Southern Writers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The South is nothing if not a literary hot-house. It produces writers the way Finland used to turn out runners and the Catskills made comedians. Who can say why? Surely a history or roiling political and personal conflict has helped to produce material, and for backdrop there has always been the crumbling antebellum mansions, the moss-draped oaks, the singing hot summer nights. Nowhere in the land is there a stronger tradition for storytelling. Words, spoken and written, still matter in the South. This may be the only region where people don't talk in ragged shorthand, where sentences are not only finished but exulted upon.

From Joel Chandler Harris to Wolfe and Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Carson McCullers, and Walker Percy, the South continues to breed literary genius, and the joy of it all is that the houses they wrote in, the people and places that inspired them can be seen and visited. Two invaluable aids to any literary pilgrimage are Stephanie Kraft's "No Castles on Main Street: American Authors and Their Homes" (New York: Rand McNally in hard-cover, Penguin in paperback) and Rita Stein's "A Literary Tour Guide to the United States: South and Southwest" (New York: William Morrow).

Both authors would agree, I think, that Thomas Wolfe's Asheville, N.C., and William Faulkner's Oxford, Miss., are two of the most sought-after literary shrines. Asheville, in the highlands of western North Carolina, was portrayed as Altamont in "Look Homeward, Angel," and the boarding house that Wolfe called Dixieland, now a museum, still stands at 48 Spruce Street, bearing the sign his family gave it 75 years ago, Old Kentucky Home. Wolfe did not write happily of the boardinghouse or of Asheville itself, but he didn't spare his family either, which probably kept the citizenry from the Wolfe's door when the book was published in 1929. The local library did not stock his novel, Stephanie Kraft writes in "No Castles," "until F. Scott Fitzgerald, visiting Asheville while his wife, Zelda, was a patient at Highland Hospital there, presented the library with a set of Wolfe's works."

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The house on Spruce Street, administered by the city as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, comes to life as the prototype early 20th-century boardinghouse, full of factory-made oak furniture and family pictures. Almost all the furnishings once belonged to the Wolfes, and there is a room in memory of the man who said "You can't go home again" -- typewriter, briefcase, brass lamp, and well-traveled suitcase, all gathered from his last New York apartment.

William Faulkner did not exactly exalt the residents of his Yoknapatawpha County, but as Rita Stein notes in her literary tour guide, "the people of Oxford nevertheless revere Faulkner." His handsome antebellum house, Rowan Oak, on Old Taylor Road near the University of Mississippi, is not easily found. There are no signs, no commercial come-ons. This is the university's way of preserving the author's much coveted privacy and treating the house with the dignity of an academic building. Set in a grove of oaks and cedars on 31 acres, Rowan Oak "still resonates with Faulkner's spirit," Ms. Stein writes in her state-by-state guidebook. She goes on:

"The most important room in the house for Faulkner was his study, or his 'office,' as he called it, in the tradition of the office of an old plantation, where the owner kept his accounts. It has been left intact, furnished as it was when Faulkner wrote "Absalom, Absalom!" "As I lay Dying," "Light in August," and "The Sound and the Fury." His old Underwood portable typewriter stands on a scratched wooden table, and opposite is a day bed on which he would rest."

Florida literary trails lead to Ernest Hemingway's Spanish colonial house at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West, but Hemingway lived as something of an expatriate in that distant corner of the US and didn't write of the South. The latter, perhaps, can be said of Carl Sandburg, who lived on a 240-acre farm at Flat Rock, N.C., from 1945 until his death, at 89, in 1967. This working farm called Connemara, not far from Wolfe's Asheville, is a national historic site.

Flannery O'Connor's Georgia, a backcountry world of clay hills, pine woods, sharecroppers, and itinerant swindlers, is very much alive at her farmhouse in Milledgeville. You can also find the poet Sydney Lanier's Marshes of Glynn near Brunswick, Ga., eerie Poe associations at the Edgar Allan Poe museum in Richmond , Va., Uncle Remus and his friends at the Joel Chandler Harris house in Atlanta and at Eatonton, his hometown, and the mood of "Gone with the Wind" at Jonesboro , Margaret Mitchell's living model, 30 minutes south of Atlanta.

Both guides point the way to Florida cracker country where Marjorie Keenan Rawlings (1896-1953), author of "The Yearling," lived and worked in her beloved, uninsulated board-and-batten farmhouse at Cross Creek. She came down from upstate New York in the late 1920s, bought the house sight unseen, struggled with the land and livestock, and lived daily, she said, with "toadyfrogs, lizards, antses, and varmints." Cross Creek, willed to the University of Florida nearby at Gainesville and leased to the state, has been restored with the aid of convict labor from the state prison at Raiford, Stephanie Kraft writes. The round writing table with its palm log base still sits on the porch.

In "Cross Creek," an account of the difficult but rewarding life she carved for herself in Florida, Mrs. Rawlings suggests that the house, finally, is owned by the redbirds and not her, "for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages." And what of the land itself, she asks?

"It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time."

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