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From Combray to Ithaca; Or, the “Southernness” of Southern Literature

ISSUE:  Winter 1990

Everybody—well, almost everybody—is willing to concede that there is such a thing as Southern literature, by which is meant that which, when present in a work of imaginative writing, links that work with the particular region of the United States known as the South. Moreover it does this not merely geographically, or historically, but in the sense that the imaginative dimensions of the work, the versions of human experience that it images, take the shape that they do because of the relationship.

We make this assumption, and we have ample reason to make it, but when it comes down to identifying what the element or elements that make the work of literature “Southern” are, we are by no means certain. Not only do the answers vary widely, but our responses tend to become involved with all manner of political, social, cultural, and even theological allegiances, and too often what ought to be a matter of descriptive analysis becomes an assertion of value.

I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past four decades or so attempting to skirt the issue of exactly what the “Southern” quality in Southern literature might be. Phrased like that, the particular question can be counted upon to make me want to draw back. In recent years I have even taken to announcing, whenever a newspaper reporter or a radio or television person wants to interview me, that the one question I will not attempt to answer is, “what is “Southern” in Southern literature?”

I suppose that the reason for my reluctance on such occasions is that the person who asks the question thinks that it can be answered in a few sentences, in the way that one might respond to a question such as “what is the infield fly rule?” or “what is botulism?” Anyone who has done much thinking about Southern literature knows that it is not a simple question at all, but one that involves much complexity, and any attempt to rattle off a quick response is almost certain to be superficial, or programmatic, or both. The “Southernness” in Southern literature might be said to be like the “sex” in sex appeal—we know it’s there, and we know how to respond to it, but frequently there is no explaining why it works the way it does or precisely how it achieves its effect.

Even so, it is this question that I propose to tackle now. I want to look into this business of the “Southernness” of Southern literature. I do not propose to come up with an answer, or at least not in the sense of formulating any kind of simple, categorical definition. For upon reflection it seems to me that attempting to deal with the matter that way is precisely where we may go wrong. To do so presupposes that the “Southernness” of Southern literature is an ingredient, a quantity, whose presence in a work of literature contributes a material substance to that work—when in fact it is no such thing at all. Instead, to make use of a metaphor that has been used on at least several other literary occasions, it is no quantitative ingredient but a catalyst, whose presence causes a reaction, a change, in the components of the work without itself being affected.

In other words, a work of Southern literature, say a novel, is Southern not because it contains certain ingredients, whether those elements be language, subject matter, plot, characterization, or ideas, but because some or all of those elements have been made to take on attributes in relationship to each other that might not otherwise exist in just that way. So what I should like to be able to do is to try to identify certain aspects of what I think may be involved in the relationship.

At the outset I should point out that this inquiry will be just that: an inquiry, in which I set out to explore the problem. The strategy is inductive—I am not trying to prove a predetermined point, but to find out what I think. The method I propose to follow will not be merely to examine certain Southern novels, searching for what is unique (or at any rate characteristic). Instead, I am going to begin by looking at the initial episode of a novel that not only was not written by a Southern author, but is also not remotely concerned with the South, with a view toward asking what might have been done differently had the novel been Southern in its origins. Now obviously, dealing in terms of what isn’t but might have been, rather than what is present in a literary work, can be a chancy, tenuous business. Yet it seems to me that approaching the subject obliquely, even negatively, in this way might turn up some interesting things.

I want to begin with the first important scene in one of the greatest of all 20th-century novels, Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. It occurs in the first volume, Au côte du Chez Swann, or Swann’s Way. The opening pages, “Overture,” are related by a first-person adult narrator, who later in the novel identifies himself as Marcel, and who recalls an episode during his childhood, when he and his family are staying in the little garrison town of Combray, not too far from Paris. A family friend, Charles Swann, is expected for dinner. We are told that as far as the narrator’s family is concerned, Swann, the son of a stockbroker, is, like them, of a fixed social caste. Not only have they no idea that he frequents the aristocratic salons of the fashionable Faubourg Saint Germain, but so strong is the sense of fixed, hereditary social place in their lives that if they had known of Swann’s highly fashionable identity away from Combray, they would have considered it improper, even degrading behavior. Any such violation of the strictly-drawn lines of caste would be as unacceptable as is the wife Swann has recently married, whose reputation as a courtesan has made it impossible for the narrator’s family, for all their longtime friendship with Swann, to receive her or even to acknowledge her existence.

The young Marcel is allowed to stay out in the garden with the family only until a certain hour. Swann arrives, and there is some humorous badinage involving Marcel’s grandfather and great aunts, who refuse to allow Swann and the grandfather to enjoy an anecdote Swann tells the grandfather about something he has read in the Mémoires of Saint-Simon, the point of which is to show Saint-Simon’s exquisite hauteur and sense of aristocratic status. Even before the narrator’s prescribed time for being sent away to bed arrives, however, his father intervenes and orders him to leave, refusing even to let him give his mother the goodnight kiss that is so important to him.

Thus excluded and made to go upstairs to his bedroom, the young Marcel feels an agonizing sense of deprivation from his mother. He even writes a note begging her to come up to him for a moment, which the family’s elderly maid, Francoise, is given to take to her. His mother declines to answer, so he determines, even at the risk of certain disgrace, to stay up until Swann has departed and wait for her. When the dinner party concludes and the parents come upstairs, his father, instead of becoming irate as expected, tells his mother to stay in his room with him that night and comfort him, since he is so upset. So the child’s mother, her efforts to instill in him the willpower he needs to keep from giving in to his weakness having been thwarted, comforts him and reads to him from a novel by George Sand. From that time on in his life, we are told, his unhappiness would no longer be considered a fault for which he must be punished, but a nervous condition, an involuntary illness to be accepted. The episode concludes as the narrator tells us that his agony was soothed as his mother read to him, even though he realized that it would repeat itself the following evening. It is followed by the famous “madeleine” episode in which the adult Marcel achieves a momentary access to lost time—his childhood— that he will learn to follow up only at the close of the novel, and which will allow him to re-create the story we have been reading.


Very well. Let us try to imagine how this childhood episode might have been handled if it had appeared in a novel by an author of the American South rather than a Frenchman. Certain elements leap out at us immediately. Of course it would be difficult to imagine any Southern author with whose work I happen to be familiar predicating a childhood scene on so self-centered and positively neurotic an emotional sensibility, though perhaps if Truman Capote had written Look Homeward, Angel it might have been possible. However, we can readily imagine the family dinner, with the presence of great-aunts and grandparents and the like—surely those great-aunts of Marcel’s are no more eccentric than those of the Fairchild family in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding. Proust’s description of the rigid caste system, whereby the family cannot conceive of Charles Swann, a stockbroker’s son, moving in fashionable society, would have to be qualified somewhat if the scene were laid anywhere in the South except perhaps the Vieux Carré, and even there it is probably too ironclad, because the South at its most squirearchical was never so compartmentalized as that.

The interest of the grandfather and of Swann in the Due de Saint-Simon’s memoir, with its excess of aristocratic arrogance, might strike one as being a little too intellectual in taste for Southern society, but we can imagine a similar conversation taking place about something less cerebral than a book—say football, or five-card stud, or politics, or even local history. As for the business of the family’s refusal to acknowledge Swann’s declasse marriage and his wife and child, that again is rather too extreme—unless miscegenation were involved, which might make it believable, although in that case not merely S wann’s wife but Swann himself would have been unwelcome at the family meal. The old family servant, Frangoise, would have fit in handily, of course, though she would have been black.

For these reasons, then, some of the details of the episode in Proust would not have been “right” for a Southern novel. Yet the role of the family, the dinner ritual, and, most of all, the sense of provincial and small-town self-sufficiency, the belief that the forms and attitudes of middle-class Combray are eternal and unchanging, would certainly have their counterpart in Southern fiction. There would also be the same sense of an underlying impermanence, the feeling that the presence of the greater world outside the town limits must eventually break in on Combray and that change is in the offing. (Again one thinks of Delta Wedding, and perhaps of Allen Tate’s The Fathers.) In short, there is very little in the behavior, interests, and motivations of Proust’s people that, if in somewhat less extreme manifestation, would render implausible their translation into Southern social and psychological terms. Yet we would never mistake Combray for Morgana, Mississippi.


Now let me reverse my strategy. This time I should like to take up an episode from Southern fiction, and to speculate on what in it might have been presented differently if it had been written by someone other than a Southern writer. The novel I have in mind is Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, and the episode is that in which Will Barrett, who is living in New York City and has been watching for two women he had seen on a bench in Central Park, discovers one of them about to board the same subway train he is taking. When she gets off the subway at Washington Heights, he does so, too. He follows her into a hospital building, and finds himself on the tenth floor. The woman goes into a room, and at once an elderly man emerges and comes up to him. At first the man assumes that Will is a member of the medical staff. They fall into conversation, and Will deduces from the man’s accent that he is from north Alabama. “Birmingham? Gadsden?” he asks. “Halfway between,” the man says. Then,

“Don’t I know you? Aren’t you—” snapping his finger.

“Will Barrett. Williston Bibb Barrett.”

“Over in—” He shook his hand toward the southwest.

“Ithaca. In the Mississippi Delta.”

“You’re Ed Barrett’s boy.”

“Yes sir.”

“Lawyer Barrett. Went to Congress from Mississippi in nineteen and forty.” Now it was his time to do the amazing. “Trained pointers, won at Grand Junction in—”

“That was my uncle, Fannin Barrett,” murmured the engineer.

“Fannin Barrett,” cried the other, confirming it. “I lived in Vicksburg in nineteen and forty-six and hunted with him over in Louisiana.”

The upshot is that the man, who is named Chandler Vaught, takes Will into the room where his youngest son Jamie is hospitalized, and introduces him to other members of his family including his wife, his daughter Kitty, and his divorced daughter-in-law Rita. There is conversation all around, and when Barrett departs it is with a cordial invitation to come back the next day, which he will assuredly do.

What is fascinating in the episode are the social deductions that Will Barrett is able to make, merely from listening and observing as Chandler Vaught and his family speak. He is able to pick up the fact that Vaught didn’t know his father nearly as well as he pretended, that he had probably been a political opponent of his father, and that his social origins were markedly more plebeian than those of his wife. The Vaughts were, Will deduced, a “Yankee sort of Southerners, the cheerful, prosperous go-getters one comes across in the upper South, in Knoxville maybe, or Bristol.” Entirely on the basis of a brief conversation, Will Barrett can tell what kind of people the Vaughts are; where they are from; the fact that Mrs. Vaught had “married down” as they say; that Vaught’s political allegiances are, or were, with the “redneck” or rural white faction that had opposed the upper class political interests represented by his own family (and by the Percy family as well); and that both Vaught and his wife have themselves identified his assured social status and are much impressed with it.

I have tried to imagine that scene taking place in a novel by a Midwestern or an East Coast author, but without much success. That is, it would not be difficult to conceive of a young man striking up an acquaintance with a family in a hospital room, and even discovering that they are from the same geographical areas as himself. But the kind of precise social gradations and cultural nuances, the awareness of relative status and even of political allegiances, would have no counterpart. Even a status-conscious novelist such as the late Scott Fitzgerald, who could contrast Jay Gatsby’s parvenu origins with those of the inherited wealth of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, would scarcely have sought to encapsulate such material in a scene of that kind.

But in Marcel Proust’s fiction one might well imagine it happening—because, like Walker Percy, the French novelist was fascinated by and attuned to the nuances of diction, the ever-so-slight yet telling marks of status, the interactions of manners and conversational styles that exist in firmly defined social situations. In Proust’s work the class distinctions would no doubt have been more striking and even exaggerated, because the chasm between the bourgeois society of the Swanns and the Verdurins and the hereditary aristocracy of the Faubourg Saint-Germain was deeper.

The delineation of class comes naturally both to Proust and Percy. Moreover its manifestations are not developed primarily along economic lines, as they would have been had an author like Theodore Dreiser or even Scott Fitzgerald been doing the chronicling. It is true that it is wealth that presumably enabled Chandler Vaught to “marry up,” and that will ultimately, in Remembrance of Things Past, make possible the union of the Prince de Guermantes and the widowed Madame Verdurin. But the consciousness of possession of money and the things that money can buy is not the principal ingredient that establishes, for Percy or for Proust, either the terms of discourse or the behavior of the fictional characters. If, as in every society, money and possessions play their part, and if money is ultimately the solvent, the means by which the passage from one social class to another is negotiated, nevertheless neither Walker Percy nor Marcel Proust presents his characters’ motivations as being predominantly financial. (Neither, of course, is Jay Gatsby’s motivation at bottom financial, but Fitzgerald’s point is that the American society he portrays has been so corrupted by wealth that money has become the symbol of its aspirations; as Gatsby tells Nick Carraway, Daisy Buchanan’s voice sounds like money.)

It seems to me that Percy’s and Proust’s fiction both presuppose not only the existence, but the central importance of a community relationship, and one that is so powerful that it can override any other considerations. What Will Barrett perceives in his encounter with the Vaught family at the hospital in New York could have meaning to him only if those involved live in a community that is sufficiently tangible and ongoing that the status, origins, and relationships of those within it can possess genuine significance. Their identity and actions are defined to a considerable extent by the terms of their membership within the community. It has got to matter that Will Barrett’s social status is so assured that Chandler Vaught and his wife are eager to pursue his acquaintance. It is also essential to the story that Will and Chandler Vaught be drawn to one another because both are members of a community, no matter that their roles within it are different. Everything that will take place thereafter in The Last Gentleman will be possible only because these two men discover that they speak a common social language, if with different accents. The fact that this identity will ultimately prove insufficient for Will Barrett’s needs, so that he will leave it again and the story will conclude in the desert Southwest, does not lessen its importance. For it is the presuppositions of the community as to role that account for Barrett’s unsatisfied and unfulfilled expectations.

Now if we will look again at the episode in Proust’s great novel, much the same dynamics are at work. Charles Swann likewise has a role to play; he is the son of a stockbroker, a family friend, and he both expects and is expected to come by for dinner, to bring a gift (wine or fresh fruits from his garden), in general to fulfill the assumptions of the narrator’s parents, grandparents, and great aunts. That he has not been content to remain within the appointed boundaries of his role, and while continuing to fulfill it has also expanded his activities to include the playing of another role in fashionable society, is of no importance to the Combray community, which is concerned only with his performance of his accustomed and alloted part. But in choosing to marry outside the permitted boundaries of his social position, and taking for a wife a woman of unacceptable standards, he has to that extent failed to play his community role, and the community therefore declines to recognize the existence of that wife and the child she has given him.

Insofar as Charles Swann is concerned, then, there is a clash between his appointed place in the Combray community and his own private desires and needs, and he has chosen to disregard the former. The decreed role has to that extent been insufficient to permit Swann to define his identity within and through it. Yet he is by no means willing to abandon it entirely—at least not yet. Still, this early depiction of Charles Swann at Combray is anticipatory of what will be happening throughout the first several volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, for, as we shall see, Swann will also prove willing to diminish his glittering position in the Faubourg as well because of his desire for his future wife and the pleasures of bourgeois domesticity and fatherhood, and later, when the Dreyfus Case shakes the foundations of French society, he will be unwilling to suppress the fact that he is a Jew, and so will jeopardize his status within the Faubourg even more.

There is another potential conflict between community role and individual need present in the family dinner scene at Combray. Although at this stage it seems no more than a matter of childhood self-centeredness, the narrator’s insistence upon waiting up to see his mother in defiance of what is considered proper and manly will have its ramifications. The child’s mother and grandmother, who wish to develop his powers of self-discipline and help him to overcome his weakness and need, do so out of their love for him and because they want to prepare him for his future role as a mature citizen. But the narrator will not accede in their wishes—and it is precisely this powerful individuality on his part, which here has the appearance of no more than childhood weakness, that will eventually cause him to decline to accept the validity of any such identity within society, and lead him to the discovery of his vocation as artist.

Walker Percy’s Will Barrett, like the majority of other protagonists of Southern fiction, isn’t destined to become an artist—although like Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses he does seem to have a touch of the artist about him. But that he is motivated and even driven by a powerful sense of role is obvious. The Southern community set out a part for him to play—the stoic aristocrat, the “last gentleman”—and he can’t play it, because the time and place for such a role to encompass his needs, to afford him the identity he requires, have supposedly passed by.

This notion of roles becoming outdated is basic to the way that Percy sees the modern South. We need only remember that brief but marvelous scene which takes place outside the family residence in Ithaca at night, after Will, having briefly returned, remembers his father’s suicide—a suicide motivated by the seeming erosion of aristocratic community and role. A young black man comes walking along in the darkness of the water oaks, whistling. Will sees the black man before being seen, and he thinks that in times past “it had been his, the Negro’s, business, until now, to see him first. . .” But no longer:

They looked at each other. There was nothing to say. Their fathers would have had much to say: “In the end, Sam, it comes down to a question of character.” “Yes suh, Lawyer Barrett, you right about that. Like I was saying to my wife only this evening—” But the sons had nothing to say. The engineer looked at the other as the half second wore on. You may be in a fix and I know that but what you don’t know and won’t believe and must find out for yourself is that I’m in a fix too and you got to get where I am before you even know what I’m talking about and that is why there is nothing to say now. Meanwhile I wish you well.


It seems safe to say, therefore, that to the extent that Proust’s novel and Walker Percy’s are representative of their communities, one of the features of human life in both is a very tangible sense of the individual as being assigned a social role within a palpable and defined social organism. I choose the word role rather than purpose or function, since to speak of a role is to imply the presence of a cast and audience, and not just a solitary individual’s doings.

Just as we have seen with Proust’s novel, it is precisely in the discrepancy between role and purpose—between what the individual is expected to do and be and what the individual might wish to do or be—that we have the tension that can make a work of fiction memorable. Suffice it to say that the expected role of an individual within a community can become more clearly defined and even more rigidly prescribed in direct ratio to the extent to which that community’s presence is of greater and more pervasive importance in the lives of the human beings who constitute it.

Now if we think of the existence of this community role, and what it means, in 20th-century Southern fiction, its importance will be evident. Isn’t it obvious that it is the presence of the expected but absent community role in The Last Gentleman that provides a context for Percy’s theological concerns? There are untold numbers of works of fiction that center on a young man’s search for purpose and belief; but what gives Percy’s version of that oft-explored story its particular quality is the context in which it takes place, the decaying (as he sees it) set of community expectations involved in the role that Will Barrett now finds all but meaningless.

The same concept of role, and usually its supposed erosion as well, exists in most Southern fiction. Let me choose only a couple of examples. Consider the instance of Thomas Sutpen in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Sutpen’s purpose in coming into the Mississippi territory of the early 19th century is so powerfully and rigidly defined as to constitute a veritable Design. He wishes to be a planter—to own a plantation and to establish a dynasty: Sutpen’s Hundred (in direct imitation of the Virginia dynasties he has encountered as a child). He would establish the House of Sutpen, so to speak, in order to perpetuate his presence within the community beyond his own death. But so ignorant is he of the community responsibility involved in such an ambition that he is constantly at loggerheads with the people he lives among. Sutpen covets the status of a gentleman-planter, an aristocrat, without the community role it entails, the external trappings without the inward obligations and responsibilities; in Cleanth Brook’s words, he approaches the community tradition “as an assortment of things to be possessed, not a manner of living that embodies certain values and determines men’s conduct.” And it is his utter self-centeredness, his sweeping disregard for the needs of others, that both enables him to come so far in his quest and also makes his ultimate failure inevitable.

The significance of the story of Thomas Sutpen is by no means confined to one of individual need versus community role. Indeed, what gives that story so much of its scope and magnificence, and makes it so profoundly tragic, is the universality of Sutpen’s quest, which is ultimately that of a human being intent upon giving his life a meaning that will outlast and confute human mortality itself. It is no accident that when he dies, it is at the hands of a bearded old man wielding a rusty scythe. But surely the way in which that quest is embodied within a community situation, so that Sutpen’s effort at fulfilling his chosen identity assumes the tangible shape of a conflict between private will and community role, gives Faulkner’s great novel so much of its richness of texture and singularity of reference.

We need only compare Absalom, Absalom! with another remarkable novel about an ambitious parvenu who fails, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to see at once how the availability of the time, place, and setting of the Southern community enabled Faulkner to sharpen and dramatize the social and moral significance of an ethical problem common to both novels: that of the individual impelled to pursue his own ideal of fulfillment at the cost of using means that are corruptible. There is that about showing a man beheaded by a poor white in the guise of Father Time which having a distraught auto mechanic pot somebody with a bullet while he lounges on a float in a suburban swimming pool cannot quite equal.

Or consider another example: Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. In this novel about a middle-aged woman returning home to a Mississippi city for the funeral of her father, it is not merely that Laurel McKelva Hand must confront the nature of loss and the survival of human love in time. That problem would be implicit in any such situation. But in Miss Welty’s novel the past, the conflict between personal fulfillment and the continuity of identity that a family situation can afford, can take the form and definition that are possible when such things are embodied in a confrontation of roles. To be the daughter of Judge and Mrs. Clinton McKelva of Mount Salus, to live where one’s identity is embodied in rituals and institutions, involves a prescribed and conspicuous community role, against and within which the nature of one’s personal needs and wishes may be delineated and the costs identified and understood. Thus the drama of the protagonist’s exploration of what her parents and her memories mean for her can be dramatized and tested in a rich, vivid, and resonant social texture. Human identity in time becomes human involvement in a place—a specific, concrete, tangible locus of emotional states.

Now all novels are set in a place; as the saying goes, everybody’s got to be somewhere. But what makes the oft-remarked Sense of Place in Southern fiction so important is the vividness, the ferocity even, with which it implies social and community attitudes. This is because the writer’s own experience of a place has involved those attitudes so pervasively that for the writer to evoke the place is to confront the community’s values. It isn’t, therefore, the depiction of place as such that gives Southern literature its particular nature; could any novel, for example, evoke a physical place much more vividly than Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or than Ulysses? Rather, it is what the particularities of Ithaca, Morgana, Mount Salus, Yoknapatawpha, Altamont, Burden’s Landing, and other such fictional communities whose lineaments are drawn from their authors’ experience, are made to mean for the characters, what the patterns of their daily life do to the way the characters act, think, feel, and imagine, that lead us to identify the fiction as Southern.

And that is my point. For just as the complex nature of Southern life cannot be compressed within a single definition or category, so its literature, which takes its image and idiom from the Southern experience of its authors, resists any kind of quantitative lining up of descriptive categories like so many ducks in a row. What makes literature a unique form of knowledge is its complex ordering of human experience into images; and what the novelists take from the experience that they shape into images is the complexity, the relationships, the totality.

What I have sought to show with Proust is that certain characteristics that we are wont to single out as uniquely or peculiarly “Southern” are equally present, and important, in a novel by a Frenchman who so far as I know never saluted a Confederate flag, damned a Yankee, or enjoyed a sip of bourbon-and-branch in his life. No one, having read ten pages into Swann’s Way, would doubt that he was writing about France and Frenchmen, and not Americans or Englishmen or anyone else. And, just as Proust’s France is not Gide’s or Stendhal’s or Flaubert’s, yet France is identifiably rooted in the books of all of them, so Faulkner’s and Welty’s and Percy’s Souths—and those of Ernest Gaines and Flannery O’Connor and William Styron and Kaye Gibbons and of all the other Southern writers as well—are each different and yet unmistakably Southern communities all.

So that is why I feel compelled to keep insisting that the Southern literary imagination as we have known it in our century is not simply a matter of the presence within works of fiction of particular elements such as place, language, a sense of evil, an historical consciousness, an attitude toward nature or God or tradition or the like. As we have seen, and as is quite obvious, other bodies of literature share those characteristics. Can we demand a more palpable historical sense than that in Irish fiction? A greater sense of evil than in, say, the work of Dostoyevsky or of Thomas Mann? Could any fiction ever written image agrarian experience more thoroughly and pervasively than Thomas Hardy’s? Surely the nature of provincial life could not be given greater vividness than in Chekhov. For that matter, isn’t it difficult to imagine a particular place and culture being evoked more formidably than the island of Manhattan is in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or than the city of Chicago at the turn of the century is in Sister Carrie? And so on.

All of those elements, and more besides, are present to greater or lesser degree in all good fiction. What makes us recognize and identify certain works of fiction as Southern is the particular and special ways in which such elements are arranged, the characteristic shapes that they assume in respect to each other, the manner in which they cause people to behave and writers to choose metaphors. And these special ways, particular forms, traits of behavior, and resources of language come out of the Southern community experience, a community that, however much it may differ from place to place and individual to individual, so shapes the imaginative response of its literary people that when they write their stories and poems they do so, to a markedly recognizable degree, as Southern authors.

What is “Southern” about Southern literature? Nothing more or less than the Southern community itself—as a whole, as an image, as a convergence. Add the Southern community as catalyst to a writer’s imagination, and in one way or the other almost everything in the writer’s fiction is affected, rearranged, changed. The degree to which this is so varies from writer to writer, just as the vividness with which the human experience is imaged will depend upon the richness of the writer’s imagination and the skill with which the writer can embody it in language. But one would have to add that, if we are to judge from the books that have been made available to us in our time, the South has had something to do with the availability of that richness and the nature and presence of that gift of tongue.


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