In my memoir, Under Magnolia, I remember, even as a child, how affected I was by southern writers.
The first poems I memorized came from Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn. I still know them and must break out in soaring quotes anytime we’re driving across any salt marsh in the world.
Another book was The Face of a Nation, excerpts from Thomas Wolfe’s writing, which I found in the one bookcase in my grandparents’ house, next to Statesmen of the Lost Cause by Burton Hendrick. I didn’t read the latter at age nine but already I had heard people say “lost cause.” In mid-twentieth century Georgia, the phrase still resonated.
“We lost,” I’d heard. “We’re the only part of America ever to lose a war on our own ground,” they started telling us as early as third grade. (Conveniently forgetting Native Americans.)
I gradually came to see that “lost cause” seeped into writers such as Wolfe who could say “oh, lost and by the wind-grieved ghost, come back. . . .” He wrote about personal loss, not the lost cause, but, as I read more extensively, that pervading aura of loss seemed part of the natural voice of the South.
The Yearling by Marjorie Kennan Rawlings could break the heart of a stone. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” was locked away forever in her tomb by the sounding sea. My favorite, Steven Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body, delved a long way into a particular kind of mythologizing of the “lost” way of life.
Equally powerful in the first writers I discovered, was the naked South—primal black swamps, heat mirages, peach blows, moss-hung oaks, laurel slicks—the land itself, a sense of which every southern writer was spoon-fed, along with grits, smothered quail, and chess pie.
When I later found William Faulkner, James Agee, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Frank Yerby, Hamilton Basso, Zora Neale Hurston, Willie Morris, Lillian Smith and many others, I realized how they worked.
Take the tornado spiraling on the edge of a cotton field, the clear creek sparkling with quartz crystals, take something soft as the breath of a gardenia, something stinking like a pile of warm dung—take the inheritance, revel in it, then turn it inside out. As a young writer, I began to discover how a good writer does not succumb but overcomes.
Ah! Out of the racially divided mentality of the South, came the ability to play opposing sides within a character, so that you might admire and detest at the same moment. Light in August is rife with such characters. From the racial divide, too, came the knowledge that you have to go there, where you hesitate to go, there, near the source of sorrow. And will you find redemption?
Will you kill a mockingbird, or will you find the move on determination of Hurston, who had no time for self-pity because she was too busy sharpening her oyster knife?
Out of the misty mythology of the South came a riotous sense of the ridiculous, so well honed in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, where the grandmother, helped over the ditch by the man about to murder her, says “Thank you.”
Out of the powerful land came a lyric fierceness that produced such a writer as Agee. Out of the Christ-ridden South, came the quest for secular salvation, or at least a moment of grace. Out of obsession with the past came the desire to understand it, nowhere more quietly and passionately than in Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter.
The body of southern literature has warmed me all my life. Having moved back to the South after a lifetime in California, I’m immersing myself in contemporary writers. As I did as a teenager, I’m taking notes, ready to learn how this verdant, haunted land continues to shape the writers who love it.
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Do you have a favorite Southern author or book? Share it in the comments!