Southern Literature

by Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all. ...” — William Faulkner

Gone With the Wind

This spring, American literature celebrates the 75th anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” Published in 1936, this novel quickly became a best-seller, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize (1937) and to popularize Southern literature.

The roots of Southern literature go back to the early English Colonists. Yet for many of us, Southern literature starts with Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884), which Ernest Hemingway called the one book “all modern American literature comes from.” Another notable Southern work of the post-Civil War era was “The Awakening” (1899) by Kate Chopin, which explored the complex female experience.

The 1920s and 1930s witnessed a renaissance of Southern literature with names such as William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams and others. When Southern literature began embracing social and cultural changes, black and female writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor joined James Dickey, Walker Percy and William Styron among others. Southern literature gained more recognition, too: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960, and “A Confederacy of Dunces” (written in 1960, published in 1980) by John Kennedy Toole won it in 1981.

Today’s Southern storytellers include Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy, Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler and Tom Wolfe. Their common themes are still a sense of place and strong family relationships. As for the characters, often extravagant and wild, with names such as Tallulah, Pookie or Bubba, who can ever guess what they will do or say? We do expect, though, their words will be thick with Southern dialect and humidity, sprinkled with the taste of seawater and laced with hidden danger or shame.

Five Smooth Stones” by Ann Fairbairn (published in 1966, reprinted in 2009, Chicago Review Press) paints an America plagued by racial conflicts. David Champlin is a black man born into poverty in Depression-era New Orleans who makes his way up the ladder of success only to sacrifice it all and become a leader in the civil rights movement. Sara Kent is the white girl who loves David. By the time this novel comes to its finale of horror and hope, readers will never forget it.

The Help

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s “Wench” (Amistad, 2010) is another heartfelt Southern story. Four slave women accompany their masters to a resort in the free state of Ohio in the mid-1850s. The women are their masters’ personal servants and sexual companions. Ohio, however, is a free state, and there the four friends meet free blacks. This makes them want to run, so they can be free, too, yet they have children they don’t want to leave behind. Also, one of them, Lizzie, loves her white master. What will the women do? Fans of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” (2009) will enjoy this book.

Southern Gothic has been a popular style since the days of Edgar Allen Poe, and it usually involves deeply flawed, grotesque characters and situations. In the great Southern tradition of storytelling, the city of Charleston, S.C., is the principal “character” in Pat Conroy’s (“The Prince of Tides,” 1986) new novel “South of Broad” (Doubleday, 2009). Populating this city are Leopold Bloom King, son of a science teacher; his mother, an ex-nun and high school principal; his friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; and others, whose lives Conroy follows from the 1960s counterculture to the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

Whether Carl Hiaasen’s books could be labeled Southern Gothic, they certainly could be considered Florida Gothic. “Star Island” (Alfred Knopf, 2010) describes an attempt to resurrect the career of 22-year-old pop star Cherry Pye, a woman inclined to binge-drinking, drugs and promiscuity. To maintain her public image, Cherry’s handlers hire a double, Ann DeLusia. When Ann gets kidnapped by a deranged paparazzo, ex-Florida Gov. and eco-vigilante Clinton “Skink” Tyree rushes to Ann/Cherry’s rescue, and all hell breaks loose. Hilarious and over-the-top, Hiaasen’s book is an allegory of contemporary culture.

Devil Red

Devil Red” (Alfred Knopf, 2011) is the eighth novel in Joe Lansdale’s “Hap and Leonard” series. Friends Hap Collins and Leonard Pine from Laborde, Texas, subcontract to do investigating work. This time, the pair is given a cold case — a double murder, in which both victims were involved with a vampire cult, and both were in line for serious money. As the investigation broadens, Hap and Leonard find themselves in the center of a hornet’s nest with suspects all around them. The book is funny, sometimes profound and often profane, with excellent shoot-out scenes.

For several years, Rufus Hannah, author of “A Bum Deal: An Unlikely Journey from Hopeless to Humanitarian” (Sourcebooks, 2010), was the star of “Bumfights,” an underground video series in which homeless people fought each other for a little money and a lot of alcohol. Several times, he almost died, yet he managed to escape and, afterward, decided to help other homeless people across the country. Hannah now works as a property manager and gives talks for the National Coalition for the Homeless. The most intense and heartbreaking part of Hannah’s autobiography are his recollections of his mental state at the time and his need for alcohol. Despite some rough writing, this book is a remarkable story of personal courage and redemption.

Celia Rivenbark (“We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle,” 2004) is always ready to give advice or commiserate with her readers on a variety of topics. Her latest, “You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in the Morning” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), includes essays covering subjects from Christian action figures to “High School Musical” to “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” One reader said you’ll like this book if you are: “a woman, a wife, a mom and a Southerner who likes books with recipes and likes to laugh.” And although I am not a Southerner but just a wife and a mother (even a grandmother) who, occasionally, needs cheering, I’ll start reading it now.

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