The southeastern states are steeped in a rich literary history that continues today.
By Ashley Burnett
Southern literature is one of the bedrocks of American culture. The region below the Mason-Dixon Line has produced some of the country’s most prolific authors, and inspired many of its most famous stories. The tradition is upheld today, with modern Southern writers penning numerous best-sellers that in turn become hit movies, and a bevy of local attractions promoting the love of the written word.
Learning about Southern literature is one of the first steps to understanding American literature as a whole. The region’s stories are a reflection of where our country began and how it’s grown, with major cultural and historical events brought to life within their pages.
“Southern literature became distinct from other regional literatures because of its keen attention to landscape, weather and regional history … and the strongly oral nature of both black and white cultures,” says professor John Lowe of the University of Georgia, an expert in ethnic American and Southern literature.
The genre is shaped by a diverse mix of voices. “I always begin courses in Southern literature by teaching Native American tales,” he says. Other foundational pieces, according to Lowe, were penned by famous names such as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Anne Moody, Carson McCullers and Zora Neale Hurston.
Another pioneering Southern writer was Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind,” published in 1936. “Margaret Mitchell wrote what many people believe to be the greatest historical fiction book of all time,” says Kate Whitman, vice president of public programs at the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House. “It is interesting to me how many people can see themselves reflected in the novel, and how many international visitors relate to the story of survival. I cannot think of another Southern author with such international appeal.”
But Mitchell, along with many of her contemporaries, was also influenced by the times—for both the good and the bad. “… While visitors to
the house love the book … we feel a responsibility to place the novel in context as it reflects collective memory of the Civil War rather than historical record,” Whitman says.
While much of the genre is influenced by the past, Southern Gothic, another important regional trope, is rooted in the fantastical. “[It] began with tall tales, ghost stories, and superstitions about forests, swamps and occult rituals … ” Lowe says. O’Connor is one of the most famous Southern Gothic writers, with short stories known for carrying a tinge of darkness.
Harper Lee is another one of the area’s best-known authors, but from the modern era. Her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” became an institution soon after it was published and is widely read in schools across America and beyond. It has been translated into 40 languages and earned Lee a Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Today’s regional authors continue to influence pop culture, with best-selling books becoming hit movies. For example, modern Southern Gothic writer Cormac McCarthy penned “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Child of God,” all of which were made into films starring major celebrities like Viggo Mortensen and Tommy Lee Jones.
While the movies inspired by McCarthy’s books are thrilling and dark, another famous regional author, Fannie Flagg, made her mark in drama-comedy genre. Her New York Times Best Seller “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” was developed into a smash-hit movie featuring Kathy Bates.
Defining Regional Literature
With such a wide range of subgenres under its umbrella, what exactly qualifies as Southern literature is a popular and ongoing debate. Tina McElroy Ansa, a novelist and publisher who counts Welty and O’Connor as major influences, notes that common tropes include a love of the land and supernatural, along with the “sense that there’s something going on”—not necessarily something mystical, but plot elements featuring religion or voodoo. In addition to these themes, humor is often seen in Ansa’s work, which is heavily influenced by her childhood in Macon, Ga. For example, her novels contain many funny interactions between the family members that form the emotional core of her novels, which help to anchor the magical elements found in the stories.
Ron Rash, author of The New York Times best-selling novel “Serena” and the recently released “The Risen,” in addition to a variety of other works, believes that a common element among Southern writers is their ability to connect with readers from diverse backgrounds while using their native regions and landscapes. His own work references North Carolina, where he was raised, while still depicting characters and situations that are easily relatable—even for readers who may not be familiar with the region. “Eudora Welty once said, ‘One place understood helps us understand all other places better,’ ” Rash says. “The ultimate theme of almost all writing is, ‘What does it mean to be alive in the world?’ and that is universal.”
Rash also points to the sense of history that imbues Southern literature. “I do find as a general rule that Southern writers seem to have an obsession with history and in that sense they tend to have a more European sensibility,” he says.
Humor and Heart
Perhaps even more so than history, humor has always been a common uniting theme in works by Southern writers. Ansa and Flagg both use comedy to balance out the more dramatic moments in their stories, and they are hardly the only regional writers known for their perfectly incorporated wit.
One Southern writer practically pioneered the genre of American satire: Mark Twain. Best-known for classics such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Twain also wrote humorously of his experiences in the South and of his early jobs as a miner and steamboat pilot—these funny, relatable reads won him praise and international fame. He was also known for his sidesplitting solo speaking engagements, which laid the groundwork for modern stand-up comedy.
Today’s Southern writers carry on that tradition of humor, such as Clyde Edgerton, whose novels are known for both their warmth and hilarity. The “Redeye” and “Lunch at the Piccadilly” author has penned numerous books with laugh-out-loud moments that have earned him fans such as fellow authors Rash, Glenn Taylor and Tom Franklin, as well as rave reviews from the media.
Another contemporary writer, Ann B. Ross, has gathered a dedicated following across America with her own humorous novels, the Miss Julia series. The stories follow the titular character, a witty widow in North Carolina with a sharp tongue, as she gets into various wild adventures like a car chase down a NASCAR Speedway and organizing her own beauty pageant. While some may not consider the books to be literature, readers can’t get enough of the fun antics told from a Southern perspective; there are already more than 15 books in the series, and more to come.
For Southern literature fans who want to explore the region beyond the pages, the area’s thriving literary scene offers a wide variety of attractions. The recently renovated Atlanta History Center is a great place to learn about the history of the South and its stories; with its own eateries and a bookstore, it could easily be a full-day excursion.
Whitman suggests Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. “It’s primarily a children’s bookstore, a really good one, but their adult section is so well curated,” Whitman says. “Elsewhere in the South, hands-down my favorite bookstore is Square Books [in] Oxford, Miss. It is one of my favorite places on Earth, actually.”
Lowe seconds Square Books and recommends exploring the offerings from local academic institutions like the University of Georgia, University of North Carolina and Louisiana State University presses.
In addition to perusing the shelves, fans can visit sites where some of their favorite works were created. Options include Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, where Mitchell lived and wrote “Gone with the Wind.” In Savannah, Ga., the childhood home of O’Connor is also open to visitors. And in Montgomery, Ala., the last house that writers F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in as a family is now a museum that covers different periods in their lives. Whether it’s a trip to a bookstore filled with regional tales or to a site that inspired them, there’s no shortage of unique opportunities for fans of Southern stories.
Sea Island Scribes
Authors find both relaxation and inspiration at Sea Island.
Tina McElroy Ansa
Tina McElroy Ansa was so taken with the resort that she started the Sea Island Writers Retreats, three workshops that assist emerging authors and help them hone their craft.
Playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill was known for his autobiographical plays like “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “The Iceman Cometh.” He built a beach cottage on Sea Island called Casa Genotta, where he lived with his wife, Carlotta. This home is also where he wrote one of his earlier plays, “Ah, Wilderness!”—the only comedy in O’Neill’s repertoire.
Margaret Mitchell, one of the most famous of all Southern writers, was known to stay at Sea Island. She often mentioned it in her letters, noting its tranquility. She sought out the Island after the success of “Gone with the Wind” made her into a sensation—and a sought-after subject for photographers and the press.