Where is the South in Today’s Southern Literature?

by Jason Sanford

Where is the south?

Some say the south is a location: The deep south states that seceded from the union. A place where mint juleps are consumed on screened-in back porches, or live oaks grow along plantation back roads.

Some say the south is merely a backward racial mindset: Bull Connor and his police dogs attacking peaceful protestors. Endless Selmas forever getting beat as they walk across that bridge.

Still others, perhaps trying to speak with an intellectual bent, say that the south is a culture. If so, then this culture has spread across the entire country. You can find southern barbecue in Chicago, New York, and Minnesota. Cracker Barrels and CNN blanket every interstate and hotel in the land. And while the blues may have been a southern invention, it didn’t make it big until the music decided to go north.

I’ve seen pockets of the south all over the world. Once, while serving with the Peace Corps in Thailand, I met a fellow volunteer talking with a southern twang. When I asked where he was from, irritation crossed his face. I knew that look from my own face, which also showed irritation every time someone asked me the same question upon hearing my southern accent. The way I talked didn’t sum up all that I was and could be, and I hated it when my accent was all that people noticed about me.

“Where you think I’m from?” this volunteer said sarcastically. I paused for a moment as I placed the tones and slides of his voice with the various southern accents I’d known and loved. When I said “Tennessee,” knowing his home by speech alone as only a fellow southerner could, the volunteer’s face lit up. He was so thrilled to meet another southern boy that he must have slapped me on the back for ten minutes.

So is the south just an accent? Probably not. And neither is the south about that other major aspect of our history—politics.

I say this last bit because ever since George Wallace ran for president, this nation’s commander-in-chiefs have either been from the south (Clinton, Carter), claimed to be southern (both Bushes), or acted like a southerner (Reagan). The last time the south so dominated national politics was just before the Civil War.

The reason for this is simple: There is something about the southern character that makes us seem like regular folks—as if we’re all just good ol’ guys you’d invite into your home, allow to marry your daughter, and trust with the fate of the free world. And people believe this despite the fact that most of the politicians claiming to be all down home and southern have more in common with—and care more about—the Enron country-club set than any working soul from the south, north, east or west.

Which brings us back to the title of this essay: Where is the south in today’s southern literature?

The other day I was talking with a professor at a major university down south. We were discussing literature and—out of the nowhere—he told me that he didn’t use any literature in his class that was written after 1960 (the year To Kill a Mockingbird was published). I didn’t know what to say. I mean, hell, here was a professor who taught southern literature saying he wouldn’t teach about any southern literature that had been produced in my lifetime.

Like so many people, this professor’s idea of southern literature is stuck in a time warp. He still lives in the pre-Civil Rights era, in that time before air conditioning reversed the traditional outward migration of people from the south. The south is no longer isolated, alone, or known exclusively for dealing with and losing on issues like race and modernity. The stereotypes of To Kill a Mockingbirdand the endless books by William Faulkner detail a south that is as much a part of history as the Civil War.

I tried explaining to this professor that the south he was referring to had changed. He agreed that it had, but added that because it had changed so much no literature produced after 1960 could truly be called southern. I disagreed, and named some excellent southern books that wouldn’t fit into his definition of the south, such as Randall Kenan’s amazing collection of short stories Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (which details a small southern town and the relations between blacks and whites in the 70s and 80s) or Cormac McCarthy’s masterful Blood Meridian (where a white trash boy from Tennessee goes forth into the wild west and shows how truly sinful and violent humanity can be).

The professor nodded to all this—”I’ve read Blood Meridian,” he muttered. “That’s not about the south.” Before I could respond, he turned the conversation to that often-asked question about the south: “Do you think Florida is in the south?”

Is Florida, with NASA and tourists and Miami, in the old south? No. But as a former lifeguard who worked at Walt Disney World, and as a former kid who spent every summer on the Gulf Coast, I can state that from the panhandle to the keys, Florida is as southern as they come. The next time you drive to Disney World, just look behind the billboard signs at the immigrant workers sweating away in the sugar fields. You think they wouldn’t recognize some of their condition in the age-gone days of slavery and Jim Crow? Or the heat—what about Florida’s wet heat? There is something about long summer days of heat and humidity. The weather makes people sweat themselves into repeating patterns, quick anger, and closed communities. You think those millionaires in their exclusive gated Florida communities, upon returning from a hard day of golfing, don’t complain about the heat in the same tones that plantation masters used a hundred and fifty years ago? Despite the irony that some of these millionaires are people like Tiger Woods, the old south lives on in Florida.

In truth, too many people are stuck with narrow views of what makes the south. The south isn’t just about the Civil War or how some people still think the south was right to secede. The south isn’t just about slavery, Jim Crow, and two races getting along or not getting along. And the south sure isn’t solely about location or slow humid hot days.

The truth about today’s south is best summed up in something that country-music star Johnny Cash once said: “Is there anything behind the symbols of modern ‘country’ or are the symbols themselves the whole story? Are the hats, the boots, the pick-up trucks, and the honky-tonking poses all that’s left of a disintegrating culture? Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music. Does a certain kind of music now produce a way of life?”

Exchange the word ‘south’ for ‘country,’ and what Cash says surely rings into what today’s south is all about. Today’s south is as much a lifestyle that people choose as it is a geographic or cultural identity.

Too much of what passes for southern literature today is stuck in the south’s vanished past. Every year bring a few more To Kill a Mockingbird knock-off books set in the 1940s or 50s, along with books about modern Ya-Ya southern belles living amidst the sordid and cheap Wal-Mart south and novels featuring quirky southern characters who survive quirky Forrest Gump adventures. There is nothing wrong with these books—but they are not the south as it exists today. Even when writers produce modern tales of the south (such as in the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Forrest Gump veins), they are too often merely placing older southern stories into the present day. Compare The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood with Gone with the Wind—aside from the change in date, the themes of the stories are remarkably similar.

Yes, past is prologue—especially in places like the south, where the past waits around corners to smack people upside the head. But in focusing on the old south, southern literature is ignoring the current dramas of the south. In one generation, racial barriers in the south have both fallen and remained in place while the dominant southern culture has disintegrated into something new that is still being born. Where are the stories about all of these events?

And why does today’s southern literature need to be set in the south? Just as most national politicians act southern because being southern plays well across the country, so too are bits of the old south cropping up across the nation. Just look at California, with its booming population of Hispanic nannies. How can anyone not see that the nanny is just a reemergence of the old Mammy stereotype?

Or how about Minnesota, where I lived for a few years. This state, with its belief in being so progressive, is now finding itself hard pressed to integrate a new immigrant population from Somalia and Laos. Recently, in separate incidents, the Minneapolis police dealt with two mentally unbalanced—okay, crazy—individuals. One was a poor Somali man and the other was a white woman from an upscale suburb. The police shot the man dead under questionable circumstances, but didn’t use any force against the white woman until she ran down and killed a bystander with her SUV. She was never charged with a crime, while the city still says that justifiable force was used against the Somali man.

If these two events had happened in the south, the national media would be reporting them as if Selma has happened all over again.

Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Alabama—and didn’t even leave the south until I was 24—some people now consider me to not be a southern writer. Last year I submitted a story to the editor of an anthology about Alabama and race relations. The editor promptly e-mailed back that she couldn’t consider my essay. In her eyes I was no longer a southern writer since I had left the south.

These attitudes about what makes for southern literature must change. Otherwise southern writers will continue to be lumped into an outdated south, a south where nothing ever changes or should ever change.

Welcome to the south. The south is everywhere these days.

So why is so much of southern literature still stuck in the past?

Jason Sanford is the fiction editor of storySouth.