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.”