A Bluffer’s Guide to Recent Southern Fiction
By Mary Frances Derfner
Vol. 1, No. 10, 1979 pp. 14-18
In late 1975 and early 1976, several seemingly innocuous pieces of paper got me into grim trouble, which has continued unabated ever since. The first was a notice informing me that I had been elected to the Southern Regional Council, and would I like to serve? I dutifully checked yes, I’d love to. A month or so later, the second arrived: the Council’s 1975 Lillian Smith Awards would be presented at a banquet in several weeks, and would I like to come? The nonfiction award was going to two friends of mine who had co-edited a Mississippi History textbook. The fiction prize was going to someone (Reynolds Price) whose name was altogether unfamiliar. It would be nice to see my friends and get a feel for what the Council was like. I again checked yes, I’d love to, and showed up. This simple act led, several months later, to the third piece of paper: would I like to serve on the 1976 Lillian Smith Awards Committee?
At this point I panicked. A college dropout without a single literature course to my name, the most serious reading I had done for the past dozen years was a chapter or two of a paperback someone else had discarded on an airplane. I didn’t even know who Lillian Smith was, much less what she had written. Obviously, someone who had never heard of Reynolds Price didn’t belong on a jury the purpose of which was to judge Southern literature. But, unwilling to expose myself as a fraud (I had, after all, gone to the dinner), I once again compulsively checked yes, I’d love to, and hied myself immediately to the local paperback bookstore.
Now, I’ve always been a firm believer in “How To,” “Guide To,” and “Introduction To” books. They have helped me learn how, in no particular order, to play the guitar, type, fix my house, my car and my love life, raise my plants and my children, cook, and gain control of my life and time. They have enabled me to discuss Plato, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and the like without having read them, and logical positivism, behaviorism, humanism and the like without having understood them. A little knowledge may indeed be dangerous – witness the fact that I was drafted for the Smith Awards Committee in the first place – but it somehow seems better than total ignorance. This time, however, Barnes & Noble let me down: not a single guide to Southern literature. The salesperson hadn’t even heard of Lillian Smith.
The stereotypical librarian, however, had, as I learned at my next stop. The public library had none of Lillian Smith’s works, and the librarian obviously thought me a pervert for having asked. The library did, however, have several books by such critics and theorists of Southern literature as Louis D. Rubin, Jr., C. Hugh Holman, and Walter Sullivan. I emerged from the library four or five hours later, hav-
ing discovered that one can get an extremely superficial handle on Southern fiction prior to the mid 1940’s, but that the last three decades of Southern literature are incapable of broad-brush, Barnes & Noble treatment. There seems to be greater disagreement among the aforementioned experts about these three decades than about the three centuries which preceded them.
I learned in my four-hour, selftaught Southern Lit. course that the South produced very little good literature between the beginning of the Late Unpleasantness and the end of World War I. At this time something called the Southern Renascence (it’s gauche to spell it “Renaissance”) began, and the likes of William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren started writing. The critics tell us that a separate society inundated by “outside influences,” as was the South in 1920 or so, begins to look inward with a comparative and/or critical eye. The most creative members of the society see it, finally, face to face, and capture it before the “outside influences” alter or destroy its unique fiber. In this view the Southern Renascence is somewhat akin to the last fling of a dying man, who, seeing the apocalypse, produces – and produces with genius – so that his children won’t forget.
The Renascence, Southern literature qua Southern literature, the dying man, and even his children’s memory, are, since the mid-1940’s or 1950’s, either dead, terminal, or merely changed, depending upon which theorist one consults. We have all heard arguments since the early 1970’s that the concept of the South as an entity separate from America is no longer valid that Dixie is now inexorably Americanized (that is, dead) or become part of the “Sunbelt” (definitely terminal). But there are diehards – the Southerners who claim that much, both good and bad, is still unique in this changed South, and who are unwilling to
concede that the replacement of the Main Street Cafe by the Golden Arches indicates the death or dying of what’s uniquely good, or uniquely bad,, about the South. This controversy is mirrored by the critical disagreement over Southern fiction of the past 25 or 30 years: does Southern literature, as opposed to American literature, still exist, and, if so, almost secondarily, is it any good?
Back to the paperback bookstore. It was by now obvious to me that I would have to invest a great deal of time preparing myself for what was coming. I picked up a few Faulkner novels, All the King’s Men, some Thomas Wolfe, an arcane novel by Andrew Lytle, and early Welty, an early Caldwell. I would try to determine what was so good about the Renascence authors, so that I could later decide about the modern authors. Once home, I removed all potential distractions – the television, my country music albums, my children and the dog – from what was to become known as the Bozart Room (formerly the living room), and set to work. I wasted an hour leafing through “How to Read a Book,” which, after a promising start, turned out to be a guide to underlining and outlining, and then began perhaps the most enjoyable spring and summer of my life.
I moved quickly through early Renascence, and on to late Renascence, post-World WarII and modern authors. I read Ellen Glasgow, Allen Tate, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Ralph Ellison, Reynolds Price, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, James Agee, Alice Walker, William Styron. I brought my classical background music collection out of hiding, and even started, by early summer, to read critically acclaimed non-Southern authors, so that I could see for myself whether, and, if so, why, Southern authors were different. I found, bought and read a cache of Lillian Smith’s mostly out-of-print books in a second-hand bookstore on Cape Cod. (Obviously some Southerner, expelled from his homeland because of his reading proclivities, had known I was coming.) By mid-July, when the first Lillian Smith Award entry arrived in the mail, I felt at least marginally prepared.
During my three seasons on the Lillian Smith Awards Committee, we considered more than 50 fiction and more than 100 nonfiction entries, published between mid-1975 and the end of 1978. The criteria for the Awards specify only that a book be about the Southern region, not necessarily of it, and so not all of the fiction was written by Southerners. On the basis of both those entries which were and my outside reading, however, I’ll Take My Stand: yes, there still is a distinctive Southern literature, though much changed to reflect and suit the times; and a good deal of that literature is very good.
First, there are several “holdovers” – authors who started to write during the Renascence, and who are still writing. While Robert Penn Warren’s A Place to Come To, published in 1977, cannot compare to All the King’s Men, it is still a very good novel, and a decidedly Southern one, focusing largely on time and the past’s encroachment on the present. Another agrarian, Andrew Lytle, is also still writing. While he has not produced a novel since The Velvet Horn in 1957, his Wake for the Living, published in 1976, indicates that his artistic abilities have not faded, and that his work is still uniquely Southern, dealing heavily with themes of family, community, tradition and religion. And Eudora Welty, whose collection of critical essays, The Eye of the Story, appeared in 1978, seems to have lost none of her genius. Losing Battles, published in 1970, surpasses both some of her earlier fiction and most American fiction of the past several decades, no matter what or where the source. The presence of these three alone is enough to answer “the Renascence is dead” crowd: some of the best are still here, and they have produced first-rate fiction since 1954, generally the last date given for the demise of the Renascence.
But the “the Renascence is dying” crowd would protest, with some justification, that holdovers don’t count; that these authors were raised on the same hand-picked, insecticide- and pollution-free, pre-civil rights corn and grits as Faulkner and Wolfe, and it is their presence alone which keeps the Renascence alive. The South, they might proclaim, has become splintered, industrialized and Americanized to the point where it is too barren to support good regional literature. The holdovers are still supported by their own historical memory, but what about those deracinated Southerners who started to write after World War II? To answer the recurrent charge that
these younger authors have produced fiction which is both too universal in perspective to be called Southern and not as worthy as that of earlier Southern writers, one can call such names as William Styron, Walker Percy, John Barth, Harry Crews, Alice Walker, Peter Taylor, Reynolds Price, Barry Hannah and Ernest J. Gaines., among others. These authors represent some of the best literary talent in the country at the present time; and, Southerners all, they all write Southern literature – literature which draws not only its locations, characters, dialogue, and the mood from the South, but its perspectives, themes and tone as well.
The most rabid of the deathsayers would have to concede both the genius and Southernness of Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia novelist and short story writer whose first work, Wise Blood, was published in 1952, and whose final collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, was published posthumously in 1965. Her artistry, her concentration on family, her deft handling of abstraction through the concrete, her religious view of man, her sardonic comedy, her sense of irony, her tale-spinning abilities, are all as deeply Southern as are her characters and her settings. Unlike other Southerners of her generation, whose current protestations that they are not producing Southern literature serve to fuel the fires of the death-and-dying group, O’Connor never denied it. As late as 1963, she wrote that Southern fiction is still maintained by community; that the Southern writers succeed by finding within their communities what they need to sustain artistic vision.
But one person – even if she is Flannery O’Connor – does not a literature make or sustain. Other post-War authors who are, undeniably Southern and undeniably very good are: Reynolds Price, whose A Long and Happy Life and A Generous Man could not have been set anywhere outside the South, and whose Surface of Earth, winner of the 1975 Lillian Smith Award in fiction, is deeply concerned with time, place, order, history, and the richness of the past; Peter Taylor, whose masterful short stories are Southern in setting, theme and outlook; and Barry Hannah, whose Southern grotesques, irony, violence and comedy are reminiscent of O’Connor. Outstanding among post-War Black authors who are undeniably Southern are Ernest Gaines, whose In My Father’s House won this year’s Lillian Smith Award in fiction, and whose earlier novels, Catherine Carmier and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won wide acclaim; and Alice Walker, whose Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian are both striking novels of Black struggle and survival in the modern South. Miss Walker is also an accomplished poet, and received the 1973 Lillian Smith fiction prize for Revolutionary Petunias, a volume of poetry.
Two of the best of the moderns, Walker Percy and William Styron, are not so obviously writers of Southern literature. The death-anddying crowd in fact point to these two to prove their point: both of these talented gentlemen even deny themselves that they are Southern writers; they both deal with fairly heavy, abstract and non-Southern existentialist themes: they are both superb writers, but, we are told, definitely not Southern writers except insofar as their locales are Southern.
While it is true that Styron early on denied that he was a Southern writer, he later backed down a little and said that his novels somehow seemed to revolve around traditionally Southern themes and concerns. Lie Down in Darkness, Styron’s first novel, published in 1951, is palpably Southern, if New South rather than Old. His second novel, Set This House on Fire, which appeared in 1960, is not. Most of the action, in fact, takes place abroad, and the tone is decidedly existentialist and non-Southern. The protagonist is a type of Southerner with which readers are unfamiliar one who muses at length in abstractions; one who leaves home and community. Can this be a Southern novel? The answer, of course, is yes:
it is one form of the new, or altered, Renascence literature. Styron’s high style is typically Southern; there is tragedy in the hero’s alienation because to be Southern is to need community and individualism at the same time, and Cass is alienated from both society and himself. In the end, his return to himself (and, ultimately, to community and the South) is made on moral grounds, not on grounds of existential expediency. Cass becomes one of Southern literature’s first moral existentialists, a type of hero whom we will doubtless see much more often. Styron’s third novel is quintessentially Southern. The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was released in 1967, shares with Styron’s earlier works his Southern rhetoric. It exhibits a concern with religion and a theological view of mankind, an intricate and intense social structure, the paradox of man as both a member of society and an individual, morally responsible to himself and God alone, and the classical/Southern tragic theme.
Walker Percy shares much with Styron and Flannery O’Connor. Like O’Connor, he is a Catholic and deals extensively in his works with questions of religion. While his characters are not the grotesques of Flannery O’Connor, he, too, slaps and shocks the reader into paying attention by presenting the unusual in an overblown way. Like Styron, Percy denies being a Southern writer (“Would you ask John Cheever,” he wrote in Esquire, “if he regarded himself as a northeastern writer?”), but later betrays his Southernness (the “best thing that could happen has something to do with Southern good nature, good manners, kidding around, with music, with irony…”). Percy, too, is an existentialist, but a decidedly Christian one, who advocates the leap of faith as an alternative to nothingness. And Percy is, indeed, a Southern writer. His novels all concern religious/moral questions and absolutes; his works all contain marvelous humor and irony, in the best of Southern tradition; he is wary of abstraction and communicates through the concrete. As a counterpoint to the despair of some of his characters and the resignation of others, he poses the traditional Southern concept of stoicism: Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, his protagonist in Lancelot(1977), and Aunty Emily, a minor character in The Moviegoer(1961), are Southern stoics par excellence. Also evident in Percy’s works are the past (why, wonders The Last Gentlemen, can he not face life as resolutely as did his ancestors?); the influence of family, the importance of place, community and order (the most lost of his heroes, The Last Gentleman, appears first in New York’s Central Park, and then as a resident of a very mobile R.V.). Percy is, in short, another new Renascence Man.
I thus finally convinced myself that the Renascence still lives. I must admit that I was predisposed to take this position before I set about the task of reading. I have never been accused of having an open mind, but, in all fairness to those who take the opposite view, I devised a test. There are those who argue, very convincingly at times, that the two authors that I had to pinch and squeeze and then stretch a bit to fit into a Southern mold. Styron and Percy, are authors who simply use the South as a convenient locale to portray the universal decadence and downfall of America today. I asked myself whether the novels of Styron and Percy would work if transposed, say, to Philadelphia, or Madison, Wisconsin. While I could never conceive of Faulkner’s novels occurring anywhere other than in Mississippi, Styron and Percy would work in Philadelphia. The point is, though, that they would not be as effective or as real or as good in Philadelphia. The themes would seem less powerful, less evocative, and very definitely out of place in Madison. Somehow, while Percy’s Lancelot could very easily be incarcerated in San Francisco, staring at Divisidero Street, we’re a lot more comfortable with him, and he says a lot more to us, staring at Annunciation Street in Old New Orleans.
Perhaps, then, the New Southern literature of Renascence II, differs distinctly from that of Renascence I. New concerns have crept in, and new forms are being tried. But the New Southern author approaches those forms, and deals with those concerns, in a Southern fashion, gives them a home grown twist, shakes them all up and comes up with a Southern answer or impasse. The scroll given to the winner of the Lillian Smith Award describes Smith as “so deeply rooted at home that her heart embraced the world.” Perhaps that is true of recent Southern fiction as well. James McBride Dabbs seems to think so. He writes, in Civil Rights in Recent Southern Fiction (1969), that “a Southern writer can be so deeply human that the basic themes of the South are almost unrecognizable in his stories. Yet they will be there.” And they are.
Mary Frances Derfner is currently vice president of the Southern Regional Council and chairperson of next year’s Lillian Smith Award committee.