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Southern Literature

One thing the Southern people are known for is their story-telling ability.  While much of that tradition has been in the oral aspect of story-telling, the South has produced more than its share of great story-telling writers.  It is our desire to introduce, or reintroduce, those who peruse this site to the wonderful legacy of authors that the South has.  Hopefully, with the selection of authors and their works shown here, there will be something found that will encourage the individual to explore the literary heritage of the South, and ignite within them a desire to revel in the pleasures of reading.  There is plenty here for everyone, and we are sure you will find one or more authors that will provide you with hours of reading enjoyment.

What is Southern Literature?

(borrowed in part from Veronica Makowsky)

In its most basic sense, Southern literature is writing about the South, but under that simple statement lie many complications. Geographically, the South can be as far flung as Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee in the North and Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas in the West.  Topically, Southern writing can concern the South or a Southerner's experience elsewhere, but it can also include a Southerner's writing on a non-Southern topic from a non-Southern point of view, like Katherine Anne Porter's "Flowering Judas," set in Mexico and told by a high modernist, godlike narrator.

Historically, though, Southern literature is quite distinctive as a tradition of authors and themes. Unlike the Northeast, the South was not settled by Puritans attempting to found a theocracy, but by a wide variety of people with diverse motives who saw hope, economic as well as religious, in the warm and fecund South. While the Puritans regarded nature and themselves as corrupted by original sin, such early travelers, explorers, and promoters of life in the South as John Smith, Robert Beverley, and William Byrd saw its alluring fertility as a New Eden where mankind could begin again. This clean slate, and its blotting, have remained a central preoccupation of Southern literature. Another version of the New Eden was the agrarian ideal, most prominently espoused by Thomas Jefferson, in which good Americans would thrive on small, self-sufficient family farms where they would benefit from the purity of nature, learn the proper independence of voting citizens, and avoid the city's temptations and subservient wage labor.

From the late eighteenth century, as slavery became increasingly important to the Southern economy after the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, antebellum Southerners were more often than not characterized by Northerners and European visitors as lazy, despotic, cruel, irreligious, or, at the very least, ignorant and misguided, as in Connecticut-native Harriet Beecher Stowe's widely influential Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Southerners responded to such vilification in three ways. The first was a retreat from the vexing particularities of time and place in a poetry of detached pastoral abstractions that could be set anytime, anywhere, as in works by Philip Pendleton Cooke, Thomas Holly Chivers, and Edgar Allan Poe. The second response to outside criticism was to wallow in it, to display Southern people, and indeed human nature as feckless, greedy, lazy, "no count," and uproariously, if vulgarly, funny, as in the work of the Southwestern humorists, such as George Washington Harris, Johnson Jones Hooper, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and their successor Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). The third reaction was polemical, as in essays by Louisa McCord and George Fitzhugh, or in fictionalized polemics, such as plantation novels by John Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, Caroline Lee Hentz, and others. The plantation novel became an enduring genre in Southern literature, characterized by a benign patriarchal master and his pure and charitable wife presiding over child-like blacks in the plantation "family." Slave narratives, like those of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, provided quite a different version of plantation life.

After the War for Southern Independence, the plantation novel became part of the "local color" movement, showing a vast nostalgic sigh for places, peoples, and times as yet untouched by industrialism and urbanization. Poets like Henry Timrod and Sidney Lanier were early mourners of "The Lost Cause," but its most prominent practitioners were fiction writers. Thomas Nelson Page, Kate Chopin, Grace King, George Washington Cable, and black American Charles Chesnutt were not, however, lost in nostalgia, but were often ambivalent toward or condemnatory of racism while finding a heartbreaking beauty in many aspects of the Southern landscape and its people.

Today, when most people think of Southern literature, they call to mind the authors of the Southern Renaissance, like William Faulkner, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Penn Warren. The Southern Renaissance refers roughly to the period between the two world wars when Southern writers were far enough in time from the War for Southern Independence and slavery to regard their region with some degree of objectivity through the techniques of international modernism, such as stream of consciousness, complex points of view, and jarring juxtapositions.

The writers of the Southern Renaissance tended to address two essential themes in their works. The first was the burden of the past in a land that had suffered military and economic defeat, social opprobrium, and the legacy of racism. In some ways, this response resembles the defensiveness of antebellum writers, but the burden is the complex legacy of shame and guilt which makes history become an individual's fate. The second major theme of the Southern Renaissance, the individual's relationship to his or her community, is closely linked to the burden of the past. In Northeastern American literature, identity is proudly and defiantly individual in the Puritan and Transcendental traditions. In contrast, the Southern individual's identity or honor is based on his or her standing in his community, and that standing is largely based on the family, whose standing, in turn, is determined by the burden of the Southern past. Although its burdens can be great, this emphasis on the societal over the individual can lead to the positive sharing, caring, values of community and to heroic Southern stoicism, in which individuals face decline and defeat with a public face of bravery, fortitude, and nobility.

After the Renaissance, Southern literature continued to thrive. As Percy himself observed, "The strangest thing about the South is, in this century, particularly in the last 40 or 50 years, how many very good writers it's produced and how little they're appreciated" (More Conversations, 223). Some have been heavily influenced by Faulkner, such as Reynolds Price, James Dickey, and Barry Hannah. black American writers like Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines and Dori Sanders have also achieved prominence. A women's tradition in Southern literature has become especially strong because of the fiction of Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Ellen Douglas, Elizabeth Spencer, Alice Walker, Lee Smith, Dori Sanders, Josephine Humphreys, Kaye Gibbons, and many others.

To actually find the books listed in the bibliographies of these writers, we recommend you check out your local library, local book store, or try amazon.com for online services.


Maya Angelou Harper Lee
Joseph Glover Baldwin Billie Letts
Doris Betts Jill McCorkle
George Washington Cable Carson McCullers
James M. Cain Margaret Mitchell
Erskin Caldwell Flannery O'Connor
Truman Capote Thomas Nelson Page
Mark Childress Walker Percy
Thomas Holley Chivers Edgar Allan Poe
Kate Chopin Katherine Anne Porter
Pat Conroy Eugenia Price
Harry Crews Reynolds Price
James Dickey Byron Herbert Reece
William Faulkner Ferrol Sams
Fannie Flagg Anne Rivers Siddons
Shelby Foote William Gilmore Simms
Ellen Gilchrist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
John Grisham Alice Walker
Lewis Grizzard Robert Penn Warren
George Washington Harris Rebecca Wells
Joel Chandler Harris Eudora Welty
Johnson Jones Hooper Tennessee Williams
Zora Neale Hurston Thomas Wolfe
John Pendleton Kennedy Stuart Woods
Florence King Richard Wright
Sidney Lanier


Literature Links

Language of the Land (The South)


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