Monday, November 11, 2002

Very interesting piece from the Washington Post on Southern Writers...

Gone With the Wind
Has the Once-Towering Genre of Southern Literature Lost Its Compass?

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 11, 2002; Page C01


The vinegar-based sauce at Allen & Son Barbeque near here is tangy, but it's no tastier than the tomato-based baste you can get at Washington area pulled-pork parlors, such as Red, Hot & Blue.

Barbecue used to be a regional delicacy, a Southern thang. Now it belongs to all of America and you can find really good 'cue just about anywhere. Even Gaithersburg.

Same's true with what used to be called Southern literature.

It's good and it's nationwide.

Take Lee Smith's new novel, "The Last Girls," published by Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books in September. It has all the trappings -- a clutch of alumnae of a fictitious Blue Ridge Mountain women's college, a trip on a riverboat down the Mississippi, a dead woman named Baby.

There was a time when everyone would have hailed the book as a fine Southern yarn.

That time is gone.

The New York Times, the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe all reviewed Smith's work -- favorably -- without once calling it a Southern novel.

Sure enough, as you read it you realize that these women -- with their lost opportunities and retrofitted dreams -- could have come from anywhere, and you begin to wonder if there even is such a thing as Southern literature anymore.

The question comes up at lunchtime as Smith meets a few of her friends -- Louis D. Rubin Jr., Shannon Ravenel, Fred Hobson and Lucinda MacKethan -- at Allen & Son.

Rubin is the founding editor of Algonquin and spiritual godfather to many writers.

Hobson is a humanities professor at the University of North Carolina and MacKethan teaches English at North Carolina State. They, like Smith, were students of Rubin when he taught at what is now Hollins University in Virginia. This group knows the South, and literature.

Ravenel, who helped Rubin launch Algonquin, asks him if he has seen a certain new book of Southern photographs. He says he has. "I almost threw up," he says.

The problem, he says, is that it's a trumped-up book written for tourists. He makes it sound like the literary equivalent of tourist traps, such as Gatorland or snake farms.

Rubin, 79, who edited the 1985 landmark work "The History of Southern Literature," wears a short-sleeve plaid shirt. For lunch he has a slice of peanut butter pie and a cup of coffee. He has hearing aids in both ears.

When it comes to talking literature, he's as sharp as ever.

Hobson points out the ever-increasingly multicultural complexion of the South. "There's been an influx of Caribbean and Mexican and Asian voices," he says. "It's not just a black and white thing anymore."

Rubin says the region has changed so dramatically in recent years, it has lost its sense of a shared history. That past was treated as myth. "I don't know that the myth is still important," he says.

"The past is not as important," MacKethan says.

Smith adds, "The past is not as agreed upon."

Maybe the past is, at last, past.

Folks used to agree on a lot. That there was such a thing as Southern literature, for instance.

William Faulkner. Eudora Welty. Richard Wright. Tennessee Williams. Thomas Wolfe. Truman Capote. Carson McCullers. Reynolds Price. Zora Neale Hurston. Katherine Anne Porter. Robert Penn Warren. James Dickey. Flannery O'Connor. Willie Morris.

Those dogs could hunt.

Granted, they wrote in different styles and with varying degrees of success. But there was still something there. Something solid and familiar and identifiable.

Something Southern.

For one thing, there was a common theme playing through most of the stories: the Defeated South.

Around the time Walker Percy accepted the National Book Award for his 1962 novel "The Moviegoer," he was asked what made the South different from the rest of the country.

We lost, he said.

Percy was perhaps the transitional Southern writer -- with one foot in the traditional South and another in the post-traditional South. "The Moviegoer" was as indebted to the European existentialist literature as it was to Faulkner.

For another, there was a graceful prose style -- in the fiction and the nonfiction -- a gentility reflected in the culture.

As the South has been swallowed up by America, all that has changed. The region has lost some of its manners and moorings. Irate drivers honk at each other in Jackson. You can buy the New York Times in Mobile. There's sushi everywhere. Faux moonshine, Mason jar and all, is sold -- and taxed -- in liquor stores.

John Shelton Reed, former director of UNC's Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, says, "You're right about there not being a central theme anymore."

How did this come to be?

In the beginning, American and Southern literature were one. J.A. Leo Lemay wrote that "American, and Southern, literature began when Sir Walter Raleigh sent four major expeditions to Virginia." The first was in 1584, led by Arthur Barlow. As the exploring party neared land, Barlow wrote, the air was alive with a sweet fragrance, "so strong a smell, as if we had been in the midst of some delicate garden, abounding with all kinds of odoriferous flower."

From the get-go, Southern literature was flowery.

Others believe that Capt. John Smith, who wrote his "True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia" in 1608, got the ball rolling.

But a definably Southern literature did not emerge until after the Civil War, a mythmaking confrontation in the minds of many Americans.

The first Southern literature was, in the words of critics, local color.

Characterized by quirky characters and rampant vernacular, works of local colorists were extremely popular throughout the South between 1865 and 1910.

Writers such as George Washington Cable and Thomas Nelson Page groped about for a regional voice. Using already-weary cultural cliches and lots of down-home di'lec, these men and other three-name wonders including Ruth McEnery Stuart, John Esten Cooke and Joel Chandler Harris spewed out stories about Southerners' peculiar ways of living and thinking and speaking.

The tales were lapped up like collard greens by readers across America, and implanted many Southern stereotypes in the popular mind. With the exception of Harris and his tales of Uncle Remus, these local colorists and their works are largely forgotten.

Then along came Faulkner and others, and between 1925 and 1985 the South produced some of the greatest literature in history.

By Faulkner: "The Sound and the Fury" in 1929, "Light in August" and novellas including "The Bear" in 1932, "Absalom, Absalom" in 1936, "Collected Stories" in 1950 and "The Reivers" in 1962, a body of work that won him the Nobel Prize.

By Eudora Welty: "A Curtain of Green" in 1941, "Delta Wedding" in 1946, "Losing Battles" in 1970 and her autobiographical "One Writer's Beginnings" in 1984.

By Richard Wright: "Native Son" in 1940 and the memoir "Black Boy" in 1945.

By Tennessee Williams: "The Glass Menagerie," first produced in 1944, "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1947 and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1955.

Literary movements -- such as the Fugitives and the Agrarians -- flourished in the South. It all happened in such a short span of time.

Thomas Wolfe died in 1938. ("You Can't Go Home Again" was published in 1940.) Zora Neale Hurston published "Dust Tracks on a Road" in 1942, and died in 1960. James Dickey's "Deliverance" was published in 1970. He produced little prose of much significance after that.

By the mid-'70s, the great run of Southern literature was coming to an end.

In 1974, John Egerton wrote "The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America." His thesis: Because of mass media and rapid transit and the immense changes brought about by the civil rights movement, the once segregated and separated South was being thrown into the blender with the rest of the nation. Southern literature was part of the new cultural margarita.

Impatient with being asked the same old questions, Walker Percy interviewed himself in Esquire in 1977:

Q. You're not interested in the South?

A. I'm sick and tired of talking about the South and hearing about the South.

Q. Do you regard yourself as a southern writer?

A. That is a strange question, even a little mad. Sometimes I think that the South brings out the latent madness in people. It even makes me feel nutty to hear such a question.

Q. What's mad about such a question?

A. Would you ask John Cheever if he regarded himself as a northeastern writer?

Q. What do you think of southern writers?

A. I'm fed up with the subject of southern writing. Northern writing, too, for that matter.

Apparently Percy was not just speaking for himself. Since 1985, most books written by Southerners and/or set in the South can be boiled down to: American stories with a Southern accent, such as Smith's, and the local-color variety, such as Anne Rivers Siddons and anything by Fannie Flagg.

Here's an excerpt from a chapter called "Uncle Floyd Has a Fit" in Flagg's new novel, "Standing in the Rainbow": "Two days after Christmas," she writes, "the phone rang. Betty Raye, walking by, picked up and to her surprise it was her mother. Minnie Oatman was on the other end, calling long-distance from the office of the Talladega, Alabama, Primitive Baptist Church and she was hysterical.

" 'Oh, Betty Raye, honey, something terrible has happened, brace yourself for bad news.'

" 'Momma, what is it?'

" 'Honey,' Minnie sobbed, 'we lost Chester last night. Chester's gone and your Uncle Floyd is locked hisself in the men's room, blaspheming the Lord, and he won't come out.'

" 'What men's room?' said Betty Raye.

" 'Over at the seafood place. One minute we was happy without a care in the world eating fried shrimp and the next thing we knowed Floyd was running around the parking lot, screaming like a banshee. In the time it took to eat twelve fried shrimp Chester had been snatched right out of his little suitcase in broad daylight and was gonded . . . kidnapped just like the Lindberger baby.' "

Chester, as it happens, is a Scripture-quoting ventriloquist's dummy.

There is really no such thing as contemporary Southern literature.

"It's like we're back to local-color writing," says Bryan Bremen of the University of Texas. He says some contemporary Southern fiction is "rooted in almost a kind of cartoon version of what we think of as New Orleans, or what we think of as Georgia."

Bremen says that this is the case because "geographic boundaries have certainly become more fluid."

Hal Crowther, Lee Smith's husband and a columnist for a Chapel Hill newspaper, has given a lot of thought to Southern literature.

It is often defined, he says, by "the morons in New York who think that everybody has an outhouse. You cannot exaggerate the ignorance of some New York editors."

He admits, "There are people down here writing who play right into the hands of editors."

But the traditional idea of a work being distinctly Southern is no more.

"We have to radically change our idea of what is Southern," Crowther says.

Every year Shannon Ravenel edits a collection called "New Stories From the South." To make her selections, she pores over more than 100 different magazines and some 200-300 stories with Southern settings.

This year's anthology contains tales by writers living in Italy, New York City, Denver, Iowa City, Madison, Wis., and other far-flung places.

"I no longer say 'Southern writers,' " Ravenel says.

We've come full circle.

As it was in the beginning, Southern literature nowadays is American literature. And, on occasion, vice versa. Something is gained by the passing of a "Southern literature": Most books by and about Southerners are no longer treated as curiosities. They are judged as American works.

And something is lost: For a while there, books by and about Southerners explored -- and expressed -- the deepest extremes of the human heart and soul. Like other canons of great literature -- Irish, Russian -- Southern literature changed the way we look at the world.

There are older writers -- Smith, Ernest J. Gaines, Pat Conroy -- who continue to write powerful American novels that happen to be Southern.

Mississippian Donna Tartt, riding a tidal wave of publicity around her second novel, "The Little Friend," doesn't want to be called a Southern writer. "It's not pleasant to be lumped into a group of black writers or women writers or gay writers," she told USA Today. "Why be part of a group simply because of the circumstances of your birth?"

And there are younger voices, such as Silas House, Tony Earley and Tayari Jones, who at one time might have been called Southern but now are not so easily pigeonholed.

Walking her dog around Hillsborough, Lee Smith is not quite ready to give up on the idea of Southern lit. "It's more oral," she says, "more speakerly than writerly."

Southern prose "comes from the conversational" and "avoids abstraction," she says.

"In the South, people just talk all the damn time," she says. "Every kind of information is presented as narrative."

But, she adds, it just might be "more a difference between urban and rural."

She stands in the crisp daylight and speaks of the swift-changing South. Even her little town is going through a metamorphosis.

She points to a line of stores. "There's a new espresso shop," she says, "right next to a live-bait store."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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