Perhaps since the War Between the States itself, and certainly since the literary Southern Renascence became conscious of itself in the 30’s and 40’s, educated Southerners, and Southern writers especially, have taken their sense of history as a point of pride. Now, as the end of the century approaches, one may be tempted to wonder whether this pride has degenerated into mere vanity—declining from the deadliest of sins to a mere venal one. That special Southern historical sense may have become no more than a conventional piety of a style of Southern literary criticism, which, as the novelist Madison Jones was heard to mutter in the audience of a critical panel five years ago, has long since passed “beyond refinement.”
In any event, the deep sense of history is less likely to be associated with short Southern stories than with big Southern novels: Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha opus, Robert Penn Warren’s excursion to the regional past, Roots even, or George Garrett’s Elizabethan trilogy; those last two works carry a sharpened awareness of history into other regions altogether. Short stories, on the other hand, are not expected to express the long continuum from past into present, although they very well can, and sometimes still do.
The two surviving elder statesmen of the Southern short story, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor, have moved in quite drastically different directions in their use of time in their work. In this narrow sense. Miss Welty’s stories appear to be more conventional, by contemporary standards. The span of time they typically seek to portray is brief: the day, the hour, the moment. Their effect is an immediate effect. Although there are powerful historical currents running through many of Miss Welty’s stories, their channels are mostly subterranean.
So it is with “The Hitch-Hikers,” one of her best (each of her stories is one of her best). The traveling salesman Harris is a desperately dislocated man who can only recognize his condition by contrast to the two tramps he picks up in his car, whose language itself reflects a certainty of identity that Harris can in no way match: “I come down from the hills. . . . We had us owls for chickens and fox for yard dogs but we sung true.” After Harris stops for the night in a hotel, the two tramps quarrel over a scheme to make off with his car, and one of them kills the other by clubbing him with a bottle. What could it mean to a man like Harris?
In his room, Harris lay down on the bed without undressing or turning out the light. He was too tired to sleep. Half blinded by the unshaded bulb he stared at the bare plaster walls and the equally white surface of the mirror above the empty dresser. Presently he got up and turned on the ceiling fan, to create some motion and sound in the room. It was a defective fan which clicked with each revolution, on and on. He lay perfectly still beneath it, with his clothes on, unconsciously breathing in a rhythm related to the beat of the fan.
One would hardly wish to be any nearer a moment than this. Of course it is a distinctly null moment. It is frozen, except for the clocklike sound and movement of the fan, which insists on the story’s oppressive proximity to real time.
He could forgive nothing in this evening. But it was too like other evenings, this town was too like other towns, for him to move out of this lying still clothed on the bed, even into comfort or despair. Even the rain: there was often rain, there was often a party, and there had been other violence not of his doing—other fights, not quite so pointless, but fights in his car; fights, unheralded confessions, sudden lovemaking—none of any of this his, not his to keep, but belonging to the people of these towns he passed through, coming out of their rooted pasts and their mock rambles, coming out of their time. He himself had no time. He was free; helpless.
This may be Miss Welty’s clearest image of a future that she foresaw a long time ago, and that we have now inherited. Once the man of the future (like Tate’s George Posy) the deracinated Harris is now very much the man of the present. It is noteworthy that the eternal present which he inhabits is in the story’s scheme of things a sort of hell on earth. In its very unity of effect, the story conveys a wholesale loss of history. Not all Miss Welty’s stories are about this kind of loss. But most of them do work within a very compact temporal period. The history that struggles so energetically to force itself upward into the present moment is implied more than it is stated, even in a story so rich with history, as, for example, “Clytie.”
The majority of Southern storywriters have and still do follow a similar technical pattern—working very tightly to packets of real time. Flannery O’Connor certainly did so, for reasons probably more religious than aesthetic. Her stories reside in a perpetual state of eschatological apprehension—each moment is potentially that when the soul will be summoned to judgment. O’Connor’s work is ahistorical, then, from the moment of its conception. Another, less dogmatic moral fabulist, George Garrett, also sticks close to clock and calendar in his short fiction, which is often complicated, however, by the presence of a ghostly voice that floats above the action and ranges more freely through larger chronologies than the action details. A younger generation of short-story writers has adopted these methods of managing time within strict limits, probably without question, for the most part.
In increasingly dramatic contrast to this general tendency is the work of Peter Taylor, who by moving in a different direction has discovered very different possibilities. Peter Taylor is quintessentially a storywriter: his recent novel, A Summons to Memphis, is simply a longer and more detailed version of his old story Dean of Men. As a storywriter he has certain important abilities that scarcely anyone else in the South or anywhere else in America appears to possess or even desire.
Each of Taylor’s stories has the potential of a novel. Many cover the amount of real time that a novel would address—a long novel, too, a “saga.” Taylor’s gift is for engaging, convincing, compelling summary. He is able to make his stories account for the whole lives of their characters—and not through the flashbacks or the short bursts of background exposition that real-time stories conventionally employ. In reading a Taylor story one seems to pass through the lives of the characters alongside them, so that when the present moment is reached it is all the more potent with meaning. The short story is Taylor’s ideal form because of his extraordinary ability to fuse a long chronology with some particularly revealing instant, as in his masterpiece (one of them) “A Wife of Nashville.”
Helen Ruth put her hands on the handlebar of the teacart. She pushed the cart a little way over the tile floor but stopped when he repeated his question. It wasn’t to answer his question that she stopped, however. “Oh, my dears!” she said, addressing her whole family. Then it was a long time before she said anything more. John R. and the three boys remained seated at the table, and while Helen Ruth gazed past them and toward the front window of the sun parlor, they sat silent and still, as though they were in a picture. What could she say to them, she kept asking herself And each time she asked the question, she received for answer some different memory of seeming unrelated things out of the past twenty years of her life. These things presented themselves as answers to her question, and each of them seemed satisfactory to her. But how little sense it would make to her husband and her grown sons, she reflected, if she should suddenly begin telling them about the long hours she had spent waiting in that apartment at the Vaux Hall while John R. was on the road for the Standard Candy Company, and in the same breath should tell them how plainly she used to talk to Jane Blakemore and how Jane pretended the baby made her nervous and went back to Thornton. Or suppose she should abruptly remind John R. of how ill at ease the wives of his hunting friends used to make her feel and how she had later driven Sarah’s worthless husband out of the yard, threatening to call a bluecoat. What if she should suddenly say that because a woman’s husband hunts, there is no reason for her to hunt, any more than because a man’s wife sews, there is reason for him to sew. She felt that she would be willing to say anything at all, no matter how cruel or absurd it was, if it would make them understand that everything that happened in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt. She was ready to tell them about sitting in the old nursery at Thornton and waiting for Carrie and Jane Blakemore to come out of the cabin in the yard. If it would make them see what she had been so long in learning to see, she would even talk about the “so much else” that had been missing from her life and that she had not been able to name, and about the foolish mysteries she had so nobly accepted upon her reconciliation with John R. To her, these things were all one now; they were her loneliness, the loneliness from which everybody, knowingly or unknowingly, suffered. But she knew that her husband and her sons did not recognize her loneliness or Jess McGehee’s or their own.
There could be no more convincing illustration of the old Southern literary touchstone—that the past inhabits the present and is alive within it. There is also almost no other Southern storywriter capable of achieving such an effect, except for Elizabeth Spencer. Her latest collection, Jack of Diamonds, shows her adept at bringing twenty or thirty year blocks of familial history within the borders of a single story, like the extraordinary “Cousins”; however short such a story may be, the reader must feel that it has come a long, long way through time to reach the present.
Why this quality is now so rare among younger and newer Southern storywriters is a mystery whose solution may be suggested by the probability that the Southern writer’s education now takes place not in splendidly romantic isolation but in some writers’ workshop somewhere. Creative Writing instruction has been too carelessly demonized of late; good workshops do more good than harm, bad ones the reverse, but all workshops do tend to function as behavioral training modules, where apprentice writers are in one way or another rewarded for success and punished for failure. The most basic success expected of them is verisimilitude, which is more easily gained by the novice through action and dialogue than by summary. Thus the trainee writer is apt to be discouraged from ever attempting to write the sort of brilliant summary at which Taylor and Elizabeth Spencer excel, although, as Andrew Lytic has observed, “fiction is a summary—summary of scenes leading up to the scene which you need.” The specifically scenic quality of fiction, its real-time component, Lytle regards as a borrowing from theater. Nothing wrong with that method—Welty, O’Connor, and Garrett have written their finest stories in this mode—except that its limits are arbitrary.
There are still exceptions to this rule to be found—a few Southern storywriters who have found some highly unusual ways of breaking the constraint of real time. Richard Dillard, in long stories like “The Bog,” “The Road,” “The Deatheater,” and “Omniphobia,” has pretty well managed to smash the clock altogether with his signature blend of truly comic and truly frightening surrealism. In a somewhat similar vein, Cathryn Hankla and Fred Chappell have in their different ways used highly unusual techniques to encapsulate personal history. The title story of Hankla’s first collection, Learning the Mother Tongue, ties the history of a childhood to the acquisition of language; in another, the narrator’s life story is cunningly summarized by a parrot. In Chappell’s I Am One of You Forever, stories that seem firmly grounded in a verisimilar here and now can suddenly, vastly enlarge their temporal scope by dextrous shifts into the fantastic:
The tear on my mother’s cheek got larger and larger. It detached from her face and became a shiny globe, widening outward like an inflating balloon. At first the tear floated in air between them, but as it expanded took my mother and father into itself. I saw them suspended, separate but beginning to drift slowly toward one another. Then my mother looked past my father’s shoulder, looked through the bright skin of the tear, at me. The tear enlarged until at last it took me in too. It was warm and salt. As soon as I got used to the strange light inside the tear, I began to swim clumsily toward my parents.
Dillard, Hankla, and Chappell are mavericks, uniquely innovative stylists who seem to come out of nowhere, but if any younger writer can write the profoundly historical story in the same grand old manner, it is Richard Bausch, in his latest collection. The Fireman’s Wife. “Letter to the Lady of the House,” which elegantly evokes the sweet and the sour of a five-decade-long marriage, might in its technique and its tone almost be a deliberate homage to Peter Taylor. In stories of a more contemporary feeling, “The Brace,” “Equity,” and the title story, Bausch displays the different ways he’s discovered for bringing a long history forward to the moment where it matters most.
And in that skill he is almost alone, at least in his generation. If the Southern short story is by and large losing its peculiar historical sense, then what is it that makes it peculiarly Southern? That question, academic or not, tends to come up in quarters where the old touchstones are fondled—asked by younger writers and critics like David Madden and Marc Stengel who seem to feel that the literature promoted under the Southern label is becoming increasingly remote from the realities of present-day Southern life. It’s a subject that can hardly help but arise at a time when the South, demographically, and culturally, is losing a great deal of its separateness. “Personally,” Richard Ford has said in a Harper’s article, “I think there is no such thing as Southern writing or Southern literature or Southern ethos. . . . What ‘Southern writing’ has always alibied for, of course, is regional writing—writing with an asterisk. The minor leagues.”
Ford, whose collection Rock Springs was certainly one of the most critically successful volumes of the last decade, seems to have largely succeeded in his effort to disassociate himself from what he conceives as the curse of regionalism. His wish to do so is roughly congruent with the nature of his work: to tell and retell the story of a drifter who begins in a state of total moral isolation. For the typical Ford protagonist, the deracination of Miss Welty’s Harris is carried to the nth degree, though the Ford character will make a more strenuous effort to invent his own rules for honorable living within that condition.
“And by Southern literature, what would we mean, anyway?” Ford asks. “Writing just by Southerners? Or just writing about the South? Could we also mean writing by people born in the South but living elsewhere? Or writing by people not born in the South but living there? Would writing by Southerners on non-Southern subjects also qualify?” One need not share Ford’s disparaging attitude toward “regional writing” to think these are all very good questions.
It’s not only Southerners, now or ever, who know how to do the regional. But the new popularity of regional fiction, all over, provides a salutary counterbalance to the powerful waves of homogenization that keep sweeping the country again and again. There are always temptations for Southern writers to indulge in “mainstreaming,” after the fashion of Bobbie Ann Mason’s schooling herself to write rulebook New Yorker stories with a Southern flavoring. On the other hand there are several young women writers whose stories are authentically, intransigently rooted in their places. “Bypass” is a lovely example from Lisa Koger’s first collection, Farlanburg Stories, a volume that braids the relentless modernization of Southern life with much of the’ old agrarian ethic. That’s a trick also brought off by Alyson Hagy in Madonna on Her Back and the recent Hardware River, two volumes that show an impressive range, from the classic in the traditional manner, “Mister Makes,” to the more complex, multilayered and disturbing “Kettle of Hawks.” This same admirable and dangerous stubbornness can be found in any story from Mary Hood’s two collections, And Venus Is Blue and How Far She Went; indeed, there’s something almost atavistic in her stories, heard sometimes as a spooky echo of the voice of Flannery O’Connor.
There are ironies, too, that lie close to the surface of this renewed regionalism. The funny thing is that anyone can do it now, or anyone can try. Mary Hood, whose work is so unmistakably Southern, makes a point of mentioning she’s half from the north: “I am like Laurie Lee’s fabulous two-headed sheep, which could ‘sing harmoniously in a double voice and cross-question itself for hours.'” Native New Jerseyite Alan Cheuse shows what handy turns he can do on the Southern theme in his new collection, The Tennessee Waltz. Moving in the opposite direction, Kelly Cherry shows in her recent “novel-in-stories” (My Life and Doctor Joyce Brothers) what ordinary Middle American angst feels like when a transplanted Southern woman experiences it. The incomparably powerful novelist Percival Everett, still underrecognized perhaps because people are afraid of him, has in The Weather and the Women Treat Me Fair put his own stamp on the Southern short story on the move into the American Northwest, or wherever. Then there are new kinds of stories in the works based on new and extraordinary circumstances of Southern living—like Robert Olin Butler’s story cycle about the Vietnamese communities of Louisiana.
Generally speaking, a certain sort of story of rural or small-town life is no longer exclusively Southern, if it ever was. That Southerners still know how to make this story new is excellently proved by, among others, Pinckney Benedict’s justly celebrated volume, Town Smokes. But some of the themes once claimed as traditionally Southern have been reclaimed in recent work by Carolyn Chute and Robert Olmstead. And by John Dufresne, whose first collection, The Way That Water Enters Stone, is in spite of the unfortunate title one of the finest of the year. Dufresne, wherever he is from, can do Southern and New England voices with equal conviction. It becomes less place than issue that matters, and all over the new regional storywriting appear the survivors who have washed up into backwaters of the cultural mainstream that would smother them with its bland indifference. They have their common characteristics, Southern or not: an anger, a stubbornness, an indomitable individualism, and (how one comes back to it) a tragically gorgeous weakness for the sin of pride. As one of Alyson Hagy’s characters puts it, “even the smallest streams will have their say.”
One of the truisms of Southern literature is that its power comes from a radical sense of displacement—the state of being in the nation, but not of it. Because they are not shareholders in the American dream, this argument goes. Southern writers are better able to distinguish the ideal from the reality—a situation that has always been shared (uneasily) by American black and Jewish writers. If the lines of regional and ethnic writing are less clearly drawn than previously, the reason may be that American political life is now able to offer a strong dose of disillusionment, disenfranchisement even, to all Americans. It’s funny, in a bitter way, how what is so bad for a nation can often be so good for its art.