What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?

Writing in the New York Times, Margaret Renkl grapples with the nature and resilience of the Southern literary tradition. Not only does Southern literature claim such past greats as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, but modern-day Southern writers, such as Wendell Berry, Ron Rash, and Ann Patchett, who continue to build on that tradition. How can this be, Renkl asks, in a region that is undergoing such profound changes? Her conclusion is worth considering:

It has all made me wonder: What if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural tropes or lyrical prose or a lush landscape or humid heat so thick it’s hard to breathe? What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave? Of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee? … Maybe being a Southern writer is only a matter of loving a damaged and damaging place, of loving its flawed and beautiful people, so much that you have to stay there, observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.

Much has been said about how art often arises from pain, something the South has known all too well. Sometimes, suffering can lead to insights not obvious to those who have evaded bad times. In addition to such recurring themes as the joys and anguish of family, history, and nature, Southern literature often questions the triumphalism and confidence in progress seen in the works of Northern writers. And yet, Southerners love their heroes, characters who press on despite the odds, as well as tales of glory and derring-do. Robert E. Howard’s stories are well-known for both their pessimism about progress and their celebration of courage in desperate situations.

I’d argue that the chief attraction of Southern writing is the genre’s celebration of the human ability to stagger to one’s feet after disaster and relish the beauty and mystery of life despite it all. As William Faulkner wrote in The Sound and The Fury, “Wonder. Go on and wonder.” Good advice.

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Quote of the day

Picture by David Shankbone

“In order to be clear it is necessary to at least consider the possibility that we actually may not be. It requires stepping outside of one’s self, reading a sentence as if we were another person (not us) who didn’t understand, and even sort of admire the newly minted gold on the screen or the page. It requires a kind of humility, an ability not to take everything personally and to separate ourselves from our work. Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.” Francine Prose

For more thoughts on the social value of literature, see here and here.

Bright Star

Steve Martin

My wife and I saw “Bright Star” yesterday. We loved it. You will too, and I’ll tell you why.

On the surface, it’s a typical musical, bustling with subplots about young love, the pains and joys of family relations, and Southern gothic melodrama, all peppered with timely comic relief. But it’s really about writing, editing, and language itself. Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) wrote the book, and in addition to his accomplishments as an actor, director, and musician, is a gifted writer. He knows what it’s like to be rejected, to hang in there, and finally get that first manuscript published.

Billy Cane, just returned to Zebulon, North Carolina after serving in WWII, has a bad case of the writing bug. It’s so bad, he’s willing to leave his beloved home town and move to Asheville to endure the rigors of pleasing a demanding editor and her good cop/bad cop assistants. All writers will appreciate young Billy’s exchanges with his editor, who’s brutally honest with what she sees as a promising talent. At one point, she shoves a manuscript back at him as if it’s toxic, then lets another dangle in her fingers and says, “This may be acceptable if you delete 300 words.” Poor Billy scans a few pages, scratches his head, and replies, “Could you tell me WHICH 300?”

There are many references to the Southern writing tradition. Steve Martin, who was born in Texas, knows a thing or two about language’s ability to uplift, to wound, and to connect with others, familiar and rich themes often explored in Southern literature. This musical is a celebration of faith in one’s family, in one’s ability to persevere, and to hope. If you get the chance, don’t miss this one. It’s a winner.