Very interesting post over at The Literary Man about Southern literature and why it holds such a powerful sway within the broader context of American literature as a whole; here’s an excerpt:
The concept of “the self” has been something that has plagued Americans since our revolution in 1776. Born in rebellion, we have been a nation that has praised our own dominance, bowed down to no one, and yet we continuously struggle with an insecure concept of the true American Self. We live in a nation of freedom, so they say, but we are imprisoned daily by a lack of identity. Ralph Ellison, in his novel Invisible Man, states: “Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are.” How true this statement should ring out in the ears of Americans. We are a nation the appears to have no sense of direction, and we have also lost ourselves as real beings – flesh, blood, bone – living in a broken world.
America, as a whole, is a unique country: a place borne of a revolutionary(for the late 18th-century) idea: that all men were born equally, that there are no “betters” as opposed to what was prevalent in European society. However, for all of the ideals of that revolutionary idea, getting there has been the hard part; it took the Civil War for America to finally end the infernal institution of slavery and it took the Civil Rights Movement for the country to finally live up to the ideals that our Founders brought forth at the country’s founding.
And central to the American ethos has been the American South….
Even in the midst of brokenness, words written by shattered people can still help to heal the bleeding wounds that pour out over our society. In a world that is continuously growing, it is imperative to take time to reflect and listen to those who have come before us – those who have experienced life. For this, I think all Americans should tune their ears to a region of our country that has arguably experienced the most pain, loss, and suffering: The South. Writers such as William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Cormac McCarthy, James Agee, William Gay, and Thomas Wolfe – to name a few – are writers that have dealt with a Post-Reconstruction South attempting to deal with identity flaws such as race, religion, law, and violence. The entirety of The South has been immersed in turmoil from the beginning of The Civil War until arguably present day. But through these struggles, The South has produced some of the most genuine truths in the American canon of literature.
The American South is a microcosm of the struggles America has gone through since 1776; it was on the fields of Kings Mountain and Yorktown where the new-born country finally found its’ independence from Great Britain…yet the most divisive war in our country’s history began in the same state where Kings Mountain and Cowpens were fought. The same region that gave us the writers mentioned above also gave us the oldest publically-supported university, the University of North Carolina….however, this same region also gave America some of its’ worst moments, from Mississippi Burning to Bull Connor to Governor Wallace.
The American South is a place Americans both love…and love to hate. We love the beautiful spaces of bluegrass country and the Mississippi Delta, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the white-sand beaches of the Southern coast and the rolling hills of East Texas…but we love to hate the sometimes incipient anti-intellectualism rampant in parts of the South, the bigotry still lurking in parts of the region and the full-bore contrarian atttitudes that many Southerners still display towards their fellow Americans. Within the American South is a yin & yang worthy of praise and contempt, of respect and anger, of love..and hate.
And nothing more illustrates those points than the words of Southern literature and the great writers who penned the words within. Southern literature is just as much a part of the broader American literary scene as any other part; it is one of the things I love about the American South…and it is a reminder that, even with the evils of the region, there are still some very, very good things about the American South and that they are still worth reading and understanding.