The American Southern Identity in Literature Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The literature of the American South has never been one of arbitrary and convenient geographic classification. Residents of what now constitutes the states south from Virginia and Maryland to Florida and west to Louisiana—despite diversity in peoples and terrain—have long identified themselves as a distinct civic and cultural group. The literature of this region possesses unique qualities and a full consciousness of its own uniqueness. Not surprisingly, whatever else may be the subject, a governing concern of Southern literature is with identity, the identity of the individual as a Southerner and the identity of Southerners—black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural—as a group and as a culture. Even stylistically, Southern literature has a distinct identity. It is typically romantic and frequently grotesque, a quality which has come to be called Southern gothic. The gothic quality is distributed across genres, including the folktale, the romance, the history, the drama, and the agrarian fable.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

With the onset of European migration into Virginia there emerged a literature of the responsibility of the gentlemen of the oligarchy. These men, who rather self-consciously comprised the intellectual elite, were to provide political leadership. Although there is a strong sense of democracy in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1776), there is no question that it was written by a Southern gentleman, not a Northern egalitarian. The document’s pledge at its end of “our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor” is undeniably romantic. Nothing about the self-consciously elegant writings of George Washington or of Jefferson smacks of the plain style, for example, of the Northern Benjamin Franklin.

In another variation of the gentleman’s prose style, Joel Chandler Harris of Georgia wrote folktales in carefully presented, stereotypical dialect of the black slave; one may argue that Chandler Harris’ intention is that readers understand that the writer is a gentleman observer and is creating a romance about African Americans. The black folktale tradition was carried forward by Roark Bradford in Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun (1927), which was adapted into the play Green Pastures (1930) by Marc Connelly, which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1930.

While Harris, Bradford, and other white writers such as Paul Green were fashioning an image of Southern blacks, a parallel effort by African American authors to give identity to blacks begins with the writings of Booker T. Washington and develops into the clearly Southern gothic novels of Richard Wright and Alice...

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Literary Forms

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Southern writing is found in a variety of literary forms. Poe and Sidney Lanier are two early poets who began a tradition enlarged upon by Ransom, Allen Tate, Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, and Warren, who in 1985 was appointed the first poet laureate of the United States. Washington and Jefferson are the progenitors of a strong group of Southern essayists who include many of the New Critics as well as the sensible voice of the journalist Ralph Magill and the irascible wit of H. L. Mencken. In oratory the eloquence of the South is reflected in a range of fiery speeches from Patrick Henry to Huey Long and to Martin Luther King, Jr., most having to do with race, freedom, and political issues. Southern fiction abounds in novels and short stories. Considering the intense contrasts—hence conflict—embodied in Southern culture, it is not surprising that quite a large number of Southern writers have turned to drama.

Tennessee Williams is perhaps the best-known Southern dramatist. His powerful and pungent play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), is a study of the destruction of the personality of Blanche Dubois, who is an embodiment of the genteel, hypocritical, and impossible ideals of the Old South. Her destroyer is her brother-in-law, Stanley, an uncouth representative of a new urban industrial culture. Lillian Hellman, in The Little Foxes (1939), also examines the identity of the Southern belle in all her vixenish complexity. The Southern belle stereotype is thoroughly exploited by Margaret Mitchell in a popular novel, Gone with the Wind (1936), which was adapted into one of the world’s most famous films. Southern women writers wrestling with the definition of women in the South have been especially successful in the theater, with both Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, 1979) and Marsha Norman (’night Mother, 1982) winning the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

That there is an identifiable Southern culture and a group of people who are Southerners is rarely denied. The nature and quality of Southern culture, however, is the subject of a seemingly endless debate. Prior to the Civil War, there was an Old South whose identity as an ideal of ancient Greek democracy was widely proclaimed by Southerners and seriously analyzed by such intellectuals as Edward Parrington (Main Currents in American Thought, 1927-1930). After the Civil War, there emerged, in the words of Henry W. Grady, a new South, but this South still retained a powerful group identity, so powerful that much of Southern literature since the Civil War is centered on the individual’s struggle to fit into the South or to escape from the South, or somehow to accomplish both ends simultaneously without complete destruction of personality. This conflicted desire is the burden of works such as William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman (1966).

Fixed and long established cultures tend to foster stereotypes, and much of the torment over personal identity in the South is brought on by the need to accept or reject the group ideal or stereotype. Such a struggle can be seen in Thomas Wolfe’s acerbic Look Homeward, Angel (1929). Even a writer such as August Wilson, not a Southerner by birth, senses the South of his family’s past always intruding on the present. The historical...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bartley, Numan V. The New South 1945-1980: The Story of the South’s Modernization. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Argues that the South was forced to embrace moderation, without entirely losing its culture, by the growth of cities in the region.

Bartley, Numan V., ed. The Evolution of Southern Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. Eight essays on crucial aspects of Southern culture, ranging from religion to agrarianism, from politics to the hero in literature.

Gray, Robert. Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Essays on Southern writers who specifically write about the region, including the Agrarians, Welty, Faulkner, and Percy.

Griffin, Larry J., and H. Doyle. The South as an American Problem. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. Twelve essays by important historians and observers of the South. Argues that much of American culture has been fashioned by attitudes about the South.

Hall, B. C., and C. T. Wood. The South. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995. A tour of the South and the cultural identities and icons of each subregion, from the swamps of Louisiana to the mountains of Tennessee.

Ransom, John Crowe, ed. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1930. Twelve essays by leading Southern writers espousing agrarian over industrial life.

Singhal, Daniel Joseph. The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. A thoughtful and illuminating study of the evolution of Southern culture and its literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Young, Stark. A Southern Treasury of Life and Literature. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937. A well-rounded collection of samples of the writing of important literary figures from colonial days to the mid-twentieth century.