I live in Florida, and although I’m not a native, I consider myself a Southerner. “The South” is a nebulous, diverse, and perplexing region in the United States of America, often romanticized, vilified, ridiculed, championed, and misunderstood. It’s difficult to define exactly where the South begins and ends. Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi are the South, but what about Kentucky or Missouri? Texas is the South, but at some point, it also becomes the West. A common joke is that Florida stops being the South the farther south one goes into Florida. The boundaries are murky.
So too is so-called “Southern literature” hard to pin down. The great Georgian moralist Flannery O’Connor declared that “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Here I think we might let the word “Northern” stand for any reader not from the South. O’Connor imbued her work with grotesque distortions to bring “alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.”
In compiling this Personal Anthology, I have sought to offer up a dozen tales from/of the nebulous, dirty, fecund South that bring unaccustomed experience to life for the reader.
Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1851.
At the end of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which may or may not be a piece of Southern Literature (it is)), our hero Huck promises to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.” Huck’s dream of evading domestic responsibility (embodied in the maternal presence of Aunt Sally) is a signal theme of American literature, wrapped loosely in a transcendentalist garb that might help disguise all those Manifest Destiny urges seething underneath.
The freedom to light out for the Territory does not transcend all identities, as Kate Chopin’s short, dark, ironic story ‘Désirée’s Baby’ shows. Our Désirée is a foundling of uncertain parentage, discovered beneath the phallic “shadow of the big stone pillar” by her adoptive father Valmondé. Eighteen years later she’s transferred to another man, Armand Aubigny, who falls in love with Désirée, “as if struck by a pistol shot.” But when Désirée’s baby – also Aubigny’s baby – is born, something is a shade off. I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, but it’s part of a pattern Chopin develops of female heroes whom she frees (as in Edna Pontellier of The Awakening) but can’t quite save. Chopin frees her heroes, but there’s nowhere for them to go, no Territory to light out for. Other writers will come to imagine other freedoms though.
First published in Vogue, Jan., 1893, and collected in Bayou Folk, The Riverside Press, 1894 and available to read here
Jean Toomer was born in Washington, D.C. in 1894.
Toomer’s major work Cane was heavily influenced by his early career as an educator in rural Georgia. ‘Karintha’, the first piece in Cane, announces many of the work’s larger themes and strange style. The brief, impressionistic story touches on female sexuality and male desire, and shifts between prose and poetry, anticipating the form of Cane to come – is this a novel? A story cycle? A collection of fragments? A century after its composition, Cane still feels odd and fresh.
First published in Cane, Boni and Liveright, 1923 and available to read here
Katherine Anne Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas in 1890.
Old Granny Weatherall lies on her bed waiting to die, attended by Dr. Harry and her daughter Cornelia. Her consciousness spills over the edges of the narrative proper, blending with a third-person voice, merging memory with fantasy and dream. A dead child wanders in – her name is Hapsy (not quite Happy, just as Cornelia is not quite Cordelia). And then in comes jilter George, who left her waiting at the altar. She patches a life together nonetheless, but the jilting haunts her on her deathbed. ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’ is an extraordinary feat of harnessing consciousness in prose. It culminates in a devastating negative epiphany that echoes Emily Dickinson’s ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-‘: “/and then it was /There interposed a Fly /- With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz /- Between the light – and me -/ And then the Windows failed /- and then I could not see to see -“
First published in transition, 1929 and first collected in Flowering Judas, Harcourt Brace 1930
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891 (although she claimed that she was born in Eatonville, Florida in 1901 for much of her adult life).
In the third chapter of Genesis, Yahweh ejects Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and condemns them to a life of toil: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Historically, most of the blame has been pinned on Eve (Adam’s sin is listening to a woman). Zora Neale Hurston’s intense short story ‘Sweat’ reverses the expulsion from Eden and absolves her hero from sin. Delia is a washerwoman in the black township of Eatonville, Florida. She’s a hardworking, deeply spiritual woman who’s spent fifteen years in an abusive marriage to her jobless, cheating husband Sykes. Her life comes down to “Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat.” When Sykes cruelly tricks Delia into thinking the bullwhip he’s brought into the house is a snake, she finally snaps and defends herself. Sykes ups the ante, bringing in a real snake. Karmic consequences ensue. We get a snake, a tree, a cleansing, and a survivor who, through her own work, her own sweat, returns to the “spiritual earthworks” of her home and garden.
‘Sweat’ condenses some of the themes of Hurston’s major work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The hero of that novel, Janie, like Delia, survives (and is witness to) disasters (natural and personal). Hurston’s conclusions contrast Kate Chopin’s – she figures out a way for her heroes to live freely.
First published in Firell, November, 1926 and collected in Spunk, Turtle Island Foundation, 1985 and The Complete Stories, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008
Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1909.
There are plenty of heavy hitters in Welty’s first collection A Curtain of Green (‘Petrified Man,’ ‘Why I Live at the P.O.,’ ‘Powerhouse,’ ‘A Worn Path’), but none of the stories are as odd and abject as ‘Keela.’ The story’s grotesquerie might first be read as absurd, but underneath is a bedrock of difficult reality. The plot concerns a former carnival barker named Steve, who, with the aid of a local bartender named Max, seeks out a clubfooted black man. This man is Little Lee Roy, who was once Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden: “‘They dressed it in a red dress, and it ate chickens alive,’ [Steve] said. ‘I sold tickets and I thought it was worth a dime, honest.'” There’s so much to unpack in ‘Keela’ that it’s no wonder it isn’t widely anthologized like ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ or ‘A Worn Path.’ The story resists easy interpretations. Is it about white guilt? Is Little Lee Roy a victim or empowered through the story’s events? How do we untangle the identities Welty knots up in Lee Roy/Keela? An answer – not the answer, but an answer – is that ‘Keela’ shows that America, and in particular the American South, is a freak show con game powered by exploitation.
First published in A Curtain of Green, Doubleday, 1941
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi in 1897.
I have not read everything William Faulkner wrote but ‘The Bear’ is the best thing that William Faulkner wrote. It’s a story of initiation and maturation. Isaac McCaslin goes bear hunting, but he’s also hunting for his family’s history. ‘The Bear’ can be read on its own, but set in the context of Go Down, Moses, it’s a richer text, illuminating the other stories in that book. For example, Go Down, Moses begins with the antic comedy, ‘Was,’ which first reads like a simple, fun yarn. However, after reading ‘The Bear,’ we see that ‘Was’ covertly describes the genesis of a grotesquely deviated family tree. If Huckleberry Finn’s decision to “light out for the Territory” typifies a particularly American evasion of domestic responsibility, Faulkner’s heroes frequently take the evasion a step further, swearing to never beget children at all. ‘The Bear’ culminates in McCaslin’s refusal to take up familial responsibility of any kind. He repudiates his inheritance; he repudiates the South.
First published as ‘Lion’ in Harper’s Magazine in December, 1935 and then as ‘The Bear’ in The Saturday Evening Post, 1942, and then included as a chapter of Go Down, Moses, Random House, 1942
Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917.
In many ways, Carson McCullers’ ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ reads as a revision of Faulkner’s most-anthologized tale, ‘A Rose for Emily.’ We have a brooding protagonist, a one-time scion alienated from her community. We have an outsider coming to town, disrupting the order of things.
In either case, we’re back at the freak show. Miss Amelia Evans was a rich girl. Now she’s a tall lady. Preferring a sexless life, she kicks her lusty husband Marvin Macy out of her shabby mansion, sending him on a crime spree. Miss Amelia’s a shrewd one, part medicine lady, part bootlegger, possessing secret knowledge of potions and the like—a witchy woman. A trickster comes to town, an odd hunchbacked dwarf who claims to be long-lost Cousin Lymon. Miss Amelia falls for his story and then, to the shock of the nosy townsfolk, falls in love with him. Soon, she opens a café, and it’s a happy place–but not for long. Marvin Macy returns after a stint in the penitentiary. Cousin Lymon falls deeply in love with him. Tragic chaos ensues. ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ is a twisted fairy tale, a parable that resists a clear object lesson. Or maybe the lesson is clear: love is hard.
First published in The Ballad of the Sad Café, Houghton Mifflin, 1951
Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925.
“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work.” For O’Connor, reality meant spirit – the everlasting soul was the site of reality, not the material world, no matter how bound to it we appear to be. Again and again, she pushes her characters into terrifying epiphanies, moments of grace that they are hardly able to maintain. O’Connor’s lines about violence, reality, and grace were delivered in a discussion on her most-anthologized tale, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ but the sentiment saturates her fiction, where heroes are fatally flawed, stuck in the clay of the material world, yet still striving for a recognition of something metaphysical that might give meaning to it all.
The hero of ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ is Tom T. Shiftlet, a one-armed shapeshifting trickster who drifts into the lives of Lucynell Crater and her daughter, Lucynell Crater Jr. The narrator notes that his grotesque figure resembles a “crooked cross” and Shiftlet claims to be a carpenter. Like so many of O’Connor’s heroes, he’s a failed Jesus, a dissatisfied seeker. What is a man? he demands of Lucynell Crater upon their initial meeting. It’s a question that the narrative can’t answer but can nevertheless repeatedly pose.
O’Connor presses her vision of reality upon Shiftlet. He marries the daughter Lucynell Crater Jr. in what amounts to an economic exchange “That didn’t satisfy me none.” He soon abandons her in a highway diner, and the reader senses that this is just one more failure in life stuffed with failure. But O’Connor gives the hero another chance to redeem himself. After passing a mundane sign that warns, “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own,” Shiftlet picks up a young boy hitchhiking on the side of the road. He seems to recognize something of himself in the boy, and guilt and regret seep into his consciousness. His attempts to reach out to the boy are met with rejection, however, and the lad jumps from a moving car into a ditch. The story concludes in ominous, anxious conclusive inconclusiveness as Shiftlet prays to God: “Oh Lord! . . .Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” His prayer is answered.
First published in The Kenyon Review, Spring 1953, and available to read online here. Collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1955, and in Complete Stories, FSG 1971, and now from Faber and Faber, 1990
Richard Wright was born in Roxie, Mississippi in 1908.
I began this Personal Anthology with some hemming and hawing over the impossibility of clearly defining Southern literature. However, there’s a certain school of thought that makes it clear that for it to be Southern literature, there’s got to be a dead mule somewhere in there. In Richard Wright’s story ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man,’ the mule carnage comes about at the hands of seventeen-year-old farmhand Dave Saunders. Dave feels disrespected by the other farmhands, and callowly believes obtaining a pistol and firing it in front of them will lead them to recognize him as a grown man. He finagles a gun by lying to his mother, but accidentally kills his boss’s mule while shooting in his field. His parents force him to work for the money to repay the farmer for the mule (“Well, boy, looks like yuh done bought a dead mule!”). It would take two years of work to do this, so Dave, following Huck, elects to “light out for the Territory.” He hops a train headed to the North, where he believes he can be a man.
First published in Eight Men, World Publishing, 1961
Barry Hannah was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1942
I probably could have picked any Barry Hannah story for this anthology, and especially any story from his excellent collection Airships, but I chose his long story ‘Testimony of Pilot’ because it’s always stuck with me. The story captures the development of friendships and rivalries between the narrator William Hawley and an oddball named Ard Quadberry.
They first meet when Hawley and a buddy, in a strange attempt to get revenge on some drunk men who they spied killing a hog with an ax, mistakenly attack Quadberry’s house with an improvised mortar loaded with flashlight batteries. Quadberry emerges, saxophone in hand, telling them to stop (Quadberry’s dad, a professor at the local college, is suffering a “headache from indiscretion”). The attackers agree to retreat if Quadberry plays his sax for them. Hawley is impressed (despite thinking there was “too much desperate oralness” in preparing the reed), but his buddy declares that Quad’s playing “sounded like a duck. Like a girl duck.” As Quadberry leaves, they toss M-80 firecrackers at him, permanently scarring his face.
Thus begins a story that captures the inherent contradictions of male friendship, the push-pull of affection and rivalry that simultaneously connects and disconnects best friends. ‘Testimony of Pilot’ follows that friendship through a tragic trajectory, although, like most of Hannah’s work, it’s very, very funny in its sadness. Hawley and Quadberry, quite literally, make beautiful music together playing in a series of bands over the years. In the story’s most memorable sequence, they perform a devastating version of Ravel’s Bolero led by Quadberry’s horn (and not, as one familiar with the piece might imagine, Hawley’s drums). Quadberry becomes a Navy pilot, and leaves to fight in Vietnam, offering the cryptic statement to an old girlfriend: “I am a dragon. America the beautiful, like you will never know.” I still don’t know what it means, but I think about it every now and then.
First published in Airships, Knopf, 1978
Breece D’J Pancake was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1952.
Breece D’J Pancake conjured small worlds so grim, desperate, and ugly that the greatest joy of reading his stories is leaving them. We might exhale in relief at getting to exit the stark reality of ‘Hollow,’ but Pancake’s characters are so real that it feels like they must go on living in stale despair long after we’ve closed the book. The viewpoint character in ‘Hollow’ is a West Virginia coal miner named Buddy. His girlfriend Sally is about to leave him—and take the dog to boot. He lets her go but reclaims his dog. The next evening, Buddy wakes up on the floor of his trailer, hungover: “Looking into the mirror, he saw the imprints of the carpet pattern on his cheek, the poison hanging beneath his eyes. He wanted to throw up, but could not.” The story ends with Buddy hunting and killing a pregnant doe:
He kicked the unborn fawn aside, disconnected the doe’s guts, sliced off the hindquarters, and let the rest of the carcass fall for the scavengers to find. He laid three small slices of liver aside in the snow to cool . . . He bit off a piece of the cool, raw liver and, as it juiced between his teeth, watched the final throes of the fawn in the steamy snow.
In Faulkner’s story ‘The Bear,’ the hunt leads to epiphany (even if the revelation results in repudiation); in ‘Hollow,’ the hunt merely confirms a core emptiness of the modern condition. The violence might be cathartic, but the catharsis is only temporary. There’s no Territory for Buddy to light out for, no grace, no epiphany.
First published in The Atlantic, Oct. 1982 and first collected in in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983; read it online here
Donald Barthelme was born in Pennsylvania in 1931.
Pennsylvania is very clearly a Northern State, and Donald Barthelme lived a significant part of his adult writing life in New York City, New York, which is also clearly Northern. There is little in his writing that would lead most readers to identify it as “Southern literature.” However –
– Barthelme moved to Houston, Texas when he was just two years old, grew up there, spent the later part of his life there, and died there. His father’s parents were from Galveston, Texas. Like so many Southern writers before him, Barthelme sought to light out for new territory – in this case the Big City. New York was a prominent setting in many of his stories; most of his work was published in The New Yorker; he titled a collection City Life.
The late story ‘Bishop’ is atypically straightforward, unadorned, and realistic for a Barthelme joint. Even though he denied it in an interview, the tale employs autobiographical elements. It’s a miniature portrait of an alcoholic writer, the titular Bishop who, in the course of writing a biography of the painter William Michael Harnett, discovers another painter, John Frederick Peto. ‘Bishop’ is a melancholy, elegiac reminiscence without a direct object. It seems to be set in New York City, but the final lines of the story extend to Barthelme’s own youth, to memories of his grandparents’ ranch in Galveston. Lost in thought, Bishop remembers “walking in the water, the shallow river, at the edge of the ranch, looking for minnows in the water under the overhanging trees, skipping rocks across the river.” The rural reverie recalls Barthelme’s Southern roots. It’s a peaceful if pain-tinged moment of realistic reflection.
First published in The New Yorker, August 1980 and available for subscribers here; first collected in Sixty Stories, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982