When Geoffrey Chaucer chronicled the tales of an assortment of English pilgrims headed to Canterbury, his resulting epic showed that the aims of his travelers were mixed, frequently motivated as much by the risible and the lecherous as by the solemn and the spiritual. Centuries later, the religious pilgrimage, especially in America and in the American South, had been replaced by the literary pilgrimage, the writer now playing the role of secular object of worship. Though the twentieth-century practice was often solitary, unlike Chaucer’s collective pilgrims, and stimulated by obscure stirrings, it had its garish side as well, a not altogether noble undertaking that the objects of its celebration could well disapprove of.
Now comes Margaret Eby and her own tales of pilgrimage, South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature. (The obvious borrowing from Willie Morris is apposite—Morris had to go North to discover his Southern roots; Eby never had any doubts about where her own roots were located.) Eby makes it clear from the start that she’s a true believer in the superiority of Southern literature, a certainty instilled in her as early as high school, when she undertook her first forays into the domestic precincts of her writing idols. In the years since, she’s immersed herself in the life stories and works of the Southern literary aristocracy, and here she offers reflections on a cross-section of its finest, from the magus William Faulkner to the prematurely departed John Kennedy Toole, and later their grittier second and third cousins, Harry Crews and Larry Brown.
For Eby, an almost uncritical consumer of Southern literature, the written word and a writer’s affect aren’t enough to satisfy. She must slog the same dirt roads, hear the songs of the same mockingbirds, touch the same brass doorknobs that Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty did, unconsciously creating in those acts the equivalent of holy relics and holy ground. When Eby makes her way to Oxford, Mississippi, she reflects on William Faulkner’s capacity for liquor, the elixir that often fueled the writing of his densely designed novels that only a sober man can read. But she also sees in Oxford the rather shameless exploitation for profit of the man locals once called Count No Count.
She describes Flannery O’Connor’s flamboyant peacocks, the backyard garden cultivated by Eudora Welty. She goes to Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee’s hometown and the stage set where Atticus and Scout and Jem enacted the myths of innocence found and lost in a world waiting to catch up with history. She sees a town that wavers between the respectful and the commercial when it comes to acknowledging the home town’s favorite daughter. When Eby goes looking for Lee, she finds her not at her house but fast asleep in the local nursing home where she now resides, and declines to disturb the afternoon nap of the eighty-nine-year-old woman who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Eby also visits the places where Barry Hannah, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, and Carson McCullers spent either their youths or their adult lives.
Edy is careful not to claim that pilgrimages such as hers result in a deeper understanding of an author’s work any more than does an attentive immersion in their books. The written word, after all, demands more of a reader than simply witnessing a moment of a given day’s flux, even if a famous writer once walked inside it. What she does do is create a highly readable prose that finds a balance between the genres of travel book and literary criticism, a hybrid that allows her audience into the love life of a passionate reader and admirer of writers.
Some of the sites Edy visits and writes about exist mainly because they’re profitable tourist attractions rather than as monuments to literary greatness. Others are the result of families coming to terms with old internecine quarrels about one of its notorious members. Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia, outside Milledgeville in Georgia, lay in disrepair for decades, left to ruin because O’Connor’s mother still owned it, and with no conception of her daughter’s literary importance, she wanted only for the old family place to be allowed a dignified death. In the last few years, though, the site has been brilliantly restored and is a magnet for lovers of Southern fiction. There they can experience the place where the sacred and profane works of its late resident were given birth and sent out into the world to succor the pilgrims of many strange faiths.