An overlooked ingredient in Southern Writing
Devotees know a good Southern story when they read it. Works by William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor represent the best of Southern literature, as do stories by Harper Lee, Ernest J. Gaines, Dorothy Allison and many others.
All of these writers were born in the South, but what exactly makes their stories “Southern”?
I believe part of the answer lies in the presence of a once-proud piece of furniture: the chifforobe. This half-wardrobe, half chest of drawers haunts many Southern stories. Chifforobes are relics of the past often depicted in unfamiliar surroundings which is part of the point. The South is one of those places that steps forward by looking backward.
Some insist a truly Southern story must contain a dead mule. Author Rick Bragg applauded the mule theory in the April 2011 issue of Southern Living. Bragg, a 1996 Pulitzer Prize winner, is best-known for his non-fiction books that include, by his own admission, not one but two dead mules. “That’s how I know I am bona fide,” he says.
Dead mules as a literary device may have arisen from a field order of William T. Sherman, the much-hated Yankee general whose infamous March to the Sea split the Confederacy in half, thus hastening the end of the bloody conflict. Early in 1865 he declared that Black Freedmen would receive “forty acres and a mule,” a possibility given that his army had seized 4,000 mules among other booty. As it turns out, Sherman’s decree was ignored because it wasn’t official Union policy.
Nevertheless, dead mules have littered the Southern literary landscape ever since. They crop up in work by William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Ernest J. Gaines and others. At least 200 mule carcasses were noted by Dr. Jerry Leath Mills of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A long-regarded authority on what makes stories Southern, Dr. Mills published a 1996 essay in Southern Cultures, “My survey of around thirty prominent twentieth-century Southern authors has led me to conclude, without fear of refutation, that there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of Southerness in literature...whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final.” After nearly four decades of cataloging, he concluded that the true test is: “’Is there a dead mule in it?...Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus) constitutes the truly catalytic element....’”
I respect the professor and his diligent research, but I find it absurd to accept that something as fluid and complex as Southern literature can be boiled down to one litmus test. This is as silly as claiming that a “true” Southern meal must include grits, red-eye gravy or Lane cake.
Like Dr. Mills, I appreciate the benefit of leaving one’s region to see things more clearly. Leaving home is why writers take retreats. It’s why such places as Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony exist. It was why the Lost Generation writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others—escaped to Paris. And it may be why Harper Lee remained in New York rather than return to her native Monroeville, Alabama to draft To Kill a Mockingbird. Or why Knoxville-born James Agee wrote A Death in the Family in New York. Or why Georgia-born Carson McCullers penned A Member of the Wedding in New York.
The works of Lee, Agee and McCullers contain several live mules—even a sleeping one—but not a single dead one. Should we conclude, then, that these works aren’t truly “Southern”? Not any more than we should conclude that a good Southern story must be written in New York.
In fact, dead mules might be seen as a metaphor for how Sherman’s recipe for Reconstruction did not work in the South. Indeed, what the War and Reconstruction did to Georgia in particular and the region in general is an affront felt to this day, but one dead mule does not a Southern story make. Nor do such contrivances as kudzu, whiffs of honeysuckle and planters in white linen suits.
Rather, I propose an organic, layered approach, a literary “cake,” that once properly seasoned and baked, creates an authentic Southern narrative. Among the elements are a strong sense of place, lost fortune, missing parents, race, religion, alcohol and—if the story is particularly fortunate—a chifforobe. The fact that these portable closets still populate Southern stories is no coincidence. Chifforobes symbolize a tendency to cling to the past and resist change. Just as Sherman split the South in two, the chifforobe is a two-sided affair—not quite closet, not quite chest of drawers. As leftovers from the turn-of-the last century, they signal challenge to the old order. Many times they’re found outside their intended place in the boudoir. You’ll find them moved to the hallway, the kitchen, even the front yard.
So far I’ve found 86 chifforobes in notable Southern novels, short stories and memoirs. While this tally is far less than Mills’ 200 dead mules, it is nonetheless significant. Chifforobes turn up in Serena by Ron Rash, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Burns, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, and, with some irony, in Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston.
Undoubtedly the most famous chifforobe appears in To Kill a Mockingbird. Poor white girl Mayella Ewell asks the black man, Tom Robinson to “bust up this chiffarobe.” On a subliminal level, the young woman is asking for the old South and its taboos to be chopped up. Of course one of the taboos is inter-racial sex. Later we find that Robinson is accused of raping Mayella, the crux of the entire novel.
The Ewell family lives in what was once “a Negro cabin” near the town dump from where the cabinet was likely scavenged. The fact that it is in the Ewell’s front yard tells us they are willing to throw out this relic. A big problem arises when an African-American has encroached—invited or not—onto forbidden territory. Robinson breaks the rules by destroying a symbol of the old order, for raping what had been held dear.
So why did Harper Lee use a chifforobe rather than a desk or a hat rack?
The chifforobe represents private space. They exist to hold secrets, intimacy...quite literally the “family linen,” including undergarments and other personal effects. They suggest intimacy and sexual awareness, perhaps female genitalia. Having the chifforobe and its contents in public view is to air one’s laundry both figuratively and literally, which is exactly what was going on in this pivotal scene in Mockingbird.
The symbolism varies from book to book, but in general, the chifforobe serves as a place—safe or otherwise—in which to store family secrets or treasure, generally the previous generations’ sense of worth including morality, values, social standing or family secrets. It stands for pride of family and pride in the past, but for an order that has, quite literally, gone with the wind. The chifforobe and the importance of lost fortune—and lost parents due to the war or other calamity—threats to accepted social structures and family fortunes take on added importance. This is particularly true among such marginalized groups as poor whites and people of color.
“The Chifforobe,” a story by Donald Windham, was published by The New Yorker in 1960, three months after Mockingbird. Here, a chifforobe works as a symbol of security before financial collapse. Afterward, it is a monument to business treachery, and by the time a second-hand dealer comes to assess the family’s furniture, the chifforobe has no worth.
Because literary chifforobes are often found in unexpected surroundings, they harken to bygone days and values. Their old-fashioned presence in working class homes shows the temporal quality of money and social status. Property and social order can be taken, and as symbols of earlier times, chifforobes imply a time of strict social structures. The cabinets become a means to hide family secrets. An example is in Bastard Out of Carolina, when Mama attempts to expunge the label “illegitimate” from daughter Bone’s birth certificate:
The cardboard box of wrinkled and stained papers was tucked under the sheets in the bottom of Aunt Alma’s chifforobe. Mama pulled out the ones she wanted, took them to the kitchen, and dropped them in the sink without bothering to unfold them. She’d just lit a kitchen match when the phone rang.(Allison p15)
Flannery O’Connor used a chifforobe in Wise Blood. In Chapter 1, Hazel Motes returns the family home to find the relic in his mother’s kitchen.
There was nothing left in the house but the chifforobe in the kitchen. His mother had always slept in the kitchen and had her walnut chifforobe in there. She had given thirty dollars for it and hadn’t bought herself anything else big again. Whoever had got everything else, had left that. He opened all the drawers. There were two lengths of wrapping cord in the top one and nothing in the others. He was surprised nobody had come and stolen a chifforobe like that. He took the wrapping cord and tied it around the legs and through the floor boards and left a piece of paper in each of the drawers: THIS SHIFFER-ROBE BELONGS TO HAZEL MOTES. DO NOT STEAL IT OR YOU WILL BE HUNTED DOWN AND KILLED.
He thought about the chifforobe in his half-sleep and decided his mother would rest easier in her grave, knowing it was guarded. (O’Connor p 13-14)
Motes’ protection of the piece signifies his respect for what is rightly his in the world but also his high regard for Southern femininity.
Did these authors realize all this when they wrote about chifforobes? Maybe.
Since To Kill a Mockingbird, the chifforobe has become a popular trope, though Harper Lee did not introduce it. Chifforobes were cropping up in the work of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and others well before 1960. Even today, a hundred years after chifforobes were considered a bedroom essential, they continue to find their way into Southern novels. Two examples: Ron Rash’s Serena, published in 2008 and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, published in 2009. And yes, Rick Bragg himself mentioned a chifforobe in his memoir, The Prince of Frogtown, released five years ago.
Re-creating the Southern experience on the page is a complex process that, like other learned crafts, must defer to the art of knowing when to amplify one aspect and when to tone down another. The successful Southern tale, like any good story, must be thoughtfully planned before it is spun into motion. When should the writer mention the ubiquitous dead mule? The chifforobe? It is a fine balance.
Like Miss Maudie’s Lane cake in To Kill a Mockingbird, accomplished Southern authors know that an authentic Southern story hinges on the perfect blend of essentials such as a strong sense of place, elements of a sense of lost fortune and a missing parent or two, just as accomplished Southern cooks know the perfect Lane cake filling takes more than egg yolks, raisins, sugar. It must also contain whisky.
A literary “cake” must adhere to essential rules to have authentic structure and texture. Dead mules—and chifforobes—are often part of the mix.
Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Wise Blood,” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. Print.