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Politics and Literature: The Southern Case

ISSUE:  Spring 1988

A future student of the modern canon of Southern literature might reasonably conclude that, whatever else Southern writers were preoccupied with, politics was not among them. This would be all the more puzzling, since the major concern of Southern writers between World War I and roughly 1970 was arguably the weight and power of the past. But how is it possible to have a history (or history in general) without politics, narrative without action? Is the South so aberrant that one of Western culture’s central categories of experience—politics—has been largely absent? Or are Southern writers such an eccentric breed that they have all but ignored an entire dimension of human experience?

This is not to say that Southern literature is bereft of a wide range of human experiences. Young men and women leave the South, then look homeward with great longing; brothers fall in love with sisters, with themselves, and with death; other men even fall in love with cows and corpses, while crippled bookish young women fall in love with treacherous Bible salesmen; weddings are celebrated in the Delta, while wars are satirized and memorialized; houses and barns are built and burnt, while daughters learn to play the piano; Angst-ridden young men attend movies; and each race haunts the other’s every mood and move. With all that said, Southern writing has displayed a profound lack of interest in or concern with a world of common speech and action.

If one has been strongly influenced by the new New Criticism, literature’s cognitive obligations to anything like a common reality are consigned to near irrelevance. Though I would dissociate myself from attacks on post-Structuralism as a species of nihilism, I do agree that it has, in line with Wendell Berry’s criticism of modern poetry, shown “a serious lack of interest, first, in action, and second, in responsible action.” Something in us still insists that literature has some illuminative power or purchase on the world. It brings us, in Raymond Carver’s words, “news of the world” or, again with Berry, “the subject of poetry is not words, it is the world, which poets have in common with other people.” On the other hand, some readers might maintain that all texts are implicitly, if not explicitly, political. To put pen to paper, especially if one is black in a white society or a woman in a male-dominated ethos, so this argument goes, must be described as a political action. But there is something too loose-jointed about this tendency to see everything as political. For if it is, “political” loses any meaning.

Aside from these theoretical questions, there is a more straightforward one which I have begged so far—what do we mean by politics or by political fiction? Though it is a vast oversimplification, two major understandings of politics are lodged in the political culture of the West. The first equates politics with the exercise of power and control of the instruments of violence. More prosaically, in the American context, politics is taken to be centrally about interests. Thus to talk of a novel’s being political, here, would be to focus on the way it thematizes and/or represses the relationships of power at work in the polity and society. The other characterization of politics links it with talk and action together in a public space about matters having to do with the essential arrangements of the political order, including of course power-relationships. In this view, power is one, but by no means the only, concern of politics. A political novel in this second sense would be concerned with depicting public action, talk about that action, i. e. political ideas and ideologies, and more generally with exploring what it means to lead a political life. It is this second sense of politics that I will concern myself with and which I find so missing in most Southern writing.

I find its absence so curious because, far from being a Utopian “moment” or a problematic experience of the order of, say, ESP, political experience in the second sense of the term has been a constant and crucial element in our political culture. Ever recurring but evanescent, only sporadically theorized or embodied in literature, being political and acting politically are as clearly part of our experience as falling in love, making money, having a religious experience, finding satisfaction in the life of the mind, or in “mere” everydayness. Embodied in traditional works such as Antigone, Danton’s Death, and Billy Budd, and then in the modernist literature of (too often failed) revolutionary hopes whose most recent examples are works such as V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, and Salmon Rushdie’s Shame, the literature of the political constitutes a corpus of powerful writing revelatory of an essential dimension of our existence.

Here I should add several qualifications which may set some minds at ease. First, I am not claiming that all enduring or worthwhile fiction must have political import or be about political experience. Nor is all political fiction, by definition, left-wing or radical in the conventional sense. We should know better than that after the examples of Dostoevski, Conrad, Koestler, and Naipaul, among others. Indeed, the most powerful political fiction has generally been wary of, if not downright hostile to, political revolutions. And when critics object to political fiction but then praise writers such as I have mentioned, we are in the presence of bad political and aesthetic faith.

But it should also be added that politically interested fiction, fiction that seems to intend a political position or point, is by no means automatically inferior to fiction that sidesteps obvious political engagement or argument. Think again of Koestler and Orwell, not to mention Malraux. The question is not which is more important—politics or aesthetics—but why political action, talk, and experience are not more often considered fit for fictional treatment. It is not why writers do or do not have the “right belief” about politics, as William Gass recently observed, but why they don’t think politics worth dealing with at all.

That having been said, I would like to take up the question of Southern literature in light of this definition of the “political.” Has in fact the region’s literature been so bereft of the fiction of the political and, if so, why?


More than 20 years ago in an essay “Mississippi: The Fallen Paradise,” (1965), Walker Percy speculated upon the reasons for that state’s bitter resistance to attempts by civil rights forces to undermine segregation and disfranchisement in the state. According to Percy, paternalistic moderates of the old Stoic tradition represented by his “Uncle” Will Percy had lost out to the “Snopses.” As a result, Percy found a bewildering split between a tradition of private hospitality on the one hand and public racist demagoguery having little purchase on reality on the other. The nub of Percy’s piece was that Mississippi was distinguished from the rest of the country by the “absence of a truly public zone.” Rather, the white community was “bound together by kinship bonds” and was “one big kinship lodge.” Percy was skeptical about the efficacy of moral solutions but went on to suggest that financial self-interest and the growth of an urban “alienated” South might defuse some of the “emotional charges” preventing white Mississippians from facing reality. Not a bad prediction.

Though I had read Percy’s piece when it appeared, I was struck on rereading it by the way it linked the notion of the “family romance” that I had developed in A Southern Renaissance with the absence of politics in Southern writing. For, if we change the reference from Mississippi to the South generally and if we assume that Southern literature articulates the regional experience in complexly mediated ways, then Percy’s thesis would help explain the political vacuum in canonical Southern writing. Put succinctly: if the white South’s self-understanding had been organized around the metaphor of the family, the institution of private life par excellence, then it would be difficult for Southern writers to imagine, much less incorporate into a fictional world, an effective “public space” in which politics could be carried on. Thus the fictional insight among Southern writers of the interwar years concerning the centrality of the family was accompanied by a blindness to political experience. Avoiding politics altogether or representing it as a field offeree and corruption or displacing it onto other forms of action and thought: political action and speech would naturally be seen as expressions of inauthenticity, not freedom.

How cogent is this hypothesis? Faulkner, for instance, could never really imagine political action (as opposed to political gestures) as appropriate in his world. In A Fable collective public action takes place not in a public space, but between the lines on the Western front and is given a pseudo-religious rather than political meaning. Analogously in All the King’s Men, the one canonical work of Southern fiction that deserves to be called political, Warren swerves away from the political theme partway through the book. When Willie Stark is the object of attention, we have a masterful example of a fictional imagining of the way a political life is led; yet Warren cannot resist the introduction of the family theme in Jack Burden’s existential version of the Oedipal struggle for knowledge and self-recognition. Politics threatens to become a family affair.

Though Richard Wright was a politically engaged writer, the South he re-created was totally lacking a space of public action. Only the North promised to be a site not just of literacy and freedom but also of political action. And in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man public speech generally betokens the meretricious, whether it is at the black Southern college or before the largely white audiences gathered by the “Brotherhood.” For the protagonist of Ellison’s novel, the locus of authentic speech is underground rather than in public; hibernation, not action is the only possibility.

Closer to the present, William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner also reveals a swerve away from the political resembling that found in Warren’s novel. I’m not interested in the criticism of Styron as a racist and as an interloper on what is properly black terrain. But a fair criticism of the novel is that it creates a powerful black revolutionary-prophet but then undermines his stature by reducing his life to black male desire for whiteness. The problem is not that Styron introduces the level of sexual motivation as such, but that the novel insists on being read in a way that emphasizes Turner’s private erotic desire. Thus it becomes a tragedy of desire rather than one of action. Finally it is ironic that Walker Percy’s valuable insight about the lack of a concept of “public” in Southern life remains reflected rather than remedied in his own work. For when his protagonists escape their families, as they all seem to want to do, their destination is not action or speech in a public space, but the empty realm of existential possibility as it is set against the debilitations of the everyday. The response to the loss of religious faith or philosophical meaning is not a decision for political commitment.

It is all markedly similar with the cohort of major white Southern women writers. Though some of Katherine Anne Porter’s writing focuses fairly explictly on the constraints of gender roles, there is scarcely anything meriting the name of politics in her writing. Where Eudora Welty certainly celebrates the dense texture and delineates the moral universe of community life and Flannery O’Connor explores the spiritual contours of a landscape of “fallenness,” in neither woman’s writing does a public realm emerge with any force or effect. The same goes for the work of Carson McCullers.

Anne Jones has recently argued that these women writers should be—or at least can be—read politically as “deconstructing gender.” But such a critical approach works against the dominant intentions of these writers, if we understand intention to refer to the general orientation of a writer’s project. Very little written by Welty, O’Connor, or McCullers calls for or rewards a political reading. Moreover, it is anachronistic to refer to what they were doing as deconstruction, which is a specific critical/theoretical position and not just an analysis or critique. Indeed the problem with deconstruction is that, though it can de-essentialize gender characteristics, it can’t do much more, since it has no standard against which representations of, say, women can be measured. Again, we can read these writers for what their works reveal about power relations, the experience of marginality, and the constraints of class, gender, and, even occasionally, race; but such hardly makes Welty, O’Connor, McCullers, or Porter political writers, however much we may learn about the facts of individual and social life in their works. Alone among the Southern women writers, Lillian Smith was concerned to lead a political life and to confront the issues of the day in her writing. But her novel Strange Fruit is rarely conceded a place in the canon of first-rate works, and her political utterances generally are located in her nonfiction.

The upshot, then, of this admittedly cursory summary is that the definitive works of modern Southern literature between the mid-1920’s and the 1970’s betray a remarkable avoidance of the experience of political action. Percy’s thesis, admittedly revised and extended in my hands, offers something of a provisional explanation, but it is hardly adequate by itself.


If we draw back a bit, we can identify three separate, though closely related explanations for this absence—principles of canon formation, the intentions of the writers themselves, and historical “reality.” Have works been excluded from the canon of Southern writing because they were explicitly concerned with the political? Could it be that Southern writers have neglected the political because they simply didn’t want to deal with such a concern and felt that politics and fiction were somehow incompatible and inimical? Or was there something about Southern experience or politics in general which hindered the emergence of the political in the South’s literature?

First, to the principles of canon formation. It would be tempting to blame the exclusion of political fiction on the (Southern) New Critics and their epigones. Indeed, there is a kind of subgenre of Southern fiction, what I call the racial-thriller, that might arguably be called political fiction but whose expressions—Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jesse Hill Ford’s Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, and Madison Jones’ Cry of Absence— are rarely granted first-rank fictional status. There are also a couple of interesting novels in the Warren tradition by Texas authors—Larry King’s One-Eyed Man and William Brammer’s The Gay Place— which explore the political life of Texas, with Lyndon Johnson standing in for Huey Long as the model for a boisterous but fascinating populist politician. But though we might want to argue that these novels deserve more attention, I see no great injustice in the status accorded them.

The theoretical issue here is that the New Criticism as applied to fiction (or poetry, for that matter) should have had no problem with the representation of politics in literature. The point of the New Critics was that artistic achievement was not to be judged according to extraneous political intention or effect. In fact, the New Criticism recognized a cognitive and even moral status to literature, as Allen Tate’s essays or the separate and quite different interpretations by Warren and Brooks of Faulkner make clear. That having been said, the New Critics certainly did little to encourage a concern with politics in fiction and tended to pay more attention to poetry than to fiction and to literature rather than various forms of nonfiction. Reflecting what Lewis Simpson has called “traditional modernism’s” concerns with the loss of tradition, valuing an internal literature of “irony with a center” rather than exploring the political implications of the culture’s loss of coherence, and comporting quite well with the postwar hostility to ideology (read radical politics), the New Criticism tended to locate the field of significant action in artistic expression itself.

However, the figures who defined the canon of modern Southern literature—Allen Tate, Louis Rubin, Cleanth Brooks, C. Vann Woodward—went beyond the exclusive claims of the text by suggesting a mimetic, even causal relationship between the obligatory topoi of Southern writing and the historical experience of the region. They neither described, explained, or judged the literature of the Renaissance in purely formal, internal terms. Writers identified with the left—Lillian Smith or Richard Wright—or with the right—Donald Davidson or Andrew Lyttle—were excluded. Otherwise the writers included in the canon were political nondescripts or vaguely liberal. Still, it is hard to make any strong case that the paucity of political fiction in the Southern literary canon can be explained by the critical principles of the arbiters of Southern literary status.

If we focus on general intentions/political orientation of Southern writers, we have a stronger explanation for the neglect of politics. The first generation of Renaissance writers (and critics) came to maturity in the 1920’s when political consciousness was relatively quiescent and then reacted against what they took to be the left-wing politicalization of art in the 1930’s. There were precious few Southern “writers on the left” in the Depression decade, much less politically active or sophisticated ones. Like excluded citizens of an authoritarian political order, they had learned to distance themselves from politics and scorn it with an easy sort of cynicism. Art was somehow an alternative to politics.

This attitude can be detected, for instance, in an early appreciation of Eudora Welty by Katherine Anne Porter where Porter equated the “political” with the “inhuman.” Later in 1942 Porter agreed with E. M. Forster that “there are only two possibilities for real order: in art and in religion.” With Faulkner, it was surprisingly more complicated. On the one hand, the part of All the King’s Men Faulkner singled out for praise was the Cass Mastern story, not the saga of Willie Stark. Yet Faulkner explicitly set out to write what became A Fable as a political and moral tract. Though his intentions were to change over the period of time he labored at the novel, he always insisted that his intentions for it were more than aesthetic or personal.

Most extreme was Welty’s later statement on the relationship of politics and art penned in another decade of political turmoil. In “Must the Novelist Crusade?” (1965) she made the dubious but all-too-common equation of political fiction with propaganda and delivered herself of such statements as “Nothing was ever learned in a crowd, from a crowd, or by addressing or trying to please a crowd.” Leaving aside the matter of how we are to judge Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the problem with her assertion is that the negative connotation of crowd is built into it. Even stranger was her claim that “Fiction has, and must keep, a private address. For life is lived in a private place; where it means anything is inside the mind and heart.” Even the most ardent defender of authorial/personal autonomy would have to balk at this assertion, which is either banally true or nonsense. Finally, asserted Welty, “great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel,” a staggeringly ahistorical claim and one which if taken seriously trivializes literature, feeling, and behavior.

What Welty expressed with uncharacteristic fervor, Walker Percy has more recently echoed with less animus. Avoiding the tendentious negative evaluation of politics, Percy claimed (surprisingly) that while politicians are “to inspire people to live up to the best in them,” “the novelist’s vocation from Dostoevski to Faulkner is to explore the darker recesses of the human heart.” What clearly runs through these statements is an alignment of the fiction/politics with the private/public dichotomy. To cross the dividing line was (and is) to risk some sort of violation of essential characteristics.

Finally, if we move from authorial intentions to something called “reality,” we might find other explanations for the avoidance of politics in Southern fiction. Perhaps the most intriguing angle on this matter has been suggested by Gary Wills, who claims that the virtues required of politicians render them dull and uninteresting people and thus—by my own extrapolation—poor material for fiction. Though there may be something in public life that causes a loss of interiority, political fiction need not focus on public figures per se. Indeed as Georg Lukacs observed in The Historical Novel, the point of view from which the great historical/political fiction of the 19th century was written was at the margin rather than at the center of political and social power. Moreover, Wills’ claim seems less supportable when we remember that biographies of Southern politicians such as Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, and George Wallace are engrossing and widely read. Modern Southern politics and politicians may be uninspiring, but they are hardly uninteresting.

Yet the explanation I find more compelling is that because neither America nor the South has had powerful radical movements, politics has lacked both the intellectual and the dramatic component that has created vital political fiction in Europe and the Third World. If, as H. L. Mencken has asserted, “Revolution is the sex of politics,” the absence of the revolutionary idea or experience may help explain the absence of vital political fiction in America and the South. Of course this in turn suggests is that the absence of politics in Southern fiction is a special case of a general blind spot in American writing. Though Percy’s thesis may help explain the Southern case, it stands as a necessary but not sufficient cause in general.


Since the 1960’s Southern fiction has seen a fresh new infusion of talent and vitality, particularly from women such as Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Ellen Gilchrist. Even more significant for our theme, several writers have sought to come to terms with the experience of politics in the civil rights movement and incorporate it into their fiction. This suggests that the South did see something akin to a political revolution in the 1960’s. Political and legal institutions were challenged and underwent a transformation. The experience of political involvement forced many black (and some white) Southerners to reevaluate their sense of self and its relationship to the social and political order. Political projects ranging from liberal reform to revolutionary insurgency and the means to achieve them involving everything from nonviolent direct action to political violence had to be confronted and assessed.

Of particular interest here are writers such as Ernest Gaines, whose The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman explored the buried resources in the black experience available for political action and whose A Gathering of Old Black Men delineated the creation of collective self-respect in the risk of life in confrontation with whites. Besides Gaines, Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland registered the awakening effect of the civil rights movement on black lives, and Meridian took as its theme the intersection of spiritual unrest and political action, a particularly wrenching problem if that action potentially involves violence. Finally, though she is not a Southerner by birth, Rosellen Brown charted the attempt of two former white civil rights activists to discover what it means to live a political life after the political moment has passed in her novel, Civil Wars. None of these works attempts to explore the life of a major public figure and perhaps rightly so. Nor do they offer propaganda or foregone conclusions. They do remind us that the exploration of political action and political life is an appropriate subject for fiction. With this in mind, we can only hope that Southern fiction in the future will continue to explore the meaning of being political. It can only help enrich the fiction and the politics of the region and the nation.


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