The Southern Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The American South can be defined historically, as an area consisting of the states south of the Mason-Dixon line or of the states that made up the Confederacy. It can also be defined topographically, as a region with three sections, one coastal, another hilly, and a third mountainous. However, from a cultural perspective, neither of these classifications is accurate. Coastal Savannah, Georgia, is unlike coastal Panama City, Florida, and there are few similarities among Birmingham, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Dallas, Texas, except that they are all large cities. It might seem that the South is not a cohesive entity or that, if it once was, it vanished after the American Civil War or perhaps with desegregation.

The elements that make up the common heritage of the South are courtesy and honor; dedication to family, home, and home cooking; a love of slow talk and storytelling; a sense of humor, deeply rooted in rural life; a tendency toward nostalgia; a distrust of outsiders, especially those who are rude and arrogant; a willingness to tolerate eccentrics, at least those of known origins; and the conviction that good and evil forces are constantly at war, both in the outside world and in the soul of every human being. These elements are basic in southern literature. Where southern writers differ is not in how they define the South, but in how they define life, whether they look at it from the perspective of a romanticist or that of a realist, whether they see it as a tragedy, a comedy, or a farce.

Nineteenth century fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The romantic perspective pervaded nineteenth century southern fiction, whether in the form of historical romances or in ostensibly realistic works that presented an idyllic picture of plantation life, such as John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1832). Though “serious” fiction was considered the province of upper-class white men, sentimental, domestic novels by women such as Caroline Lee Hentz and Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, who, like Kennedy, romanticized the South, were immensely popular not only in the South but also in the North, even during the Civil War. One of the novels in which Wilson defended the Confederate cause, Macaria, or Altars of Sacrifice (1864), was adjudged so dangerous that a Yankee commander in Tennessee banned his men from reading it.

However, these romantic novels did not have a lasting impact on southern fiction. By contrast, the realistic, earthy sketches classified as “southwestern” humor because they were set in the frontier states—Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky—directly influenced later writers, including Mark Twain (1835-1910). Like those earlier sketches, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was funny, farcical, and irreverent. It even satirized some of the most cherished beliefs of white southerners, including their assumptions about class and race. Other nineteenth century southern writers also attacked the prevailing romantic vision. In Margret Howth (1862), Rebecca Harding Davis wrote about the exploitation of workers in the iron mills, while in The Awakening (1899), Kate Chopin described the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society.

The Richmond revival

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Richmond, Virginia, became the center of rebellion against the literary and social conventions of the Victorian South. Richmond had long been a center of journalistic activity and book publishing, but until the works of Amélie Rives (Princess Troubetzkoy; 1863-1945), Mary Johnston (1870-1936), Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945), and James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) began to appear, the onetime capital of the Confederacy was associated with a romanticized version of the past. None of the writers of the Richmond revival could be accused of having a nineteenth century sensibility. For example, although earlier writers would have been overly sentimental about a woman’s obsession with her dead husband, in The Quick or the Dead? (1888), Rives approached her heroine with the detachment of a twentieth century psychologist. Rives’s conclusion, that it is both unhealthy and impractical to be in love with loss, was not an idea that would have been advanced in a Victorian novel, much less in a Richmond drawing room. It has been suggested that the gothic ending of The Quick or the Dead? owes something to another Richmond writer, Edgar Allan Poe, but Rives’s gothicism really anticipates that of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

Like Rives, Mary Johnston insisted on thinking for herself. Although she was sympathetic to the Confederacy, as is evident in her early novels, Johnston defied convention with...

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The Southern Renaissance

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Shortly after World War I, a group of faculty members and students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, began publishing a magazine called The Fugitive, a literary and critical journal that focused on the South and on its traditions. Most of these “Fugitives,” including Andrew Lytle (1902-1995), Allen Tate (1899-1979), and Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), later became Agrarians, opposing the inroads of industrialism into the South and urging a return to an agricultural economy. Some Fugitives and Agrarians, among them Tate, Warren, and Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994), also spearheaded the movement known as New Criticism. They taught their students to examine texts closely, rather than merely looking at them from a biographical standpoint or assigning them a place in literary history.

While the Nashvilleans were all important figures in the Southern Renaissance (1920-1950), that movement had no single geographical center; rather, it encompassed the entire South. Lytle’s connection with Tennessee went back for generations, but Warren was born in Kentucky, and his best-known novel, All the King’s Men (1946), evolved out of his stay in Louisiana during Huey Long’s governorship. Other natives of Kentucky were the poet Tate, who wrote a Civil War novel, The Fathers (1938), and the fiction writer Caroline Gordon (1895-1981).

Among the fiction writers of the Southern Renaissance were William Faulkner (1897-1962) and Eudora Welty (1909-2001) of Mississippi; Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) of North Carolina; Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), Carson McCullers (1917-1967), and Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987) of Georgia; Peter Taylor (1917-1994) of Tennessee; and Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) of Texas. Probably the most famous African American writer of the period is Mississippi’s Richard Wright (1908-1960), but James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), both of whom were Floridians, are also significant.

The writers of the Southern Renaissance resembled each other only in that they recognized a common heritage. In emphasis and outlook, they could be as different as Caldwell, who in Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) blamed society for the misery and moral degradation of sharecroppers, and O’Connor, whose novels, like her short stories, revealed her commitment to the Christian faith. Each writer had a distinctive style as well. Wolfe’s poetic prose was markedly different from the colloquial narratives and dialogues of Welty and Hurston.

William Faulkner and southern literature

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William Faulkner’s continuing preeminence among southern writers is due in part to his amazing scope. His novels recapitulate southern history, and the characters in his fictional Yoknatapawpha County are drawn from every social class and represent various ethnic and racial groups. Moreover, the moral dilemmas and spiritual uncertainties that trouble all of his characters, except for the ones who are incapable of reflection or are resolutely amoral, are those that must be faced not just by southerners but by every human being.

Faulkner’s stature in the international community was recognized formally in 1950, when he was awarded a Nobel Prize. Though his fiction has a universal appeal, however, it is profoundly southern. Faulkner was fascinated with families of all sorts: the Sutpens, the Compsons, the despicable Snopeses, and the poor, ignorant Bundrens, who in As I Lay Dying (1930) make a valiant effort to have a dead wife and mother properly buried. Faulkner liked to tell a good story, and he enjoyed comic exaggeration. Many of his accounts of the Snopeses’ doings and his last novel, The Reivers (1962), are reminiscent of southwestern humor.

If Faulkner was sometimes nostalgic about the past, it was because, like Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929), he saw such spiritual emptiness in the present. The contrast between the old world and the new is made explicit in the Civil War novel The Unvanquished (1938), in which the southerners try to live by a code of honor, while the Yankee invaders are merely rapacious. Faulkner knew that the southern distrust of outsiders and change was not just a long-lasting reaction to the Civil War and Reconstruction. As Isaac McCaslin pointed out in Go Down, Moses (1942), though the Old South was cursed by slavery and torn apart by racial prejudice, many southerners felt that the industrial, technological New South, with its gospel of greed, denied moral and spiritual values and might well end by destroying the natural world.

A continuing renaissance

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although the Southern Renaissance is customarily described as lasting from 1920 to 1950, the continuing vitality of southern literature may prompt future literary historians to extend that second date at least to the end of the twentieth century. In the 1990’s, at least seventy southern fiction writers appeared in almost every bibliographical listing, and new names were being added almost constantly.

Another sign of vitality is that instead of imitating Faulkner in theme and content, as many critics had expected, later southern writers proved to be highly original. Madison Smartt Bell’s dark historical novel All Souls’ Rising (1995) could hardly be more different from Robert Morgan’s gentle Appalachian love story The Truest Pleasure (1995), nor could the poor white people in the fiction of James Dickey, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lewis Nordan have less in common with the upper-class Atlantans in Anne Rivers Siddons’s Peachtree Road (1988). Moreover, instead of imitating Faulkner’s convoluted style, southern writers invented or developed their own. William Styron’s prose, for example, is complex but less elaborate than that of Faulkner, while Reynolds Price and Fred Chappell are known for classical simplicity, and Mason is considered minimalistic.

Though the common heritage is the basis of all southern literature, evident even in the works of writers who have left the South or abandoned southern settings, one...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Abernathy, Jeff. To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2003. Study of race in the southern novel. Includes analyses of the work of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and other twentieth century southern novelists.

Bassett, John E., ed. Defining Southern Literature: Perspectives and Assessments, 1831-1952. Madison, Wis.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997. Selections arranged in chronological order reflect diverse views of the South and its literature, which the essays attempt to define.

Booker-Canfield, Suzanne....

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