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Why Southern writers still captivate, 55 years after 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

As 'Go Set a Watchman' is released, the South, even in the distracted age of social media, retains its place as the center of American storytelling.

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    Bookshop owner Russell Desmond at his desk in Arcadian Books, on May 28, 2015, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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Thursday evenings are leisurely affairs in Oxford, Miss., and many choose to while away the muggy hours at a bookstore in the town square, watching the taping of “Thacker Mountain Radio,” a sort of Southern-style “Prairie Home Companion” that features weekly author readings and local musical talent.

But one particular night, the producers were confronted with an unusual problem. With just minutes to go before the show was to go on the air, they found themselves without a featured literary guest. So one of the producers improvised in a way that can perhaps only be done in Oxford: She decided to march outside and simply pluck a published author from the street.

And she did – in this case a poet – with time to spare.

The joke in Oxford, hometown of William Faulkner and something of a Southern literary shrine, is that everyone who lives here is either a lawyer or a writer – and possibly both.

“If there’s one thing Southerners can agree on now, it’s their literary tradition and their writers,” says William Gantt, who directs the Southern Literary Trail, a tri-state tourist pathway through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, and who also happens to be a partner in the Birmingham, Ala., law firm Huie, Fernambucq & Stewart. “Now I can’t address the storytelling that went on in the Midwest, California, the Northeast – all I can tell you is that here in the South, because I grew up in it, it was just a part of life.”

Perhaps more than any other place since 19th-century New England, the South has been the inkwell for many of the country’s most enduring works of fiction – and Faulkner one of the most analyzed writers since Shakespeare. But without question, the most beloved story produced during that time was Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

With the summer release of Ms. Lee’s new novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” the controversial and previously unknown precursor to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” excitement is building among those within Mr. Gantt’s wide-ranging circle of literary devotees – as well as around the globe. “We’re eager I think, like the rest of the nation, to see what happens to these characters,” he says of the new novel, which already has a staggering 2 million advance copies printed.

Ms. Lee’s second book, however, is arriving in a rapid-fire Digital Age when the “serious” novel seems to have waned as a cultural force. While young adult fiction and certain other genres remain popular, literary novels have become more for an elite audience, like paintings or poetry.

American culture has also become more homogenized than it was during the days when Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty were spinning their short stories – and books have to share a diminished cultural attention span with not only movies and TV, but also with video games, YouTube, and Instagram.

Even so, the global anticipation for “Watchman” highlights those traditions of storytelling and fiction writing that Gantt, like many other Southerners, still considers something of a birthright. The region that tends to both repel and fascinate, from reality television shows such as “Duck Dynasty” to the frisson surrounding the release of “Watchman,” offers a glimpse into the forces that shape modern culture and fiction – for better and worse.

“It’s the unkillable ‘Mockingbird,’ ” says James Crank, assistant professor of American literature at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. “There are things within the Southern culture that will survive a nuclear apocalypse and have nothing to do with the real lives of Southerners. We can’t get enough of the Southern culture [that’s] pushed down our throats.”

• • •

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously wrote in 1951. “It’s not even past.”

Today in Oxford, the place where he grew up among aging former slaves and Confederate veterans, old times are indeed still present, “not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not quitted,” as he wrote in “Go Down, Moses.”

As the inspiration for Faulkner’s fictional town of Jefferson, as well as the haunting landscapes and characters of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Oxford continues to be a well-traversed stop on the Southern Literary Trail. In front of the courthouse in the old town square, a tall statue of a Confederate soldier stands at attention, gazing “with empty eyes beneath his marble hand in wind and weather,” as the town’s most famous resident wrote in “The Sound and the Fury.”

Oxford’s Deep South traditions are part of the reason a robust community of writers still flourishes here. “There are probably more writers and authors than when Faulkner was here,” says Lyn Roberts, general manager of Square Books, kitty-cornered from the courthouse, and a front porch for local writers since the 1980s.

Oxford’s sense of history in many ways embodies one of the most distinguishing traits of the Southern literary ethos. More than simple nostalgia, its historical sensibilities are often different from those in other regions of the country.

“From Colonial times in New England, people were looking for that ‘city on a hill’ – a kind of intellectual ferment that produced Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville,” says M. Thomas Inge, professor of humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

Forward-looking with a kind of “go West, young man” or “on the road” sensibility, American literature in other regions has a sense of throwing off the burdens of the past to establish some bright new future.

Many writers in the South, however, tend to feel the burdens of history acutely. During the Southern Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, writers were still sloughing off a post-Civil War haze. With distance came boldness, and writers like Faulkner and others turned their pens toward the burdens of history, the cost of defeat, the fight for identity, and the South’s unresolved racial issues.

“The American sensibility tends to be ‘history is bunk,’ ” says Ron Rash, an American poet and novelist from North Carolina. “When I was doing an interview last year in France, a French critic said, ‘When I read Southern writers I get a similar sense of history to our own,’ and I believe that’s one reason the French revere Southern writers so much.... What he was getting at was Southern fiction’s more European sensibility of history’s importance.”

The South has retained its cultural identity, even amid the influx of globalization and migration. Indeed, the literature has proved to be more resilient than anyone expected, says Wyatt Prunty, director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee.

Look at Mississippi writers like Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford and the late Barry Hannah, he notes. Read the works of North Carolina writers Tony Earley, Allan Gurganus, Randall Kenan, and Charles Frazier, who won the National Book Award for “Cold Mountain.” Consider Tennessee poets like Charles Wright and Virginia writers like Lee Smith, who won the O. Henry Award. These are the writers asking questions, trying to make sense from the chaos of the modern world.

“Great art articulates what the culture is, what its values are, mistakes, human potential,” he says.

And the quest for storytelling remains strong. “People grew up with it around them,” Mr. Prunty says. “It’s handed down; it’s a tradition you grow up in. It’s a complex part of the country with many things that have gone quite well and many that have caused thoughtful people to ask questions about themselves. When you start questioning your own backyard, you’re more apt to produce good literature.”

• • •

When Gantt was growing up in the 1960s, “just a kid on a bike” in Demopolis, Ala., he would watch his great aunts and uncles and other members of his extended family gather for chats on the front porch and enthrall each other with stories from the rural region’s past.

“They were usually embellished for entertainment purposes, of course, and I still hear metaphors all the time that I’ve never heard before – but that’s what translates into good fiction,” he says. “And there are still Southerners – less and less of them, mind you – who work awfully hard at their exaggerations.”

While Chaucer and Shakespeare reverberated through his house as well, Gantt says, what he remembers most is how his mother, a high school literature teacher steeped in the small-town traditions of favoring self-entertainment over TV, would bring newly published books into the house nearly every month.

“At that time, Eudora Welty, Lillian Hellman, Truman Capote – so many of these writers were active at that point,” he says. “And Harper Lee – just one book, but, oh, what a book! – all these books were coming into the house.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” did turn out to be quite a book. The story of young Scout and her father, Atticus Finch, continues to spark countless classroom discussions about the history of America’s troubling relations between blacks and whites. Translated into at least 40 languages, it has sold more than 40 million copies since it debuted 55 years ago and continues to sell about a million copies a year. One 2009 survey in Britain found that it ranked as the most inspirational book of all time – ahead of the Bible, which was No. 2.

The language employed in the works of Southern writers such as Faulkner, O’Connor, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker have added to the region’s literary luminosity – and, in the eyes of many, remain some of the most elegant and innovative English prose ever written. That sense of literary élan continues today.

“It’s just that intense concern with the language, and the joy of language, that I think Southern writers tend to really emphasize,” says Mr. Rash, author of the acclaimed 2014 anthology “Something Rich and Strange” and whose novel “Serena” was labeled a masterpiece by The New York Times. “To me, the best test of this is: Can I pick up a writer’s book, open it up, and just read for the pleasure of the sentences?”

A complex and ambivalent sense of the past’s weight on the present continues to pervade the writing of many contemporary Southern authors, just as it did earlier ones. Jesmyn Ward, for instance, won the National Book Award for her “Salvage the Bones,” about a young pregnant girl from the Mississippi bayou who endures the ravages of hurricane Katrina. Ms. Ward alludes directly to Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” and her prose style is at once colloquial, biblical, and classically epic.

Ward is one of many new Southern voices who wrestle with the history of the black experience in America, and with a post-Katrina world. Another is PEN/Faulkner finalist T. Geronimo Johnson, whose second novel, “Welcome to Braggsville,” was called “the most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year,” by Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post Book World.

“Braggsville” is a comic, rollicking, and biting story about the cultural clash between the rural South and a bastion of contemporary politically sensitive liberalism.

“These unique experiences of being in America I find endlessly fascinating,” Mr. Johnson says in an interview, “because we’re just not always seeing the same thing when we look at history, when we look at the world.”

In “Welcome to Braggsville,” Georgia teen D’aron Davenport’s classmates at the University of California, Berkeley are aghast when he casually mentions in a class called “American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives” that his hometown in Georgia stages Civil War reenactments. The next reenactment is scheduled during spring break, and with the help of their professor, the students decide to head to Georgia to stage a mock lynching, or a “performative intervention,” to force the townspeople of Braggsville to confront the racist and violent history behind their genteel traditions.“

Even though ‘Braggsville’ is set in the South, it’s supposed to be working more as a lens for thinking about America as a whole,” says Johnson. “And this is something that irritates me, that people seem to think that all of America’s ills rest squarely on the backs of Southerners, and that the rest of the country has entered some state of enlightenment.”

• • •

In fact, for many contemporary writers, the old traditions of the South have become burdensome clichés. Pat Conroy, author of “The Prince of Tides,” joked in 1985 that his mother, “Southern to the bone,” once told him, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’ ”

Such stereotypes can make writers from the region bristle. Rash, a two-time finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the SIBA Book Award, says he’s ambivalent about the term “Southern writer” to begin with. “I think there’s a danger anytime you put a label before the term ‘writer,’ ” he says. “There’s usually another word implied before that: ‘just.’ ”

As part of the globalized, Internet-connected world, the literature of the South has fractured into familiar genres in the current publishing industry. It ranges from the scathing satires of Carl Hiaasen in Florida to the horror stories of New Orleans-born Anne Rice.

“If you look around now, there’s just so many different people writing – the landscape is now so broad,” says Mr. Charles of The Washington Post. “We’re all so much more mobile now than we used to be. People move around this country constantly – for college, for jobs, for love.”

Nor do you have to be Southern to write about the South. Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison is a good example, notes Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Though she was born in Ohio, he ranks her among the writers producing some of the most powerful work about the South over the past 40 years.

“Themes about the disillusionment and disenfranchisement of Southerners, the disconnect between the Southern mind and American mind – those themes are still prevalent, but the South is increasingly a homogenized global community,” says Dr. Crank, of the University of Alabama. “Growing up in a suburb of Atlanta is not a lot different than growing up in a suburb of Portland, Ore.”

Yet something remains distinct about the South. And no matter what the future holds – for “Watchman” or the region’s literary oeuvre – its storied past will likely continue to hold allure.

“I guess the thing about Southern literature is that, maybe even as we’re writing today – trying to understand it in relation to yesterday and to the past, and trying to sort out which of these problems we’re tackling are of our own design and which we have inherited – we do it in ways that people might do differently in other places,” Johnson says. “It’s almost as if all of these different influences create a sense that the shadows in life run deeper [here], in some way.”

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