What Is A ‘Southern Writer’?

HowardRobert E. Howard

Laura Cooper makes the case that we can better understand and appreciate Marcel Proust if we consider him in the Southern literary tradition. She begins by offering a handy introduction to what constitutes Southern writing:

Eudora Welty thought it came from the cultural habit of tight, specific focus, on the land and the people close at hand:

“The Southerner is a local person – to a degree unknown in other sections of the United States. The Southerner always thinks of himself as being from somewhere, as belonging to some spot of earth.”

Then there’s our collective past, what Willie Morris called the “burden of memory and [the] burden of history” we all carry “in our bones.” We’re the writers we are, [Flannery] O’Connor explained, because we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.

In Walker Percy’s blunter terms, Southerners write like we do because “we lost the War.”

I occasionally hear the argument that regional styles are confining, but I disagree. You can’t write without having something to say, and nothing propels a story forward like a clear and urgent worldview. The acknowledgement of human limitations is a much-needed brake on a society racing down the dead-end road of conquering and re-engineering nature through gene splicing, Frankenfoods, and Posthumanism.

Walker Percy’s assertion that Southerners write the way we do because “we lost the War” not only ties in with O’Connor’s point about accepting human limitations, but also recognizes what gives Southern fiction its universal appeal. The history of the rest of the world includes the bitterness of losing a war and being occupied; the North never experienced that.

Identifying and embracing the local is not limiting at all, but the starting point for discovery and learning. As George Eliot once observed, “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge … The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

The shock of the old

irish-statue

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, Irish poet Seamus Heaney recalls his surprise when he learned the odd-looking Anglo-Saxon word þole (pronounced “thole”) wasn’t really alien:

I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. “They’ll just have to learn to thole,” my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was “thole” in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly editon, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line “Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,” my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered.

Learning and reading definitely widen and further one’s contact with the world. Literature, by making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, challenges us to see the world with new eyes. Recognizing an active past in our present world gives us a new dimension of life desperately needed in a live-for-the-moment consumerist society. And seeing one’s culture blossom in distant parts of the globe makes those faraway places seem a bit closer.

For more on the defining influence the Celts exerted on the South, check out Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways In The Old South.

And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to …

Nobel Prize Map

First, this from My Poetic Side:

History has been made today, as Bob Dylan has become the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is also the first American to win the award since 1993, when novelist Toni Morrison walked away with it. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said that Dylan won the award because he was “a great poet in the English speaking tradition”. It may seem like the rules have been somewhat bent for Dylan to win the award, but his lyrics are considered poems, and no one can deny that they are excellent works of literature. The award will be presented on December 10th, which is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the prize founder. …

We recently conducted some research to determine where the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature originate. If you look at the map, you will be able to get a good understanding of the countries that have had the greatest success.

No, the rules were not “bent” to give Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature; the rules were tossed along with the basic purpose of the Nobel Prizes. Now I like Bob Dylan’s work, but c’mon, he’s a folk singer. Even an aging Carl Sandburg knew better than to accept Dylan’s claim to be a poet.

Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it
Hope I don’t blow it

This is just the latest slam against legitimate literature. I’m still steamed over North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s careless appointment of a state employee who’d self-published two thin books of poems as the state’s Poet Laureate. After an outraged literary community gave him an earful, McCrory changed his mind by replacing his initial candidate with Shelby Stevenson, a poet deserving of the title.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the Nobel Committee will do an about-face and give the Literature prize to Don DeLillo, Ron Rash, or Cormac McCarthy.

Too many forces are arrayed against the simple act of reading. Click on “Read Story” on many news sites (here, for example) and you get a blaring video that snaps your attention away from the written report.

So the Nobel Prize in Literature, once a sturdy champion of writers and their readers, has turned into yet another pusher of pop culture. Yuck.

The Great KOA Getaway

The Great KOA Getaway

There’s an energizing crispness in the October air – and that’s not all. Regional festivals celebrating local wine, apples, and barbecue lure excited crowds with sweet, smoky aromas and music from homegrown bands. The squawking from a wedge of geese overhead reminds us it’s hunting and camping season. And Halloween is just around the corner.

My latest work, “The Great KOA Getaway,” should get you in the mood. It’s a flash story about an unlucky/lucky ranger caught in the middle of a little misunderstanding at a remote campground. I’d describe it as a mash-up of Twilight Zone and National Lampoon’s Vacation, with just a touch of Lovecraft thrown in. It’s available free (!) at The Flash Fiction Press.

I’ve always enjoyed stories that tickle your goosebumps and funny bone at the same time. And isn’t that what makes Halloween so much fun?

I hope “The Great KOA Getaway” brings a shiver and a smile to your day.

Best Fiction and Writing Blogs

Ron Rash

The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a [insert adjective for your region] Shakespeare. Inspired by ron.

Joanne Jeffries and Julian YanoverPoets University Infographic
Erin Beth LilesCreating Lifelike Fictional Characters
Distance LandaverdeA Love Affair with Organic form
Miguel Olmedo MorellThree representations of the fall in Lovecraft’s dream cycle
PenstrickenTen Writing Commandments
J. B. HenryInterview With Tom Abrahams
Ron RashHow I Write