Contemporary Southern Literature Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Contemporary Southern Literature

Discussion of Southern literature in the United States usually begins with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and climaxes with the Southern Renascence authors who wrote in the 1950s and 1960s—such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, and James Dickey, among others. The Renascence authors helped to define and solidify the image of Southern literature that still, in many respects, holds true today. Some of the hallmarks of this genre, as scholars have pointed out, are a concern with regionalism—with the geography, landscape, and local customs of the South; a respect for family, tradition, and history; and a particular fondness and talent for storytelling, whether through formal narrative or back-porch gossip. Interaction between Blacks and whites in the South also remains a key theme for many Southern writers, prompting continual reexamination of the relationship between the past and the present in their works. Because of their unique historic circumstance as natives of a slave-owning society defeated in the Civil War, “Southerners are always being asked to account for themselves,” as Welty has noted. The very question of what it means to be a Southern writer is a recurring theme in Southern literature, with authors exploring the possible advantages and limitations of regionalism, as well as analyzing the qualities that constitute a Southern writer in exile.

Contemporary Southern writers continue to incorporate many of these same themes into their works, but they have also branched out in new directions. As many writers have migrated to urban centers, they have written of traditional Southern values challenged in various ways, as Ted R. Spivey has commented, and they have written about Southerners' assimilation into the new environment. Julius Rowan Raper has theorized about a postmodern Southern sensibility among writers who are nourished by the sense of place that connects them to the South, yet are less and less defined by it. Whether or not they physically live in the South, such writers are the inheritors of many of its historical burdens. But the contemporary, especially material, consumer culture, has also gained a foothold in the South. Bobbie Ann Mason's characters, for example, immerse themselves in pop culture gleaned in television programs, searching for meaning and relevance to their own lives. Cormac McCarthy's novels offer a critique of a failed white Southern culture, as the characters in his novels often retreat to exotic locales in search of more meaningful values. Still other writers, like Sonia Sanchez, fully embrace urban culture, while also being influenced by a rural Southern upbringing. Narrative and storytelling—either written, oral, passed from generation to generation, or from woman to woman—also remains an important facet of contemporary Southern literature. Scholars have frequently written about this aspect of the writings of Lee Smith, Fannie Flagg, and Josephine Humphreys, among other writers, as a particularly characteristic Southern trait. Whether overtly feminist, like the writing of Rita Mae Brown, or writing that deals with the daily interactions of ordinary women, women's narratives have become a strong force in Southern literature. Critics like Angelina Godwin Dvorak, Barbara Bennett, and Peggy Whitman Prenshaw have written about the recurring examinations of women in the South by Southern writers—for example, about the role of food and cooking in their lives; about their use of humor as a survival tactic and as social criticism; and about the sense of strength that Southern women derive from and impart to each other.