Soul Cleansing Southern Literature Posted by: Dan | 0 Comments
In this age of globalization and diaspora, the Southern species is at risk. We are scattered to the wind, threatened by weakening dialects and metropolitan influence. Increasingly, the children of the rural South move to cities and undergo accent neutralization or take up activities that don’t require shootin’ and carryin’ on. It’s sad, indeed, but there are remedies, ways to cleanse oneself of harmful foreign agents and toxic buildup.
Our remedy? Stories. Literature is nearly as dear to the Southern heart as bad grammar, and our list of literary masters runs way back, like mental illness in a family tree.
Classic Southern literature can serve as a cleanse diet to counterbalance the damaging effects of exile and purify the body’s Southern nature. Reading them is like going back home and rediscovering your accent. What we gonna do is, go through this list of 10 Southern literary musts, the likes of which will surely cleanse your body. Beware: this stuff really moves through you quickly.
1) To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. School required me to read this book no fewer than six times. It provides every child of the South with the necessary microbes to generate true Southerness. Atticus Finch is our Abraham, the capsule of our alleged Southern nobility, and the main lesson he taught us? The importance of reading. Fighting racism, neighborhood boogey men, courthouses, rabies, family, attacks from disgruntled drunkards. It’s the Southern childhood experience we all wish we’d had.
Proper dosage: take as much as you want. This little book is infinitely gentle and incapable of overdose.
2) Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell. For all of its soap-operatic characters, twangy exclamations, and deluded fantasies about Southern greatness, this is a substantial book. Its scope is impressive, and the story is unforgettable, like a bout of scabies. You may substitute reading it with watching the movie, but both require about the same amount of time.
Proper dosage: take this book once, like a vaccination, and your Southern nature shall endure a lifetime.
3) A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor. This story is basically Southern living on paper: our religious bigotry, truck stops, flair for hypocrisy, language, tendency to die by violence. Plus, it’s layered with allegory and religious undertones, and no decent Southerner is without a love for symbolism or reference to Jesus. Oh, the Grandmother. Every Southern grandmother is this hard to love and, paradoxically, impossible to hate.
Proper dosage: once a year, read this story, because you will find something new every time. So it goes with all of Flannery’s stories, any of which can be substituted for this one.
4) True Grit, Charles Portis. Charles Portis, in my opinion, is a hidden Southern gem, much like the city in which he lives. His stories are no-nonsense and full of nonsensical characters, who gravitate toward absurd situations and usually carry an obsessive catalog of automotive and firearm trivia. I think of True Grit as adventure literature for adults: it’s got outlaws, showdowns, cowboys, with the warm coloring of maturity. Maddie is the daughter all Southerners wish we could have: clever, business-dealing, tough as nails, and stubbornly Protestant.
Proper dosage: take a dose every winter equinox, as this is a great cold-weather read. Don’t overlook his Dog of the South or Norwood.
5) The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner. I speculate that the disjointed, stream-of-consciousness style with which Faulkner writes this book pretty well reflects how Southerners think. It’s too damn hot to keep the mind on track. This is just one of those books in the pedigree; you just have to know it. It’s hard to read through and thicker than molasses, but you have to swallow it. It does perfectly cover just how embittering and suffocating a proper Southern family is. On the upside: you can use this book to sound intelligent at parties.
Suggested dosage: just once, and you’re allowed to take a bit without finishing it all.
6) No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Granted on these fronts: Cormac McCarthy is not a child of the South, and this book takes place mostly in Texas and Mexico. It may be more Western in setting, but I counter-argue that (1) Southerners love Westerns, and (2) this book reads like classic Southern lit. A preoccupation with landscape, old-timers, men on the run, a character named Llewelyn Moss, and an awesome repertoire of one-liners. Plus, sociopaths. Child of God may be his more classically Southern book, but Lord, it is terrifying.
Suggested dosage: whenever you’re happy enough to not let this book’s bleak outlook devastate you, or when you’re an ole timer looking for sympathy.
7) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams. Another classic that every kid in the Southern school system winds up reading, probably because it’s short. Per usual, Tennessee Williams hits all the main Southern favorites in this play: a family caving in on itself, cotton plantations, old money, and repressed homosexuality.
Suggested dosage: take as needed. These characters will make you feel like a better person, and it strengthens the accent.
8) A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole. This peculiar book shouldered itself with a stubborn will into the lit annals as a cult-classic. It just kept getting handed around, and everyone who reads it most likely loves it. New Orleans folk are like our crazy cousins, and we appreciate them with a lurid fascination. They provide the rare occasion where we actually get to ask, “What the hell are they saying?” Confederacy of Dunces is a hilarious, endlessly entertaining diagram of the Creole language and a refreshing take on New Orleans. Ignatius J Reilly could be the quintessential Southern archetype: educated, lazy, and completely deluded, but not without charm.
Suggested dosage: often, especially to cure bouts of self-importance.
9) Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls. Another classic first loved in grade school, right before it mercilessly broke my heart. I’m not sure I have the emotional stamina to reread the tale of Billy and his two Redbone Coonhounds hunting in the Ozarks. This book profoundly captures the Southern bond between human and dog, and it was there to teach my little, city-boy self about hunting. The scene between the mountain lion and Big Dan and Little Ann, dog saving boy and defeating lion … Whew. Powerful stuff.
Suggested dosage: depends on your capacity for pain. This may be one of those books you read once and carry the rest of your life. Warning: this book will not lessen your susceptibility to pet-death-induced heartbreak.
10) The Bible.The backbone of Southern upbringing. Pretty much the only authority we won’t buck.
Suggested dosage: Use as necessary.
Photo courtesy of Austin Kleon.
Sam Hedges was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and attended the University of the South. He collects food and then eats it.