Monday, December 15, 2014

On Southern Writers

            “So who’s your favorite Southern writer?” My friend leaned back in his chair and waited for my answer.
           “Hmm. Well, …  Let me think about that and get back to you,” I answered. 
            Sorting through my mail at home that night, I found the latest edition of the alumni magazine from my undergraduate alma mater, Samford University. And inside was an article on Southern literature. My old school had offered a class on Southern writers during a three-week mini-term. In English 309 Traveling South: Tracing the Haunts of Southern Fiction, students read select works from Southern writers and then traveled throughout the South to the homes and home cities of those writers. Sounded like a fun course, but what interested me the most was discovering who made the list of writers. There was William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, John Kennedy Toole, and Flannery O’Conner.
            Okay, Faulkner’s on the list, I thought. He’s from Mississippi - Oxford, I think. Yes, that’s right. But what have I read by him? There’s…. Oh, surely I read Faulkner back in school. I looked up a list of his books on Wikipedia. I recognized the titles of: The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Absalom, Absalom!; Go Down, Moses; Requiem for a Nun; and Light in August, the book assigned for the course. But have I read any of these? On Amazon, I found the synopsis of each work. Nothing about these stories seems familiar. 
            On to the next author. Eudora Welty. I know she’s from Mississippi, too. I can even picture her face. But her writing…. The professor for the course assigned “Why I live at the P.O,” “A Worn Path,” and “Petrified Man,” all short-stories. And if I read any of them, they were short-lived in my memory. 
            Flannery O’Connor. Well, I know that’s a woman. And as for her works … The course covered “Good Country People,” “The Displaced Person,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and readings from the essay “The Habit of Being.” I’m being rather embarrassed at this point. I haven’t a clue what these are about. 
            Who’s next? Tennessee Williams. Ah, the professor’s assigned A Street Car Named Desire. I know that one! Marlon Brando. Screaming. “Stella!” Vivian Lee. Crying. Karl Malden.  More crying. And that blonde …. . What was her name? But I’m thinking about the movie version of A Street Car Named Desire, one I’ve only seen in bits and pieces on TV. I’m not even sure why these people were screaming and crying in black and white. Have I read the book? No. 
            Moving right along to John Kennedy Toole. Never heard of him. A Confederacy of Dunces. That would be another “No.” 
            Alice Walker. The names sounds familiar. “Everyday Use” and the essay, “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens.” On second thought … not so familiar.
            Truman Capote! He’s more than familiar. Praise Be! I’ve read him! I know I have! And there on the list of assigned short stories I find “A Christmas Memory.” Yes, I’ve read that one. And I’ve read “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” too, which isn’t on the list. I have copies of both. And I’ve been to Monroeville, Alabama, where he grew up. The course itinerary included a visit to that city, though I recall that the house where Capote lived has been razed. I don’t know the other short stories assigned: “Miriam,” “A Diamond Guitar,” “The Walls are Cold,” and “One Christmas.” But no matter, I have read Capote.
            And next up is Harper Lee. Dear, dear Harper Lee. Neighbor and childhood friend of Capote. To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read that, too. Not just seen Gregory Peck sweating in his light-colored suit and dark-rimmed glasses in that courtroom, but read the scene on the printed page and all the other scenes in that book, cover to cover, Amen.
           And then there’s H.L. Mencken. Dear, dear H.L… Well, actually I don’t know him/her or the essay “Sahara of the Bozart.” Why couldn’t the list have stopped with Harper Lee? But I know I’ve read two on this list of eight Southern writers. And as for the rest, well, I decide I must rectify this short-coming in my education. 
           So, where to begin? Faulkner seems like an important and appropriate choice. I head over to his Author Page on Amazon to peruse the choices. As I Lay Dying is first on the list. “In the story, the members of the Bundren family must take the body of Addie, matriarch of the family, to the town where Addie wanted to be buried. Along the way, we listen to each of the members on the macabre pilgrimage, while Faulkner heaps upon them various flavors of disaster.” Macabre. Disaster. Not what I’m in the mood for, now or ever. 
            Absalom, Absalom! is next. “The story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.’” Ah, another uplifting tale. I’ll pass.
            Maybe I’ll try The Sound and the Fury. I read the first lines:

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and I looked….”

What? I have no idea what’s going on. And, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. 
            I suppose I should have started with Light in August, the one assigned for the course. Let’s see…

“Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece.’” I skim down the page. “Father and mother died (Of course)…bare feet (Yes)…died in the summer (Always)…log house (Doesn’t everyone in the South live in one?)….without screens (No A/C)…bugswirled kerosene lamp (What else would there be?)…died (Knew that)…buried (Good idea)….worked in the mill…brick rubble and ragged weeds…gutted…rusting…desolation (Oh good. It’s getting better)…(more) gutting…and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes (but of course!).”

And that’s just on the first page and a half! Well, bless Faulkner’s little old soul, but I’d rather never read another book in my life than read this one. 
            I move along and read the descriptions of works by Welty, O’Conner, Williams, and Walker. I Google Toole and Wikipedia Mencken. I find repeating themes, common words, typical characters, and stock scenes: Gothic, macabre, failed, fading, broken, broke, mentally ill, mentally disabled, estranged families or family’s that are so close – too close - destroying each other either behind the closed doors of crumbling antebellum mansions or in dirt-floored shacks. Whites and Blacks mistrusting each other, betraying, murdering, raping, beating, arresting. And sweating. It’s always summer in these books and no one has a dang air conditioner - just a porch, possibly a fan, sometimes lemonade, occasionally whiskey, often gin. 
            On a side note, I remember seeing the movie version of A Time to Kill and never have I seen anyone sweat as much, indoors, just sitting around, as Matthew McConaughey did. It glistened on his cheeks, dripped from his nose, trickled down his forehead, rivuleted on his temples, and soaked through his shirts. Ashley Judd played his wife, and I recall her being rather moist, too. I know they were in Mississippi, in the summer – of course, but he was a lawyer. I think he could afford an air conditioner! 
            I’ll give you a moment to think about Matthew sweating…. and then let’s return to perusing the article about the course. The professor notes, "The mystique of Southern writing comes from ‘the failed romantic vision of the Old South, its inferiority/victim complex, its roguish adventurers and con men, ingrained racial hatred, suspicion and bitterness, the always present violence and humor, and the pervasive religious culture and presence of Southern gothic and even grotesque themes.’” This makes Southern literature sound as inviting as the Holocaust Museum – important to experience, but there’s never a day when I think, I’d like to spend some time immersed in misery
            So, I haven’t read and probably never will read some of these “important,” “classic,” Southern writers. But do I read Southern writers? Yes, I do. I’ve read Fanny Flagg,

 Rick Bragg,

                                                                        Lewis Grizzard,
Pat Conroy,
and Anne Rivers Siddons.

             My mother likes Sue Monk Kidd,
Kathryn Stockett, 


Cassandra King,
and Dorothea Benton Frank.
Then there’s Winston Groom, Mark Childress,
and Terry Kay.
They are modern voices, raised in the South. And the South is a character in their stories. They write about the South I know - the South I was raised in - long after the Civil War, civil unrest, and the invention of air conditioning. If they write about the past, even if they write about tragedy, they show joy and humor, too, because life is never just all darkness any more than it’s all light. They write about a South where women are stronger than whiskey. Families fight, but stick together like honey to the comb. You laugh at the crazy things your family members do, and you laugh even harder about the crazy things you do. People make the best of everything along with pitchers of ice tea to welcome anyone into their homes, be they suburban mansions or tiny apartments. The seasons change in these stories, but if it is summer, and later than the 1950s, there is air conditioning, always air conditioning. And now to answer the question, Who is my favorite Southern writer? My favorite is whomever I’m reading at the moment whose stories encompass all those things.
 And am I a Southern writer? I write about family and place, manners and values, beauty and regrets, amusing moments and sad memories. I was raised in the South by Southerners to be a strong Southern woman, and I call the South home, always and forever. So I’ll count myself as a Southern writer and work toward one day being on someone’s list of favorites.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton