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Southern Literature: Roots and Branches

---by Penne J. Laubenthal

What is Southern literature and when did it begin? We know that literature was being written in the not yet self-consciously southern states for two hundred years prior to the emergence of a genuine Southern literature: a literature that reflected regional self-consciousness and was shaped by the uniqueness of the land and the culture. Literature in early America was considered a gentleman’s art, scholarly and learned, using a language that was rarified and refined. Its purpose was to elevate, and only sufficiently grave and serious subjects were deemed fit for literary material. This literature was removed from everyday life as we know it and about as far from the vox populi as one could get. Prior to 1800 the literature of the South, with a few exceptions, was simply a mirror of English formalism, highly sophisticated and drained of life and practically devoid of humor.

The closest one can come to a glimpse of ordinary life in the early South is in William Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina  when he uses his most elevated language to describe the lowly North Carolinians. Byrd thought of himself as an American and as a Virginian. The concept of southerner had not yet developed. As a Tidewater Virginian Byrd has nothing but disdain for the lazy North Carolinians. One can almost hear the contempt  in his voice as he carefully chooses the words that will make clear the vast difference between himself and the slothful Tarheels. “Surely there is no place in the World where the Inhabitants live with less Labour than in N. Carolina." This sentence is mrerly the preamble to a satiric, yet humorous, portrait of the North Carolinians. In its own way, parts of  History of the Dividing Line prefigure the literature that would emerge in the late 18th century in the writings of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Only a journalist could write with impunity about ordinary life or use the vernacular of ordinary people. It would take the rowdy journalists, able to write about any subject in any manner they chose, to free the literature from its manacles. Journalism was not considered serious literature. It was not considered literature at all. Therefore, any strictures were relatively non-existent. Journalists were free to write about everyday people, doing everyday things, in an everyday manner, and to write in a language that the people actually spoke. And best of all, they could be funny.

Thus in the early to mid 18th Century there appeared on the scene, a number of writers who belonged to a subgenre known as “Southwest humor.” At that time, anything west of Atlanta (with the exception of the port cities) was considered to be the backwoods, the “old southwest.” One of these writers was George Washington Harris. In his Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a Nat’ral Born Durn’d Fool, Harris prefigured such characters of Southern literature as the corrupt sheriff, the self-righteous preacher, and the picaro who lives by his wits.  It is Harris’s use of the unmediated idiom (Sut actually tells the story himself, it is not told in a “frame” –ie, by an educated narrator) that is a forerunner of the tale told by Huckleberry Finn in Twain's great novel The Adventures of Huckeberry Finn:. “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter."

The downside of Southwest humor was that it could not be taken seriously. It was unable to treat a dignified subject. It was not capable of high moral seriousness. Thus it was relegated to treating life comically and satirically, describing the lowlife, the bizarre, the ignorant. It could be critical of hypocrisy and moral turpitude but only by poking fun at the subject.

For another forty years, the two streams of Southern literature ran their separate courses, but after the Civil War, a regional self-consciousness crystalized. As early as 1847 John C. Calhoun had called for “a Southern literature,” but it was not until the Civil War that the South began to see itself as separate and distinct from the rest of the nation. Its tragic defeat, its geography, its relative isolation from the mainstream of American life, its dependence on cotton and an agrarian way of life, and most of also the presence of that “peculiar institution” that was slavery imposed upon the South a separate structure which shaped its literature and determined its direction. What was needed was a confluence of the literary streams: the austere, high seriousness of the formal style had to merge with the earthiness and the vitality of the humorists.

In 1884 a book was published that would change the course of Southern literature. With Mark Twain Southern literature came of age. Ernest Hemingway declared “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Twain was able to marry the language of literature with the language of the people. “The invention of this language…., said Robert Penn Warren, “gave a new dimension to our literature.” Twain had begun his career as a journalist and humorist, and no one was better suited to breathe life into the old art and make it new. Southern literature had come of age.

The “Sahara of the Bozarts” as H. L. Mencken called the south in 1918 rapidly began to flower. The South experienced a literary renascence producing such authors as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams. Soon to be followed by Ralph Ellison, Carson McCullers, Walker Percy, James Dickey, Flannery O' Conner, William Styron, Ernest Gaines  and Horton Foote to name only a few. There were poets as well as novelists and playwrights. The South had become a virtual garden.

Perhaps the quintessential Southern novel is William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. His protagonist Quentin Compson spends his young life trying to make sense of himself as a modern man and a Southerner. At the end of the novel when he is asked by his friend, “Why do you hate the south?” Quentin replies “I don’t hate it….. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it.”

These are the authors who paved the way for the current generation of Southern writers: a list far too long for me to even attempt. I could name several dozen without pausing to think. These writers are still struggling with the questions raised in Huckleberry Finn and Absalom Absalom!. What does it mean to be a human being and what does it mean to be Southern?

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