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George Garrett’s South

ISSUE:  Spring 2006

Well-worn and much-maligned, the interdisciplinary concept known as globalization generally espouses the vision of a borderless world dominated by multinationals and markets, vanguards of a homogenized culture shaped by Western values and a grand narrative of reason. However, beneath this imagined oneness reside a number of lingering, though perhaps doomed, systems and paradoxical elements. For example, the concept of nationalism continues to present itself as a complex sociopolitical phenomenon, constantly in formation, deformation, and reformation in response to various other catalysts of change. The dominant state form over the last five centuries or so, the nation-state emerged on a broad historical canvas out of dramatic processes of social change that incorporated empires, city-states, tribes, and feudal lords. Often taking the defensive in light of its tenuous mutability, the nation-state usually is portrayed by globalization proponents in terms of its narrowness, selfishness, and exclusiveness. Delving deeper, beyond nationalism, we spy the stubborn, familiar phenomenon of regionalism, nearer to each of us though sometimes more difficult to perceive. Often depicted by globalization thinkers as a smaller, meaner, more nostalgic form of nationalism, regionalism perpetuates a collective set of visions and values aimed at the establishment of a local system, formal or informal, within a specific geographical area. Yet for all its backward provincialism, the regional context finds itself attracting increasing recognition from observers of international relations, international political economies, and development, as well as governments and other stakeholders in civil society and the private sector. Increasingly, economic and cultural leaders find themselves searching for regional solutions to the problems and challenges presented by national and global forces. Much energy, therefore, now is being devoted to studying how regional processes relate to globalization: how regional trade arrangements may be stumbling blocks or stepping-stones to ever-increasing free trade, and whether regional integration, economic as well as cultural, can be understood as a way of negotiating nationalism and globalization or of creating a social buffer against their potentially disturbing effects.

As strange as it might seem, these issues and revelations are not particularly new or unrecognized in the literature of the American South, a regional genre of writing long conversant with the pressures and complexities of national and, increasingly, international discourses and economies. After all, with the notable exceptions of university presses and marvels such as Algonquin Books, it is to the large (inter)national presses and the still-dominant literary region of the Northeast that southern writers continue to turn, and often move into, in the hopes of garnering publication and reputation. This long-standing diasporic intellectual trend—lamented by writers as far apart in chronology and sensibility as William Gilmore Simms and Lee Smith—also manifests itself on the international level, as witnessed by Faulkner conferences in China and the odd phenomenon of Christine Chaufour-Verheyen’s work of criticism William Styron: Le 7e jour appearing in France as a mass-market paperback and outselling hosts of novels.

Although many writers have commented knowledgeably on the shifting place of southern literature in national and international literary contexts, the single figure who has invested the most time and ink in examining the tension between southern writers and the national publishing scene over the past half century is George Garrett—one of the region’s few remaining distinguished men of letters. Editor, translator, dramatist/scriptwriter, Virginia Poet Laureate, award-winning fiction writer, adored teacher and mentor, and wide-ranging reviewer and essayist (whose work still regularly appears in the Virginia Quarterly Review and Sewanee Review), Garrett—by turns donning the armor of poetry, prose, or spoken rhetoric (his father was an admirably hard-nosed and uncompromising lawyer)—consistently wades headlong into the issues at hand, be they aesthetic, historical, social, economic, political, or otherwise. Over the years, the South and the publishing dilemma for southern writers have remained particular and constant points of interest—from his first two published essays in 1957, dealing respectively with the work of Faulkner and Garrett’s Georgia relative Harry Stillwell Edwards, to his 2003 collection of essays and reviews pertaining to the South, Southern Excursions. In fact, Garrett’s critical facility as a scholarly essayist and reviewer was noticed nearly as quickly as his gifts in fiction and poetry. Writing in 1963, the Faulkner scholar James Meriwether asserted, “No examination of Garrett’s literary accomplishment is complete without mention of his critical writing, which has produced two of the best articles ever written on Faulkner.” The ensuing years have borne out Meriwether’s declaration, and there might have been more scholarly work. A notebook entry dated January 29, 1965, finds Garrett expressing an intention to write a critical study entitled “The Southern Past: A Literary Image”; two years later he told an interviewer that he hoped to “write a short critical book on certain aspects of recent southern fiction.” Yet for all the scholarly enthusiasm, during this period Garrett’s most celebrated literary achievement, the historical opus Death of the Fox, also beckoned, and one would be foolish to argue that his time would have been spent better on literary criticism. In fact, Garrett’s fiction and criticism are not so far apart as one might suspect. Just as his historical Elizabethan novels interact with vast stores of scholarly knowledge in making unique philosophical statements about the nature of human history, so his fictional southern narratives subtly complement his critical essays on the southern literary genre—together delineating an idea, as well as a practice, of the regional form.

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In order to articulate Garrett’s conception of southern literature and its relation to the rest of the country and the world, one first must attempt to understand him as both a southerner and a writer. In 2003 Garrett recounted to me the following anecdote:

In the 1930s I used to visit my grandfather, who lived in a place called Naples, North Carolina, which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m told. It was between Asheville and Hendersonville. All around there were developments that never got off the ground: streetlamps and sidewalks without houses or buildings. That was the norm growing up: that you would see things that came to nothing. Very surreal. I didn’t even know what a development was. I would get on my bike and go out in the woods and suddenly come upon an area with driveways, sidewalks, beautiful streetlamps, and sometimes an old abandoned hotel. I thought, naturally as a child does, that’s the way the world is: it’s full of abandoned places and buildings. Then everything changed radically, and I began to feel, as many others do, the need to preserve some memory of that earlier version of place.

Struck by the haunting image of a world full of empty, abandoned places, the young Garrett initially glimpsed writing as a means of immutable historical preservation, an endeavor he would later identify as definitively southern. More than thirty years before our conversation, he had written, “Change and decay have always been primary subjects in southern literature. Because it is characteristic of the southern writer (especially in prose fiction) that he feels compelled to capture in words and describe things as they are before they crumble and vanish forever.” At the heart of this sensibility is both a critique and embrace of the inevitability of change, the future ever abandoning an unrealized present. Though less polemical and more detached, the approach vaguely echoes the earlier perspectives of the Agrarians, and, in fact, Garrett specifically evoked the pastoral South in the early 1960s, remarking, “You can hardly find a Southern writer who does not love the land he writes of. . . . [It] sings lyrically in their work. . . . [E]ven the cities and suburbia and the new industry cannot efface the almost instinctive affection for the land—for there is too much of it and it is too strong. It triumphs over our best intentions.” Such an outlook, voiced early in Garrett’s career, attempts, perhaps a little stubbornly, to recognize and confer with a prior southern tradition of land-based literature, even as the inevitable, encroaching dark cloud of industrialization threatens to alter it forever.

At their worst, such aesthetic philosophies of preservation flirt with a kind of implacable, sentimental romanticism, denying the inevitable changes at hand while wistfully memorializing a way of life and Umwelt now gone with the wind. Yet Garrett defends the objectivity of his approach: “I think there’s not so much a sense of nostalgia as there is something akin to the urge to fill a photograph album before everything has changed.” Although this attitude is noble, its practicality presents formidable difficulties to the artist. Pictures—as professional photographers can attest—do not always accurately capture objects. The image-shaping eye of the photographer and the person who views the picture conspire—not unlike the author and the reader—to create an object and its meaning in a new way. Likewise, exploring and portraying history—what Eliot called its “cunning passages” and “contrived corridors”—is not so easy as it might seem, the historian and the reader bringing their respective interpretive agendas to so-called “factual” events. However, a masterful renderer of historical fiction like Garrett recognizes and welcomes this danger. Writing about the Civil War in his essay “Under Two Flags,” he concludes, “In spite of growing and towering mountains, huge slag piles of factual history and many kinds and forms of poetry and fiction, and even the wonders of television, it is still very difficult to imagine the Civil War accurately and honestly.” In fact, one might argue convincingly that the numerous layers of conflicting interpretation and representation only serve to cloud the immediacy of the event, with the latest scholarly contributions resembling—to extend Garrett’s metaphor—a gratuitous sprinkling of pebbles on an already enormous mountain of rock.

Confronted with the equally perilous dangers of nostalgia and numerous, disparate historical theories, serious writers of historical fiction often are left to draw on their own histories and experiences as means of interpreting and portraying the human element of antiquated events—a technique traditionally suited to southern writers. In a 1958 review of Robert Penn Warren’s Promises Garrett notes, “The South, his as well as ours, is haunted by its ghosts, benign or malevolent, but omnipresent. History, personal or public, is always here and now… . For the Southerner, rooted in his living history, time is an intricate network, an ever-spinning web.” Living in their own times, yet irrevocably anchored to earlier ones, Garrett’s and Warren’s southerners roam, whether they wish to or not, “out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time.” Whether dealing with the recent dynamics of racial and sexual conflicts or the more distant legacy of the war of 1861–65, most southern writers still employ some measure of generational inheritance in their narratives. In Garrett’s own early military vignette “How the Last War Ended,” the final section of his 1957 story “Comic Strip,” the protagonist Captain G. tells his unidentified captor, “I know what it’s like to be defeated… . I am a Southerner,” thereby invoking the bequeathed shadow of a lost cause described by C. Vann Woodward and many others. Yet for all its complexity and psychological baggage, the lingering specter of the past is not without its artistic advantages. Perhaps most notably, it infects objects and places with useful characteristics and narratives. As Garrett explains, “Precisely because I am a southerner, I believe that places are enchanted. Rich with spirits. All houses, sooner or later, are haunted,” the aesthetic implications of which were summarized best by the scholar William Robinson: “Garrett is a Southern writer and the subject of the Southern imagination is history.”

Accompanying history, particularly southern history, is the common and sometimes unavoidable phenomenon of guilt, which in the South most often is associated with race and the legacy of slavery. In his notebooks for the novel The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You, Garrett admits, “[S]ince it deals with the South and some Southerners during the late 1960s and now, it likewise has to deal with various kinds of racism among other things.” Demonstrating a much earlier interest in racial conflict, Garrett’s notebooks from the 1950s include an untitled fictional account of a lynching in a small southern town. More than forty years later, a similar episode would appear in the title story of the 1998 collection Bad Man Blues, reworked into a fable narrated by the African-American lawyer Willie Gary, a character from King of Babylon. However, just as Gary’s lynching anecdote serves as a single episode in a much larger narrative, so Garrett’s historical view of the South includes racial conflicts while weaving them into an enormous tapestry containing numerous other historical catalysts. Including race under the general moniker of southern history, reviewer Adam Mazmanian has suggested that the protagonist of King of Babylon, Billy Tone, is concerned “not with the crimes he studies but with the South itself and with the accumulated psychic debt of history.” Mazmanian’s linking of personal crimes to the great currents of history is all the more significant because it concurs with an earlier, more encompassing observation from Fred Chappell: “Garrett’s vision of civilization as the relentless sacrifice of individual personality for the sake of order and continuance is deeply tragic.” Built upon the tension between isolated historical phenomena like guilt and racism and the impersonal, interweaving historical forces beyond any individual’s control, Garrett’s historical view of the South documents the local joys and agonies of citizens even as it simultaneously, and often a little reluctantly, abstracts them into the realm of human history—small footnotes in an enormous, multivolume, ongoing drama.

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In admirably attempting to propel southern history and literature beyond reductive polemical and regional contexts and into a tragic human universality, southern writers like Garrett inevitably encounter a new set of difficulties. As William Robinson has summarized, “One of the problems about trying to write about southern politics or anything set in the South is that there are so many clichés and conventions that people expect or look for to identify, besides the fact that it takes place in a certain place and has a certain dialect and quality of language.” In addition to combating their own temptations to memorialize or critique a given southern tradition, southern writers also must account for the sometimes debilitating expectations of their readers. With a hint of irony, Garrett observes, “The southern novel has gradually become a genre, every bit as formulaic as science fiction, the thriller, the historical romance, or the old-fashioned western… . The southern novel advances through a minefield of habitual gestures and conventions, edging closer and closer to the pure and simple status of irrepressible cliché.” Established to the point that both writers and readers entertain a common expectation of specific tropes and rules, most contemporary southern literature, to Garrett’s thinking, runs the risk of forsaking immediacy and relevance for the mastery of a long-established, though now less culturally applicable, form.

If much contemporary southern literature conspires to form a collective cliché, how then may its more useful and unique narratives be identified? One solution is to read for language as much as, if not more than, content. Garrett has noted, “The prose fiction of the South has an enormous range as compared to the prose fiction of other regions of the country. Even at his most literary, the Southern fiction writer doesn’t go too long on a high tone. Even Miss Eudora loves to drop into the colloquial. They love variety of speech, from public rhetoric to the rhetoric of movies and the pop culture.” The scope of convincing voices, whether rendered by Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell or Alice Walker and Dorothy Allison, has long been a strength of southern literature, and this dynamic informs narrative relationships between southerners and nonsoutherners as much as it does purely regional ones. For example, in Garrett’s short story “A Hard Row to Hoe,” the narrator describes his friend Bill, a Princeton undergraduate from Georgia, as “a Southerner with a rich amusing accent and idiom that gave whatever he happened to be saying a strangeness which made people listen.” Possessing an usual, compelling voice in a foreign setting, Bill captivates his Princeton acquaintances with the peculiar sound and method of his storytelling as much as with the stories themselves. And among southerners a writer’s use or rejection of certain types of southern voices sometimes may lead to assumptions about his or her own personality or societal views. As Garrett humorously notes in his introduction to White Trash: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poets, “Some southern writers would rather die slowly and badly than admit to a touch of trash. They will go to great lengths to deny there’s any such (of a) thing as a Cracker in their gene pool or a Redneck in the woodpile.” Of course, the voices in Garrett’s own southern narratives are both inclusive and unpredictable, with the working-class southerner often appearing as a prominent figure.In his unpublished 1950s poem “The South,” a kind of experimental montage of southern voice and identity, Garrett writes, “The South is a pinch-faced, deep eyed sharecropper / Face to face with poverty and death for life.” Later, Garrett would articulate several different voices and points of view, nearly all of them lower- or working-class, in the 1965 novel Do, Lord, Remember Me, the depth and richness of which have been summarized by R. H. W. Dillard:

The South of Do, Lord, Remember Me is, like Chaucer’s England, a confused landscape in which religion and sex, honesty and petty evil, the haunting dream of purity and the fallen world of lies are so subtly interwoven that no one can judge another or even himself or herself, and in which the most serious of religious pilgrimages is at once an occasion for true religious feeling and unrestrained bawdiness.

Just as Chaucer jumped from disparate personality to personality amid the dramatic action of a religious journey, so Garrett leaps among his odd assortment of characters, deeply embracing each individual while using them collectively to perambulate toward central philosophical aspects of existence.

Though language and narrative technique function as the potentially liberating and self-defining implements of many southern writers, there remains much that makes them uneasy about their aesthetic decisions and the genre in which they are attempting to participate. Beyond specific literary conventions, many—perhaps too many—of southern literature’s achievements and current expectations still are traced to the work of Faulkner. As Garrett notes, this is a fact to which writers readily must resign themselves: “It is impossible for any Southern writer aware of his place and people and aware of his own literary tradition not to be influenced by the towering energy and example of Faulkner. Those who pretend otherwise (and there are a number) are either trying to fool themselves or us or both at once.” For Garrett, the southern writer who refuses to confront Faulkner is practicing an ill-advised conceit and playing a dangerous game. Yet unlike many writers, Garrett does not view Faulkner as a potentially abusive literary father or menacing intellectual shadow. Instead, Faulkner’s work stands as a kind of rich resource, a vein to be mined with great reward. He explains at length:

Faulkner’s work offers consolation and direction to the contemporary Southern writer. It offers a challenge as well: the writer is dared to divorce himself from easy habits of thought which are prevalent in the overall culture. Dared, by that towering example, to cultivate his art without regard to present systems of praise or blame and, indeed, without embarrassed or inhibiting reverence for the immediate past, the past which includes the achievement of William Faulkner, of Thomas Wolfe, of all of the Fugitives and other masters. By example, he demonstrates that the Southern past is not dead or disposable and cannot be ignored. It remains a resource to be wisely used.

Secure in the ideas behind his own work and convinced of the value of southern literature’s cumulative achievement, Garrett heartily recommends Faulkner as an exemplar of aesthetic integrity and for his unique ability to make relevant and alive his particular southern past.

Faulkner’s mark on Garrett’s work is glimpsed most readily in his numerous narratives involving the Florida Singletrees, who, appearing over the course of several stories and novels, call to mind Faulkner’s recurring Mississippi families. Mark Royale, the protagonist of Garrett’s first novel, The Finished Man, originally was a Singletree before Garrett decided to shift the name to his mother’s side of the family. Later, Garrett intended to use a character named Angus Singletree as the protagonist for his novel Which Ones Are the Enemy? Other Singletrees include Raymond (“Bread from Stones”), Cortney and TeeJay (“A Game of Catch”), and—despite his last name—Fergus McCree (“Man without a Fig Leaf”). Revisiting the Singletrees and their fictional Florida community of Paradise Springs enabled Garrett to build a small imaginative world that grew with each new narrative while also establishing an interesting intertextual historical continuity across his writings. Garrett also embraced and used Faulkner, rather than ignoring him, by giving at least two of his southern protagonists some knowledge of Faulkner’s work. For example, in one section of The Finished Man Garrett has Mike Royale imitate Faulkner’s narrative style for the purpose of demonstrating his familiarity with him. Yet this playful reference only served to confuse and anger reviewers. As Garrett accurately summarizes, The Finished Man “was praised, for the wrong reasons, by one crowd of Southerners and damned and savaged by the Fugitive point men, also for the wrong reasons.” Baffled by Garrett’s unusual, playful references to Faulkner, some reviewers attacked him for unimaginative imitation while others, equally wrong, lauded what they perceived to be straightforward thematic applications of southern literature’s most popular and relevant writer. However, Garrett’s use of Faulkner hardly is essential to his achievement and almost always appears more whimsical than vital. For example, in “A Hard Row to Hoe” Bill humorously critiques Faulkner in passing: “Why, that man’s characters are much too civilized. Where I come from Erskine Caldwell characters are fine ladies and gentlemen.” Later, when the story turns serious, Bill tells an aristocratic southern friend, “You can’t be yourselves and you won’t allow anybody else to be either.” Over the years, critics have attacked other writers, southern and nonsouthern, for perceived imitations of Faulkner—Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Gaines, Reynolds Price, to name but a few—to the point that one might apply Bill’s advice to reviewers of southern fiction. Ingrained with Faulkner’s legacy, which inevitably intersects with the experiences of other southern writers, and a formulaic set of expectations for southern literature, critics rarely afford writers the opportunity to wrestle or play with the master, choosing instead to guard assiduously his hallowed ground.

Citing his versatility and openness, Madison Smartt Bell recently suggested that Garrett actually “has influenced more writers than Faulkner,” an assertion that is difficult to dismiss, given Garrett’s long years of teaching and his scores of successful students, including Bell, who now are published writers. To be sure, Garrett plunges into literary scenarios involving southerners that likely never entered Faulkner’s mind. For example, in an untitled play from his notebooks, Garrett planned to have all his characters, including a Singletree, appear as ghosts in a graveyard. Slightly more grounded though still unconventional, Garrett’s short story “Bread from Stones” follows Raymond Singletree, a well-bred, habitually impoverished southerner who infrequently strikes it rich by serving as a companion for mature wealthy women. Although a story concerning a male escort from the South certainly is not traditional, near the beginning it contains a line that might have come from one of Faulkner’s characters: “[I]t is all right to be southern and poor if your ancestors were southern and rich.” Drawing on the vagaries of southern wealth, class, and identity, the story’s opening passages call to mind Faulkner characters such as Quentin Compson. Like Quentin, Raymond, the “black sheep” of his family, desperately and futilely attempts to escape his southern history. However, the disparate and equally unpromising avenues of liberation he follows separate the story from Faulkner’s work. For example, at one point he invites self-parody, hosting a mock square dance for his love interest’s wealthy, northeastern acquaintances. Part of Raymond’s problem is that he is drunk on appearances, a remnant of his aristocratic upbringing. Lacking wealth, he nonetheless desires the appearance of it and seems to believe that by denigrating his southern heritage he may somehow escape his past and embrace a new image. Yet, as his wealthy female benefactor confides to Raymond’s visiting brother, “what he really desires is some little sign of approval from that crummy Tobacco Road family of his.” For all his posturing, Raymond cannot desert the importance of his southern values, even though they are mocked and disowned both by his friends and by himself.

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The wealthy northeasterners in “Bread from Stones,” half-serious observers of Raymond’s mocked southern background, continue to appear in the literary world today as national readers and publishers who expect to encounter a specific constructed image of the South that is consistent with their preconceived cultural notions of a region they know little about. As Garrett explains, not without some bitterness:

[T]he history, nature, and character of the South (thus of all southern traditions, including the literary) have been so distorted and clouded by an accumulation of misinformation as to require major rehabilitation before we can think or talk sensibly about the subject. For more than a century since the South was defeated in our most savage and destructive war and subsequently treated (that is, mistreated) worse than any enemy the United States has ever battled, for more than a century the victors have written the history of the South, and the revisionists have also continuously modified that history.

Entertaining sometimes drastically different images of the region, (inter)-national observers and southerners periodically still find it difficult to locate common points of cultural and historical agreement by which to communicate and move forward. For nation-state Americans the South usually is critiqued in a way that most contemporary southerners find offensive and/or outdated. Too often southerners still find themselves attempting to explain or apologize for cultural and historical issues that reach back to the Civil War and beyond—a phenomenon that has been noted and criticized by Garrett: “I, too, must bear my burden of contemporary guilt like a student’s obligatory backpack. But I flatly refuse to add to it one ounce, one feather’s weight, of historical guilt for anything. I am not guilty of or for the actions of anyone but myself.” Some of Garrett’s characters are less certain; in The Finished Man the theme is played out between Mike Royale and his wife: “[S]he was from New England and different enough to find his ways and assumptions a little strange. And in the mirror of her eyes he had felt compelled to justify not only himself, but also his whole region, its past, its faults and follies as well as its virtues… . Like many a Southerner he loved and hated his history just as he loved and hated himself.” Confronted with his wife’s New England background, Mike, a lawyer by profession, feels as if his own culture constantly is on trial. Yet the ambivalent nature of his region makes it impossible to defend in rational terms; he is both proud and ashamed to be a southerner, and the duality is never successfully resolved—it is hardly surprising that their relationship ends in divorce.

Significant in Mike’s dialogue with his wife is the fact that his culture, never his wife’s, is the one on trial. A northeasterner by birth, Mike’s wife functions as an agent of the dominant, culture-enforcing region of the nation-state. Spilling over into the literary world, an almost identical relationship exists between most southern writers and the people who publish their books. Garrett recounts:

Ever since the Civil War, the southern writers who had any kind of national ambitions or aspirations, or the writers who worked in special forms—the drama, for example—whose principal centers of commerce and appreciation are elsewhere, have 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 truth presented in approved and certified southern literature, must conform to an outsider’s image.

Once again, Garrett’s critical observation also finds expression in his fiction. In “Man without a Fig Leaf” Fergus McCree, originally bearing the name Angus Singletree, is described by his Jewish New York friend, Sam, as a “crazy southerner with a taste for elegance and no money to support it,” and, in an earlier, unpublished dramatic version, as “a malcontent, gifted, ambiguously mad.” Throughout the story, Fergus repeatedly takes it upon himself to speak for his region while lamenting the debilitating ways in which it has kept him from succeeding as a writer in the culture of New York. Well-meaning and sympathetic, Sam, in the unpublished version, playfully tells Fergus that he looks like “the walking, decaying corpse of the Deep South. You’re all covered with ringworm and hookworm. You’re pellagra-ridden, illiterate and thoroughly corncobbed. If I looked like you I’d join the Ku Klux Klan just to have a chance to hide my face behind a sheet.” Although Sam is joking with his friend, there is more truth in his jest than he suspects, and Fergus does not laugh. Though he would have Sam think otherwise, Fergus genuinely is troubled and hindered by the negative aspects of his region and their unavoidable connection to his tenuous identity and dysfunctional life.

Whereas Sam means well and wishes to help Fergus, his aid repeatedly takes the form of condescension, a relationship that symbolically translates into the literary world. As Garrett notes, “They (the Other, Yankees and such, as they say) do still take us Southerners, the men and the women alike, to be at best a kind of literary junior varsity.” Concerned with the vast (inter)national literary stage, the American literary establishment allows southern writers their own provincial bush league. Of course, the irony in this relationship is that southern writers consistently transcend the limitations of regional categorization by writing memorable novels that take place in national, international, and historical milieus. In an address to the Richmond, Virginia, Women’s Club, Garrett noted two contemporary regional novels of New York City and Washington, D.C., written by southerners: Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and Garrett Epps’s The Floating Island (1985). Ignoring authors’ southern roots when it is convenient, the national establishment never hesitates to claim and assimilate those talented writers whose work does not espouse a strong southern regional interest. Thus, Tom Wolfe, who lives in New York and whose work is national in flavor, generally is not referred to as a southern writer, but Cormac McCarthy, with his collection of undeniably southern and southwestern material, is. Categorized and shaped by the ambivalent rules of a national literary establishment that is itself anchored to a very small region and cast of players, southern writers—even the best-selling, award-winning ones—discover, sometimes painfully, that their reputations and identities ultimately are out of their hands.

Not content to weather silently the ongoing colonization of southern literature, Garrett continually has referenced the problem in essays and readings while also stubbornly refusing to conform his creative work to the rules and expectations of the national publishing scene. In this practice he is not alone. Citing writers such as R. H. W. Dillard, Lewis Nordan, Barry Hannah, and Jim Grimsley, Garrett notes, “All these people have worked away from and played with the expectations of audiences and publishers of what a good Southern novel is supposed to be.” Infusing the genre of southern writing with nontraditional subject matter and parody—from violent, sex-crazed Confederate officers to unprecedented, courageous homosexuals—such writers strive to reinvent the form for various new aesthetic and philosophical purposes. One of the single most ingenious examples of playing upon traditional southern tropes appears in R. H. W. Dillard’s title piece from a short story collection coedited by Garrett, That’s What I Like (About the South), in which each section is preceded by a phrase—“family bonds,” “local tradition,” etc.—from introductory essay on what constitutes southern fiction. Consciously building a fictional narrative around the traditional formulaic variables of southern literature, Dillard skillfully appraises the genre while toying with the expectations of readers and conventional publishers.

Bearing Dillard’s short story in mind, it is significant to note that That’s What I Like (About the South) is the publication of a southern university press rather than a northeastern/(inter)national one. Although its contents convey something new and innovative with regard to the established regional genre, the book’s publisher, residing and predominantly marketing within the same region, ensured that its revelations probably would not reach the national readers who likely would benefit from them the most. As things stand, then, the most groundbreaking southern writing is likely to remain well below the radar of the (inter)national literary establishment—a significant regional subjectivity generally unrecognized by the cultural commissars of the greater nation-state. However, as Garrett’s criticism and fiction keep telling and showing us, this is nothing new and, for all its inauspiciousness, not something that should cause aspiring southern writers to despair. In the summer of 2003 Garrett told me, “Right now the commercial world is not real interested in southern points of view, but that’s not very meaningful. We have such a strong tradition, I suspect it’ll just go on.” Continuing to evolve and articulate itself in spite of national forces that threaten to misinterpret or, worse, ignore it, southern writing carries on much as it has, fueled by the small, dedicated regional presses and periodicals that provide its largely regional readership. Having done more than his share over the past half century to document and critique the South’s ambivalent literary identity in this national context, Garrett makes his own forecast of southern literary endurance all the more possible and likely.


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