For this issue of Chronicles we have assembled the thing in and of itself, examples of Southern literature as it is here and now, a couple of appropriate poems and a work of fiction by one of the South’s finest writers, together with some good talk about contemporary letters in the South. I would rather not be redundant (the rhetorical effect of which is always to generate a chorus of huge yawns among readers); so I will here merely point out that most of the questions and some of the answers about the nature of Southern literature, past and present, are at least touched on in the pieces that follow. Perhaps most interestingly, R.H.W. Dillard’s new poem, “Poe at the End,” and Fred Chappell’s long story/short novel (shall we go ahead and call it a novella? Why not?), “Ancestors,” using both fact and fable, directly address the happy and probably insoluble problem of defining Southern literature. Among other things.
I commend each and all of these pieces to you. Including the work by Dillard and Chappell, and the poem by James Seay, we have work by the latest generation of Southern writers, all of them already established and altogether likely to be at once active and influential in the decade ahead and the early years of the new century. That gives us, not counting the newest of the new and the youngest of the young, three living generations of Southern writers. Although we have lost Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy we still have so many others around and about: Andrew Lytic and Cleanth Brooks, for example; Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor and Shelby Foote, for instance, each having by now earned more than regional honors and recognition.
When you think of all these, together with many others, a surprising number, at one end of the living tradition and, at the other, the younger writers who are gathered here and represent their own generation, you have a sense of the continuity and variety of the Southern tradition in our time. Missing, but their long shadows remain, are a crowd, a cloud of elders and witnesses who link the great flowering of Southern writing in this century to its historical and literary past: first and foremost, of course William Faulkner, who mapped the territory for us even as, in different forms and strange contexts, he influenced and changed the literature of the wide world in all its babbling languages; the great and greatly influential Agrarians and Fugitives—Tate and Ransom and Donald Davidson and Carolyn Gordon and Brooks and Warren, and, of course, their own pupils, people like James Dickey and Randall Jarrell and Madison Jones; the remarkable independents, people like Thomas Stribling and Stark Young and John Gould Fletcher; the first generation of women who made their way, and their living, as writers—Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston and Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Evelyn Thomson and so many others, not least among them being Margaret Mitchell. And all of this should not slight or ignore the no-longer separate and equal tradition of black Southern writing, from, say, Ralph Ellison (who sometimes identifies himself as a Southern writer and who is member-in-good-standing of the Fellowship of Southern Writers), to younger and newer voices like those of Percival Everett and Randal Kenan.
All of the above is hopelessly inadequate, but at least serves to give a sense of a thriving and, yes, traditional enterprise. Which is a point so taken for granted that our younger writers in this issue do not feel the need to make it strongly. Point is, and truth is, we all know each other—the work, anyway. There is great independence, even a certain anarchy in the Southern tradition; but there is also a sense of family.
Another thing not mentioned by our writers here, not because it is taken for granted, but rather because it is so sensitive and the risks of offense are large and real, is the split within the family of Southern letters that is directly a result of the Civil War and the loss, for the better part of a century since then, of major publishing centers and business in the South. Ever since the Civil War the Southern writers who had any kind of national ambitions or aspirations, or the writer who worked in forms, drama, for example, whose principal centers of commerce and appreciation are elsewhere, has been forced to live up to an alien image of what the Southern writer is supposed to be and to say; and, behind that, the subject, itself; the youth presented in approved and certified Southern literature must conform to an outsider’s image. Long training in and acceptance of the forms of good manners and tact have prepared the Southern writer for a certain amount of role playing in life and in art. Role playing on both sides, for example, was and probably remains a crucial element in the complexities of race relations in the South. Similarly, role playing among Southerners, including any number of Southern writers who have chosen to move and to live in the North is nothing new. To an extent we have all sold out, some minimally and only for the sake of survival, others more seriously and for the sake of . . . success. Remember some of what Faulkner wrote in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Sanctuary? “I began to think of books in terms of possible money. I decided I might just as well make some of it myself I took a little time out, and speculated on what a person in Mississippi would believe to be the current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks . . .” Shades of Bret Easton Ellis! Of course, there is much more to the Faulkner story than that; it becomes an exemplum of artistic integrity. Many of us have exercised and demonstrated much less integrity. And this needs to be understood. Should I be bold and name names? Should I offer that much integrity? Not bloody likely. But let this much be understood. That to the extent that Southern writing is apt to be, on a national scale, commercially or critically successful it is also likely to conform to imposed or, anyway, distorted and generalized stereotypes. There is always a danger that Southern literature will fall victim to terminal cuteness. In an age when the words politically correct can be used without irony or shame, it is always a possibility that Southern literature will die of a surfeit of assertive liberalism.
I need to add this mild warning. Although we have seen the arrival and expansion of several good, if small. Southern publishers in the past decade (Algonquin, Peachtree, Blair, Palaemon, among others), we must not look to Southern publishers to change or to ease this problem. For they, too, must prosper nationally to endure and must play their role as seriously as any ambitious (or desperate) individual. The Southern publishers cannot afford to take many chances. Not yet.
And within the South we have to admit to some other kinds of role playing, deviations from the strict and factual truth. Think how many among us (again, no names, no, sir) insist on claiming a more genteel or aristocratic lineage than any facts could be mustered to support. Or, sometimes in the same family, we lay claim to more rowdy depths of rednecks, cracker culture than even our best friends would allow. More recently we have two slight variations on this theme, both aesthetic: the worldlier-than-thou hard-nosed cynics and then the aesthetes who, though they may come, deep-rooted, from the deep boonies, try to allude as knowingly as any Manhattan sophisticate to the vintage wines of the world, to great foreign cities and foreign philosophers and artists. I have a poet friend who maintains that an absolute test of the fraudulent is the contemporary American writer, of any kind, who summons the image of Akhmanatoua into his own poem or story. He may be right. In any case, there are Southern writers who have done just that.
Enough of the negative.
Not much is or can be said in these pages about the Southern novel. Let this much be said: that the novels being written by Southern novelists are lively and various; and that the range and energy of these novelists, who have been busy and productive in large number since the beginning of this century, show no sign at all of shrinking or diminishing. If the novel finally does fall over dead, it won’t be the fault of the Southerners.
Another point that needs to be made before I bow politely and leave the stage to our excellent performers. Except for some talk of literary criticism, we do not here make much of the very real and present contributions of Southern writers in the fields lumped together as nonfiction. I am thinking of the highly individual essays and articles of people like Roy Reed, Roy Blount, Sam Pickering, James M. Cox, Pat C. Hoy, Tom Wolfe, and our own John Shelton Reed. And it is in that field that we find, on the grandest scale, the greatest single literary work attempted and achieved by any American author. The Civil War: A Narrative, by the Southern novelist Shelby Foote. The late Walker Percy called it “our Iliad.” In any case and in every detail, large and small, it is a magnificent work of fact and art, worthy of all the tradition and variety of Southern letters that came before it and, like the overwhelming achievement of the lifework of William Faulkner, becoming an integral part of the tradition, and by example and by challenge, becoming an invitation to the future. Foote said something of the same thing, himself, in his “Bibliographical Note” to Volume II of The Civil War, saying that, among his many sources, “Mark Twain and Faulkner would also have to be included, for they left their sign on all they touched, and in the course of this exploration of the American scene I often found that they had been there before me.” Foote joins them as one of the few who point the way.