Southern Literature: The Cultural Assumptions of Regionalism

HENRY James, in his book on Hawthorne, speaks of the American peculiarity of finding a source of pride in one’s mere length of residence in the country. There is likely to be some similar measure of aggressive assertion in the concentration on regional identity. Identity excludes, and “southernness” is a sort of opaque exclusion also. There remains, I hope, some murky distance between the South as a group of states—and not such a clear grouping as I, who was born and educated in Kentucky under the impression that I was living in the South, have reason to know—and the idea of southernness. Many persons who have been in residence in the South for years, decades even, would not describe themselves as Southern. Also, one may be a Southerner by background and deep experience and yet find himself not a creation of southernness. Not every creative mind living in the region has found itself engaged by that condition. Poe is an example. One of the greatest minds of his time—vivid, original, complicated—his years in Virginia and Maryland do not appear to have been a moral or aesthetic definition. His true home was far away: in Romantic poetry, dark landscapes, brilliant researches and puzzles.

There is culture, custom and attitude, national and personal history; and then there is the self-conscious creation by individual talents of works of the imagination. The South has produced a large, inchoate cluster of images about itself and its place in America. Bad images incline to be more concrete than consoling ones. Racism, with its overwhelming span of social, aesthetic, moral and political details, has been the central image of the South—long after the Civil War, up to our time, the time when it became clear that much of the rest of the country shared in this tragic obsession. Alongside racism in the South there were more acceptable and flattering images, sentimental themes lodged somehow in the old plantation aristocracy. These have had, even in the most unreflective dilution, an astonishing if not always distinguished endurance.

Regionalism itself is a complicated condition for art, particularly for modern art. In its folkloric aspect, it had something to teach us because it valued and honored isolated groups who had lived, spoken, created their manners. In general, for America, the folkloric is exhausted. Except for a unique talent like that of the extraordinarily gifted Zora Neale Hurston, the folkloric is not what we mean when we speak of Southern literature.

Writers must live in a place, have families, a youth, and experience in some degree of saturation. This will often, but not always, be a rich part of their creative life. Other sources are the nation, world literature, past and present thought. It is always difficult to judge the weight of the creative resources called upon by an individual talent. Region is one of them—and yet I daresay no ambitious artist wishes to be known as the best painter or novelist in Tennessee, with the mark of the amateurish shining so brightly in the claim to local fame in the arts.

For the South, the burden of fixed ideas in its own mind and in the mind of the country is a hindrance to serious thought and even to the ability to see what is around us. It is not easy to separate oneself from these conventions, conventions that are high and low we might say—some so commonplace as to be absurd and others more subtle and secretly beguiling. Southernness is more a decision than a fate, since fine talents are not necessarily under any command of place or feeling. Fidelity to place for subject matter is only the beginning of literary art and is seldom as important as the larger claims of intelligence, contemporaneity, freshness, and awareness of the long, noble challenge of literature itself. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is a dense and complex example of the Southern sensibility meeting modern experience at its most extreme and intractable point: the extermination camps of Germany and Poland. The aspect of this novel that concerns me is the alliance of Southern memories and themes with the making of a literary career in New York, where the action takes place, and the encounter, by way of a central character, with the meaning of the Holocaust.

The Southern young man, a writer, the first-person narrator, is close to the author himself, and part of his education from Auschwitz is the discovery of his own subject matter, in this case his novel about Nat Turner. The narrator tells us that he has not forgotten slavery and his own remaining guilt. The scene is the 1950s, and certain plot devices are “excavated” from family events that took place during slavery. The young man in New York is to be saved from bohemian down-and-outness by a legacy that survived from gold buried after an unfortunate sale of a young slave. This small drama in a large and outstandingly ambitious work interested me when I came upon it in my first reading of the book. It seemed to me a lingering refrain from an earlier cavalier tradition sounding its tones among the most urgent reflection on our own time. I use the word “cavalier” very loosely from its source in William R. Taylor’s brilliant Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character. I mean by the word to refer to the presumption of a highly conscious, educated, morally confused, but somehow honorable plantation mind.

Sophie’s Choice is suffused with southernness is a number of ways. The guilt of slavery and the guilt of the Holocaust are brought together in the young man’s mind. A very curious moment occurs when Sophie is telling of her involvement with Rudolf Franz Hoss, the actual commandant at Auschwitz. Styron turns aside to instruct the reader with information about Hoss: “Born in 1900, in the same year and under the same sign as Thomas Wolfe.” I think it is best to let that stand as it is, a charming aside of great unlikeliness in other Auschwitz reflections.

The young Southern writer, Styron, has his Tidewater memories, his tainted legacy from slavery, but he also has ambitions in the literary world, ambitions as a writer first, and as a Southern writer in a world in which a great many vivid figures of his generation are not Southern at all but are instead Jewish. It is not, for example, Eudora Welty that serves as a challenge to his possibilities, but those others. With conscious naivete, never meant to be serious but meant instead to be amusing, there is a scene in which the young writer is asked if he has read Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man. “Well, dog my cats,” he answers. But as the conversation goes on, he begins to feel panic: “Suppose, I thought, the clever son of a bitch was right and the ancient and noble literary heritage with which I had cast my lot had indeed petered out, rumbled to a feeble halt with me crushed ignominiously beneath the decrepit cartwheels? . . . I saw myself running a pale tenth in a literary track race, coughing on the dust of a pounding fast-footed horde of Bellows and Schwartzes and Levys and Mandelbaums.” I include this for its candor, its pedagogical sharpness about the melting pot which is the national literature and in which each talent, from no matter where, churns and turns as he struggles to add his own vision to that national literature.

I am led to another thought by Sophie’s Choice, this novel so rich in moments of southernness adrift in the contemporary world. The narrator invites Nathan, the Jewish man from Brooklyn, and Sophie, the survivor of Auschwitz, to go to the South with him, to Virginia. He says to them “. . . at least Southerners have ventured North, have come to see what the North is like, while very few Northerners have really ever troubled themselves to travel to the South, to look at the lay of the land down there.”

I wonder what they would see in the South today? Virginia—different indeed from Brooklyn, where the novel takes place—but then all places are different from Brooklyn. The landscape of America, from sea to sea, is lizards and moose, oranges and ice floes. The South has its landscape, but that is not what is meant by “seeing the South.” The most dramatic region, Florida, is looked upon almost as an outpost of the Caribbean—this long before the Cubans settled there—not “really Southern.” Southern is reserved for others of the former slave-holding states.

So, what will Nathan and Sophie see? “Bad temper, bad manners, poker, and treason,” in Henry Adams’s words? No, they would be on a journey in pursuit of fixed ideas, somehow, somewhere, to find the Southern image. Things do not have to be in existence to be imagined as visible. We see what words have told us is to be seen, what popular culture, Southern and otherwise, has created. When convention has fixed matters so firmly, even the most diverse, perverse, eccentric, and unaccountable slide into the expected. Films and popular literature will be seen in the South, with the cavalier and the violent passing on the sidewalk.

But what is defining, separating, authentic there? Southern towns have had a place in the literary imagination as vessels of southernness. But the American landscape has altered greatly; people live in such a newness of sight and assumption that the imagination can scarcely take it in without dislocation. The South has seen the same visual and psychological disintegration as the rest of the country and has accommodated the collapse by the same acceptance of the usefulness, the practicality, the inevitability, even the pleasures of the new.

Rural folk with their preserved speech and their dramas of a life with heavy roots gave a special genuineness of tone to Southern literature. They, with the rural landscape surrounding them, were there to be used, to be honored, or deplored at times. This was a fixed point. Faulkner, the supreme talent of Southern literature, the talent that almost alone gave the literature validity, made the rural South larger than life. Is the rural South still there, still somewhat static in its piney isolation, with some of the same woebegone ancestral memories?

It seems to me that the person who would have been in his little farm and shack, like his folks before him getting out the crop, is now in a trailer park, or in his solitary mobile home. Trailers account for almost 80 percent of low-cost new housing, I have read, and ocular evidence as one travels about the country would not dispute that. The trailer park, the mobile home, is felt by the thoughtful to represent a decline in the national imagination, to be a metallic resting place for the victims of anomie, to be a sort of root-killer, depriving of something deeper than the poverty of the old shack with its wisp of wood smoke drifting into the evening sky. No romance, a severing of the old relations abiding between country and town. The cavalier instinct is reduced by the absence of “good country people.” Good country people do not grow up on television serials in trailer parks.

The towns of the South, the central cities, with their Main Streets, streets of the small and larger towns alike, are of great importance to the film imagination in its view and idea of the region. Cola drinking, heat, slit-eyed bigots in their pickup trucks with their shotguns on the front seat, sexy, bored young girls, menace, humor, whiskey, majorettes. This is the lower-class white South, visually and culturally a part of the sophisticated American imagination, which makes in turn liberal rejections of what is seen.

It is to the point to wonder what actually remains, whether the shifts in the small-town people have been taken in by themselves as well as absorbed imaginatively by those who would write about them, render them in films and plays. Nothing is harder to keep up with than America. We only know things do not remain the same. New vices, new pretensions, new possibilities, and an altered sense of place in the world—these come about so suddenly, or with what appears to be suddenness, that the literary imagination, slowly taking its shape, finds itself far behind. That is not a defect. Today and yesterday morning are not what literature is about. Still so much has vanished, has been gone for a long time, and to imagine it alive is to trap oneself in banalities.

For the large Southern cities, the places of business that once mingled with fine old houses and beaten alleys, the same disintegration has taken place. The rebuilding of downtown Atlanta in recent years is an astonishment. The incredible hotels—in what image are they? Their fake gold chandeliers, the raw orange of the lobbies, the schlock and kitsch of the architecture, the dead shops, the superfluous fountains dripping over plastic rocks: this creation is close to the vision that made Las Vegas out of a wasteland, and very far from the “Old South.” The city fathers, the reclaimers of the hallowed “downtown,” are like the rest of the country only partly in control of their landscape. But regionalism would not offer an alternative in any case, because the movement of the country is not only stronger than local will, it is stronger than local imagination. There is no way it could be otherwise, and the most refined mind would find it as difficult to create a suitable modern Southern architecture as to create a new church. Materials are what we have and what we are. Naturally, the second coming of Atlanta is, among the things one might deplore in the world, not high on the list. It means something, however; it means that the landscape and the people living in it cannot be mythologized in the old way.

The suburbanization of life is another problem for literary southernness. In a suburban world, memories are altered, new fidelities spring up from the streets, if only fidelity to the zoning laws, to the shapes the streets of the suburbs take under the dominion of income and size of building lot. This is family history. One of Peter Taylor’s stories expresses a hint of this in a flowing, rhythmical ending. Suburbanization is not the point of the story’s plot but rather the consequence of removals from the old ways of life. The persons have cavalier roots in their families, their excellent houses in town, their place in the community. The names, Tolliver and Lila, give the clue. The two people remove themselves from the old town in order to escape their own alcoholism, and here they are:

. . . Tolliver and Lila just might have the bad luck to live forever —the two of them, together in that expensive house they bought, perched among other houses just like it, out there on some god-forsaken street in the flat and sun-baked and endlessly sprawling purlieus of Memphis.

One solution for the nostalgic Southern imagination as it meets a suburban world is to go duck-hunting. This endures in a number of contemporary books, just as it endures in life. Large treasures of southernness are hoarded in the hunting scene: masculinity, drinking, storytelling, memories of the past, of granddaddies and uncles, of country people in the old days, scenes of conflict and consolation. Faulkner, as in everything that relates to this scene of the literary South, is the master of the nostalgic, the historical, the tragic drama that may center upon hunting.

The sentimentalization of the modern South in Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers has an iron hold on the popular imagination, on films and popular literature. Melodrama, memory, decay, pretension, and dreaming are combined with the tradition of sexual repression, household secrets, and longings. This is dressed up in Williams by attractive vagrants, red-light districts, old rooming houses, aging actresses, offstage strains of jazz: the appeal of the run-down and the heartbroken. For that reason it is difficult when you are thinking about the South to remove your own thoughts from the thoughts put there by the movies.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is aptly titled. In this cool and memorable novel, the region is bathed in a mist of irony and softened by an acute intelligence very alert to the follies of literary southernness. The young man who goes to movies is a gentleman, well connected, warmhearted, and amused by life. He has not done what he was expected to do, to become a doctor or a medical researcher. But, in a very offhand way, he has taken on the work of a Yankee gentleman—he makes money selling securities. He drives a battered little MG and employs a secretary, a young woman from Eufaula, Alabama. And there you have it, the key: the MG and the regional relief of Eufaula and the possibility, in the girl, of a vivacious, small-town Southern turn of speech. “I’ll tell you one thing, son . . . ,” she likes to say to her employer, who is also in his casual way her pursuer.

The young man knows about William Holden and Rory Calhoun, but he is a modernist, it turns out, a modernist and a Southern at once. He suffers from what he calls malaise, a sort of bearable alienation. He remembers It Happened One Night, and in his room he has one book, Arabia Deserta. He is very smart, with a very charming and chic volatility of taste. And he has had it with the old French Quarter and the Garden District and instead lives in a suburb called Gentilly, among “old-style California bungalows or new-style Daytona cottages.” Tone and the mastery of it are everything in this remarkable book. It is a wicked, contemporary, cavalier creation, careful in detail, balancing effortlessly, or so it seems, on a very thin wire running between the old pieties and a new, fresh Southern sensibility.

In only one character does the sophistication falter, and that lies in the presentation of the aunt, with whom the young man has lived. This lingering reminder of the “best of the South” had, we are told, worked in a settlement house in Chicago in her youth, and “embraced advanced political ideas.” Further, she had served as a Red Cross volunteer in the Spanish Civil War before returning home to marry and settle down in the Garden District of New Orleans. Her early “credits” are up-to-date indeed. In that way she has, so to speak, earned her confident articulation of moral nuance, earned a certain surprising intellectuality, and can be the instrument of skeptical analysis combined with “the old forms of civility and even of humor.”

In a long, final rebuke to the young man, the aunt speaks as a sort of philosopher of manners:

“All these years I have been assuming that between us words mean roughly the same thing, that among certain people, gentlefolk I don’t mind calling them, there exists a set of meanings held in common, that a certain manner and a certain grace come as naturally as breathing. . . . More than anything I wanted to pass on to you the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women—the only good things the South ever had and the only things that really matter in this life.”

Moral delicacy and discipline as a social grace, the beleaguered remnants of the old plantation heritage, the sense of rightness in Faulkner’s lawyer-class, still haunt even the most watchful, observing Southern novelists. What may be wondered about is the fineness of the articulation, the lack of temptation to the sloth and ignorance and narrowness of so many of those others who share the presumption of class in the South. In a world where high culture is more and more a specialization, a difficult and mandarin accomplishment left to professors and to writers themselves, it is difficult to imagine the Garden District old lady spending her nights reading the Crito, a diversion she mentions in her long speech. I noticed in Eudora Welty’s novel The Optimist’s Daughter that when the father is miserably, restlessly dying, the daughter reads to him from Nicholas Nickleby. Eudora Welty and Walker Percy know the reading habits of Mississippi and New Orleans, and they are guarded, careful to include in the ornaments of life the usual popular “serious” works; but the temptation to go a little beyond, not to break the string, seems at times to represent a kind of regional cultural demand.

The Civil Rights Movement, the sharpening of the sense of identity and purpose in the black population of America, the resistance to definition by whites, makes the open use of race treacherous to the white Southern writer of fiction. In modern Southern literature, which is all that counts except for a few such as the brilliant Kate Chopin, sympathy for blacks is outstanding, with emphasis on dignity, endurance, and practical wisdom. This is Faulkner’s Dilsey, McCullers’s Berenice, black characters in Lillian Hellman’s plays, black characters on television who seem to come out of Jack Benny’s Rochester and the radio. The serving class was the source of acquaintance for the two races; but in the present time it is, for literary purposes, thick with possibilities for misadventure.

Again, Walker Percy is on the alert. In The Moviegoer is a butler named Mercer, who is commonly described as “devoted.” But the clever young man, the modernist, observes that Mercer’s face is in reality as “sulky as a Pullman porter’s.” Mercer wants to talk about current events, even though, having spent most of his time waiting on dinner parties, he does not know much about them. So, Mercer is a black man in transition. He is “dissolving,” finding no vision of himself, either as an old retainer or as an expert in current affairs, rich enough to sustain his new idea of himself.

Wariness about the representation of black life has been constant in twentieth-century Southern literature. One of Ellen Glasgow’s novels offers an example of this nervous reluctance to assume:

. . . they passed hurriedly between the crumbling houses and the dilapidated shops which rose darkly on either side of the narrow cinder-strewn walks. The scent of honeysuckle did not reach here, and when they stopped presently at the beginning of Tin Pot Alley, there floated out to them the sharp acrid odour of huddled negroes. . .. The sound of banjo strumming came faintly from the dimness beyond, while at their feet the Problem of the South sprawled innocently amid tomato cans and rotting cabbage leaves.*

Ellen Glasgow is interesting in all respects and especially as an example of southernness turning into a comedy of manners open to the exercise of irony and ambiguity. She showed a positive fondness for many of the things later writers mourned, such as destruction of parts of the old landscape in order to accommodate factories.

Flannery O’Connor, asked about the abundance of freaks in Southern fiction, said Southerners at least were able to recognize them. Her work is the finest, most original to come out of the South in the last three decades. Her vision is never conventional and is instead transforming, altering the ground of expectation. Her freaks are what we may call genuine; they are driven by greed, blasphemy, and low cunning; they are dangerous. They assault the sentiments and the “good country people” banalities and devastate the countryside.

There is no pretension in Flannery O’Connor, as there is in Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams, that the outlandish is filled with hidden goodness, with romantic isolation and longing. The appalling exchanges between The Misfit and the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” are exaggerations that are serious. The Misfit is a genuine and recognizable monster who can say, “You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off” his car.” He has indeed taken his measure of the garrulous, hopeful grandmother: “She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The sourness, the angularity of the conceptions, the purity of the ear and of the style, the way things are—in Flannery O’Connor’s work I think you find Southern literature that is a devastation of southernness.

Faulkner’s art, with its high classical diction and its profound absorption in his region, is nevertheless the most experimental to come out of the South. His work seems to me impossible without the avant-garde experiments of the 1920s in all the arts. The fractured view, the distortions of narrative line, the formal difficulties of his great fictions, are landmarks in twentieth-century literary art, to say nothing of Southern fiction.

Regions do not produce art. It seems to visit certain countries almost without preparation. Just as Russia was not thought by Marx and Engels to be the most likely place for the Communist Revolution, it is possible to say that Russia was not supposed to be the scene of an astounding outburst of nineteenth-century prose fiction. The mystery of place and art is never-ending. In our time, there is the tragic political disappointment of the South American continent, its inability to govern, to use resources wisely, to make national identities of an honorable shape, to create civilized arrangements between the citizens: out of this has come a literature of surprise and brilliance, works of art that perhaps owe more to Europe than to North America.

So it seems to me that we cannot really concern ourselves with the future of Southern literature. The conditions for all literature are unknown, accidental, and unpredictable. The South is as much a part of the television, highway world as any other part of the country. It depends upon all that we are as a nation and is in some way more quick to accept the expediencies of the moment than are other regions —and no matter the conflict with the “idea” of the South. Acceptance of the assumed and recklessly shifting pieties of American life is sometimes known in the South as patriotism.

Walker Percy, when asked how he would account for so many good Southern writers, said it was because “we” lost the War. My question would be: which war among those wars that do not capitalize the noun?


* Virginia (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1929).

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