in the end, confounding, too, persistently eluding its readers who look for ultimate coherence in it. Faulkner is showing his readers that there are new ways of comprehending a novel if they will trust the maker, follow his many streams of consciousness where they lead. The brilliance of As I Laying Dying is its mercury-like fluidity that breaks and flows simultaneously, carrying a mysterious narrative on its back, its serio-comic meditations on death. Now, almost a century later, Faulkner’s influence has reached across time and continents, reshaping the nature of the novel, entering the international literary consciousness as no other American writer has.
- All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren, who died at age 84 in 1989, had the longest and most varied career of any Southern writer. He made significant contributions to every aspect of the literary arts, continuing to write award-winning poetry right up until his death. He even fathered a child who was to become a member of the generation of poets following him—his daughter Rosanna, the author of several books of poetry, translation, and criticism.
A significant period of Robert Penn Warren’s literary career took place in the state of Louisiana, where he taught at LSU for many years. During that time he was able to view up close Louisiana’s politics, infamous for corruption and for its colorful politicians. He took that experience and transmuted it into a novel, All the King’s Men, a study in the ways a populist politician had his ideals debased by power and money. Warren had taken the biography and political traits of a real Louisiana governor, Huey Long, and given them to a fictional creation, Willie Stark, adding traits of Greek tragedy to the story and its fallen hero.
All the King’s Men is narrated by Jack Burden, Stark’s political aide and speech writer, a former newspaperman who’d shared Stark’s original ideals. Over time he observes Stark’s slide into crony politics, his skill at building a self-serving political machine, his betrayals of the constituency that had brought him to power in the first place. Demoralized by the corruption of his former hero, Burden renounces the idealism that had brought him to politics, and adopts the nihilistic posture of an alienated intellectual, a man who refuses to participate in the world or to believe in its aspirations. The final one-third of the novel follows Burden back to political faith by way of a redemptory journey that takes him out of the South long enough to gain a new perspective on it and an ultimate return to it and final atonement.
Warren’s treatment of Stark as the victim of corrupted ideals has deep roots in the morality of hope and the politics that grows out of it. Both Willie Stark and Jack Burden discovered their fates while exploring the fragile structures they’d found in a way of thinking they hoped would offer them a way out of its traps. One found himself lost in the house of politics; the other found that the same house had a door that led him in and another that led him out. Warren sets his readers inside that house through the eyes of Jack Burden, and lets us decide whether the house of politics is a place of deliverance or a dead-end.