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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18 thoughts on “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?”

  1. Great post, Mike! Of course I would include Mark Twain in this group. He was a southern and I can’t think of a writer who did a better job at expressing the southern character in all its vast contradictions, primarily pitiful and lovable. Of course this applies to all men and Twain clearly expressed that clearly, but when he talks about Westerners and Southerners the humor—and emotional truth—just carries you away in laughter; which, of course, as Twain would point out, no sham can survive the steady assault of laughter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeff,

      I agree that Twain (and many others) deserves to be included. I re-read Huckleberry Finn a couple of months ago and was surprised at the levels of thought it contains. It’s a very different read than when I was 12 or even in my early 20s.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post. If I may be so bold, I wrote an historical two-book saga about a Southern family from the FL panhandle who are caught up in the Civil War/Reconstruction era. Based on a real family and facts. Out of print for about a year, it’s going to be re-released in a few months by another publisher. I put ten years of research and writing into the book, and I believe it’s the best thing I’ve written. Sorry for blowing my horn, but I’m Southern and love to identify with Southern writers (although I don’t and would never dare claim to be anywhere near those masters mentioned in the post). I suppose what I’m getting at is that I “feel” the call and pull of the South, my homeland.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. E. Michael Helms,

      It’s a rich though misunderstood culture, one that has produced more than its share of soldiers, political leaders, preachers, and writers.

      As for tooting, you’re most welcome. Let me know when your book is re-released, and I’ll post something about it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I, too write novels and stories about the South. Like Flannery O’Connor, I write through the lens of my Catholic faith. Renkl’s article in the New York Times does not address all southern writers and her statement– ‘observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart,” is somewhat patronizing, and totally irritating.
      https://aworldontheedge.com/2018/01/19/southern-writers-catholic-writers-2/

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This post earned many re-readings and much consideration.

    Rather than Southerners, it seems Margaret Renkl speaks of mankind broadly, noting “… loving its flawed and beautiful people, … believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.”

    Readers may prefer something more conclusive, which you stated quite eloquently as “… celebration of the human ability to stagger to one’s feet after disaster and relish the beauty and mystery of life despite it all.” – – Well put!

    Like

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