This weekend marked Harper Lee’s birth 86 years ago and I could think of no better occasion than the birthday of one of the most celebrated and famously un-prolific Southern writers to return to blogging after a long absence. In fact, it was watching a recent documentary on Lee that brought a question to mind. What makes some Southerners* such darn good writers? Upon reflection, I settled on five factors I believe contribute to the quality of Southern prose.
1. Southerners, almost without exception, have chips on their shoulders. The reasons for this are many, varied, and depend on the particular Southerner. Some of the most obvious are that the South lost the Civil War and — both literally and figuratively — has never been able to recover. Another is that when people who aren’t familiar with the region think of it, vivid imagery from novels like Deliverance spring to mind. That 1970 book penned by Southerner James Dickey portrayed Georgia mountain folk as “toothless sociopaths” in the words or one New York Times article, and showed that — when necessary — even Southern city boys could become sociopaths, albeit with better teeth. And, though people who are familiar with the South know not every trip to the backwoods ends in peril, we have to admit some do.
2. Southerners are their own antagonists. Historically, we’ve seemed to sabotage our own progress on almost every front. I believe this is true economically, socially and racially. As just one example, we are the group that has lived and worked side-by-side with African Americans for the longest period of our shared histories. Slave owners were perhaps the best known and most prolific “race mixers.” But rather than parlaying that rocky history into solidarity after all these years, the South is still viewed as the region with the thorniest race relations. This self-sabotage is perhaps best illustrated in William Faulkner’s novel Absalom! Absalom! And, for those without the patience for Faulkner’s prose, the sentiment can probably best be expressed by the quote from the Pogo comic strip, notably set in the Okefenokee Swamp: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
3. Southerners are natural storytellers. Not much happens in small Southern towns, so the storytellers among us learn early and often to embellish even the most everyday occurrences. For example, I know one ophiophobic Arkansan who can stretch a story about a backyard run in with a snake into an amusing hour-long yarn. This particular lady is such a storyteller that her own husband didn’t believe her when she called him from a hospital emergency room to report she’d had a heart attack. This factor helps explain why Southerners have written some of the most entertaining memoirs, including The Liar’s Club and All Over But the Shoutin’. It also makes a fair case that these tomes may not exactly qualify as nonfiction by the textbook definition of the term.
4. Southerners can’t eat all the time. The next best thing is thinking — and writing about — food. Food permeates Southern literature like the scent of baking fruitcake and evergreen runs through every sentence of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” And there’s not much to envy about Maya’ Angelou’s early life except the food. This mouth-watering passage from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is enough to make vegans crave a butter-soaked cathead biscuit with ham:
“On Sunday mornings Momma served a breakfast that was geared to hold us quiet from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. She fried thick pink slabs of home-cured ham and poured grease over sliced red tomatoes. Eggs over easy, fried potatoes and onions, yellow hominy and a crisp perch fried so hard we would pop them in our mouths and chew bones, fins and all. Her cathead biscuits were at least three inches in diameter and two inches thick. The trick to eating catheads was to get the butter on them before they got cold—then they were delicious. When, unluckily, they were allowed to get cool, they tended to a gooeyness, not unlike a wad of tired gum.”
5. Interesting dialects lend themselves to great dialogue. Thanks to mass media, American language is becoming depressingly homogeneous. Readers crave well-crafted exceptions to that rule. Dialogue that effectively reflects the unique ways people speak in a particular part of the world sings with authenticity. I would also argue that dialect-infused dialogue is one of the reasons so many native New Yorkers are great writers, as illustrated by the fact three of the 10 writers on this best-of list are from the South while three called New York City home. Here’s just one of many examples of dialect from To Kill a Mockingbird. Drop me a line if you need a translation.
“Not the same chiffarobe you busted up?’ asked Atticus.
The witness smiled. ‘Naw, suh, another one. Most as tall as the room. So I done what she told me, an’ I was just reachin’ when the next thing I knows she – she’d grabbed me round the legs, grabbed me round th’ legs, Mr. Finch. She scared me so bad I hopped down an’ turned the chair over – that was the only thing, only furniture ‘sturbed in that room, Mr. Finch, when I left it. I swear it ‘fore God.’”
* I do not consider myself one of these great Southern writers, but I did enjoy crafting this post and reading about writing. I have included additional links below: