The Southern Novel Introduction


(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.