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Southern Literature and the Civil Rights Era  

Julie Buckner Armstrong

Southern literature provides numerous, diverse responses to the civil rights era. Produced during the movement itself and continuing into the 21st century, southern civil rights writing appears as poetry, drama, memoir, graphic narrative, short stories, and novels, including literary fiction and bestsellers. Movement-related works commemorate events, places, and people both famous and unknown. Authors speak of political awakening to systemic racism and violence. They consider the effectiveness of organizing tactics and the ethical implications of resistance strategies. They write compellingly about the ways segregation, protest, race relations, and sweeping social changes affect individuals and their relationships. Southern literature also exists in complex relationship to the civil rights era due in part to both terms’ fluid, evolving definitions. “Southern literature” can refer to works written in and about the American South, yet both of these categories remain more dynamic than static. The South is demarcated geographically as the United States’ southeastern and south central tier and historically as a region with ties to the former Confederacy. The South’s vexed legacy of slavery and segregation plays a role in defining a regional identity that some consider to be distinctive in terms of dialect, food culture, and an emphasis on conservative views of family, community, religion, place, and history. Many scholars, however, see constructions of a distinct southern identity with an accompanying literature as outmoded, particularly in an era of shifting demographics within the US and globalization more broadly. Like “southern literature,” the “civil rights era” resists rigid definition. The movement itself can refer to the period from the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools to the 1965 Voting Rights Act—an era focused on specific civil rights leadership, goals, and, notably, the American South. Alternatively, one can define the movement more comprehensively to look at what happened before and after “the King years,” referring to the period’s iconic figure Martin Luther King Jr. This version of civil rights extends the movement to points North and West, includes Black Power (typically focused on the late 1960s and early 1970s), and links it to contemporaneous human rights and post-colonial struggles. Authors from the American South respond to this broader story by connecting the movement to issues such as immigration; policing and incarceration; economic and environmental justice; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. Here writers depict a dynamic, multifaceted South that continues striving to transform political ideals into realities.

Article

Faulkner, William  

Charles Hannon and Ethan King

William Faulkner (1897–1962) is widely considered the most important and influential writer from the US South. Although his novels often depict a provincial region of the Deep South (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County), Faulkner is much more than just a Southern writer. He is at once an American writer and a global one. In addition to documenting the fraught racial histories and consequences of colonialism and slavery, his novels address the economic, cultural, and technological transformations of modernity, elaborating the effects that the rapidly changing modern world had on identity, region, history, race, sex, gender, politics, and temporality. Yet, his professed goal as a writer was simple: to get at the truth of “the human heart in conflict with itself.” His unorthodox style and experimental narrative structure, not to mention his deep investment in representing human consciousness, positioned him as a writer of high literary modernism alongside other international writers such as James Joyce. His novels The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930) attempted to represent individual psychology by experimentally collating different narrative sections through different narrators, each providing aspects of and perspectives on the plot. Although these works did not find success initially, Sanctuary (1931), a novel about violence, sex, and crime, attracted considerable attention not only for its sensational plot, but also for its filmic techniques. After publishing Light in August (1932) and working several stints as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which is thought by many to be his masterpiece. Told and retold from competing perspectives, the story of Thomas Sutpen, the brutal would-be founder of a Southern dynasty, weaves a complex historiographic web, calling into question the ways people create and transmit history and meaning. Absalom retains the artistic and philosophical interests of his earlier novels but shifts from private psychology to the social psychology of the South upon confronting the traumas and racial complexities of its own past and present. After World War II, Faulkner’s work became slightly less experimental, as he continued to sketch out the people and history of Yoknapatawpha County. During this time, he wrote, among other works, three novels about the social and economic rise of a poor white family named Snopes against the backdrop of the decline of the region’s aristocratic families (The Hamlet [1940], The Town [1957], and The Mansion [1959]); a novelized collection of short stories that offered a composite history of a plantation and its descendants (Go Down, Moses [1942]); and an antiracist novel (Intruder in the Dust [1948]). Although he was well known in international literary spheres, Faulkner’s national reputation only cemented itself upon the publication in 1946 of an anthology of his writings, The Portable Faulkner, put together by Malcolm Cowley. In 1950, Faulkner was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He continued writing until his death in 1962, having published nineteen novels and numerous short stories that are still revered today.

Article

Agriculture and Rural Life in the South, 1900–1945  

William Thomas Okie

The period from 1900 to 1945 was characterized by both surprising continuity and dramatic change in southern agriculture. Unlike the rest of the nation, which urbanized and industrialized at a rapid pace in the late nineteenth century, the South remained overwhelmingly rural and poor, from the 1880s through the 1930s. But by 1945, the region was beginning to urbanize and industrialize into a recognizably modern South, with a population concentrated in urban centers, industries taking hold, and agriculture following the larger-scale, mechanized trend common in other farming regions of the country. Three overlapping factors explain this long lag followed by rapid transformation. First, the cumulative effects of two centuries of land-extensive, staple crop agriculture and white supremacy had sapped the region of much of its fertility and limited its options for prosperity. Second, in response to this “problem South,” generations of reformers sought to modernize the South, along with other rural areas around the world. These piecemeal efforts became the foundation for the South’s dramatic transformation by federal policy known as the New Deal. Third, poor rural southerners, both black and white, left the countryside in increasing numbers. Coupled with the labor demands created by two major military conflicts, World War I and World War II, this movement aided and abetted the mechanization of agriculture and the depopulation of the rural South.

Article

Southern Gothic Literature  

Thomas Ærvold Bjerre

Southern Gothic is a mode or genre prevalent in literature from the early 19th century to this day. Characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation. While related to both the English and American Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic is uniquely rooted in the South’s tensions and aberrations. During the 20th century, Charles Crow has noted, the South became “the principal region of American Gothic” in literature. The Southern Gothic brings to light the extent to which the idyllic vision of the pastoral, agrarian South rests on massive repressions of the region’s historical realities: slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Southern Gothic texts also mark a Freudian return of the repressed: the region’s historical realities take concrete forms in the shape of ghosts that highlight all that has been unsaid in the official version of southern history. Because of its dark and controversial subject matter, literary scholars and critics initially sought to discredit the gothic on a national level. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) became the first Southern Gothic writer to fully explore the genre’s potential. Many of his best-known poems and short stories, while not placed in a recognizable southern setting, display all the elements that would come to characterize Southern Gothic. While Poe is a foundational figure in Southern Gothic, William Faulkner (1897–1962) arguably looms the largest. His fictional Yoknapatawpha County was home to the bitter Civil War defeat and the following social, racial, and economic ruptures in the lives of its people. These transformations, and the resulting anxieties felt by Chickasaw Indians, poor whites and blacks, and aristocratic families alike, mark Faulkner’s work as deeply Gothic. On top of this, Faulkner’s complex, modernist, labyrinthine language creates in readers a similarly Gothic sense of uncertainty and alienation. The generation of southern writers after Faulkner continued the exploration of the clashes between Old and New South. Writers like Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), Carson McCullers (1917–1967), and Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) drew on Gothic elements. O’Connor’s work is particularly steeped in the grotesque, a subgenre of the Gothic. African American writers like Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Richard Wright have had their own unique perspective on the Southern Gothic and the repressed racial tensions at the heart of the genre. Southern Gothic also frames the bleak and jarringly violent stories by contemporary so-called Rough South writers, such as Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Dorothy Allison, William Gay, and Ron Rash. A sense of evil lurks in their stories and novels, sometimes taking on the shape of ghosts or living dead, ghouls who haunt the New Casino South and serve as symbolic reminders of the many unresolved issues still burdening the South to this day.

Article

Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature  

Lisa Hinrichsen and Michael Pitts

Defined by both cultural vibrancy and widespread poverty, and marked by a long and complex history of trade, migration, cultural exchange, and slavery, the literature of the U.S. South is born of the intricacies of a complex, polymorphous history and culture. The 19th century was a particularly tumultuous period, as the region experienced the rise and fall of chattel slavery through a military loss in 1865 that left in its wake a devastated country, a decimated generation, widespread poverty and physical destruction, the ruin of an agricultural economy that once offered the promise of cotton as “king,” and a legacy of explosive racial rage that would continue throughout the 20th century. Against these social, political, and economic changes, the dominant literatures that emerged reflected stratified life across color lines: a white pastoral tradition that celebrated the plantation and mourned for a past that never was, and a literature of slavery and resistance that envisioned a different future for African Americans. Cloaking in romance their fervent beliefs in class hierarchy and enlightened upper-class rule, Confederate poets such as Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, and William Gilmore Simms positioned white mastery as the natural outcome of chivalry, while Joel Chandler Harris, John Pendleton Kennedy, and Thomas Nelson Page spun nostalgic fantasies of antebellum plantation life that reinforced myths about the continuing docility and inexpensiveness of the South’s black workforce. As blacks began to protest new forms of subjugation—the “Jim Crow” legislation that prohibited racial intermingling in public spaces, the recourse to lynching to terrorize African Americans—plantation fiction increasingly came to form an imagined defense against the new racial realities that would unfold over the course of the 20th century. Meanwhile, black voices during the period offered a powerful alternative to white command, repudiating seductive myths of plantation life. The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington revealed a system infested with greed, inhumanity, deception, and cruelty. Slave writers George Moses Horton, Hannah Crafts, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and post–Civil War poets Albery A. Whitman and Joseph S. Cotter, Sr. wrote skillfully about racial and nonracial topics in ways that powerfully demonstrated black agency and subjectivity against a white rule that sought to strip them of it, while the work of Charles Chesnutt, William Wells Brown, and other writers drew on black vernacular language and folklore. Entangled by a color line that would soon be singled out by W. E. B. Du Bois as a resistant and virulent problem for the nation at large, white and black Southerners, as the literature of the nineteenth century American South testifies, alternately struggled to evade and express the demands of racism’s intimate psychological consequences and the polyvalent power of interconnected ideologies of class and gender formed in this era.

Article

Caribbean and Southern Literatures  

John Wharton Lowe

Transnationalism and Global Studies have exploded old notions of artificial cultural boundaries, opening to view the myriad cross currents between the U.S. South and the Caribbean. Thus, the literature produced by the wider region of the circumCaribbean can be considered to reflect this interplay and as an alternative history to chronicles bounded by nationalism. While the age of contact and contest, the Haitian Revolution, and the U.S.–Mexican War were early focal points for interchange, the mutual influences of cultures have been dynamic, ongoing, and intricately connected to immigration, diaspora, racial conflict and mixing, and the creation of new forms of cultural expression. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the literature of the circumCaribbean, especially in the new forms it has taken over the past fifty years.