Short Stories Built Southern Fiction, but All That's Left Now Is Redneck Lit
Almost all of the giants of the early (and probably more important) days of Southern literature produced short stories; William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain, and Eudora Welty created some of their most memorable characters in short fictional works, laying the ground for a spooky, kudzu-enshrouded mystique in the process. To this day, the South is still a mystery area in the American psyche.
The grand old man of Southern lit, William Faulkner, created a long-lasting template for the emerging Southern Gothic style. His often-anthologized short story "A Rose for Emily" has all of the essential components. The setting is the standard aging, decrepit mansion of all Gothic literature. The protagonist hails from the fading Southern aristocracy, and she's mad as a hatter. Given these ingredients--a crumbling manor house, intimations of failed romance, plenty of swamp atmospherics, remnants of the antebellum-era caste system, insanity, and death--"Emily" is practically a recipe for the Gothic short story.
The only wild card is Faulkner's verbosity--short stories are usually known for their brevity, and Faulkner is clearly the odd man out in that game. Still, his languid, viscous, murk-encrusted, and profligate use of vocabulary paved the way for other long-winded Southerner storytellers.
Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor followed the lead of Faulkner, though they placed their short stories and novels in more contemporary settings and kept their word count to a more digestible level. Both authors dealt with the clash of old values and modern ideology. O'Connor was especially erudite in her examinations of the good old theme of sacred vs. profane.
These trailblazers of the Southern literary form created a motif for Southern writing in the first half of the 1900s, and soon other writers fell in line, repeating the same themes in similar settings with little variation. But the template of the ravaged, post-Civil War South lost its relevance as prosperity and modernity flourished during the baby-boom era. What had once been a realistic depiction of life in the South became an albatross. The Southern-Gothic style became a cliché, and eventually it no longer represented a true picture of the rapidly evolving South.
Ironically, the modern tone of Southern short fiction came from a novel--Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, a 1932 book that introduced white-trash literature, a style that would gain popularity in the latter half of the 20th century. Caldwell's prose is often cruel--he seems to be laughing at his characters rather than laughing with them--and there's a close correlation between the author's mocking tone and the similarly unsympathetic depictions that populate contemporary Southern short stories.
By around 1970, the literary action seemed to have shifted from the plantation to the trailer park. A new crop of writers took their cues from Caldwell and created their own tales of deep-fried squalor. Georgia-bred Harry Crews, who now lives and teaches college English in Florida, was one of the first authors to present a hard-boiled style of Southern noir. No matter if it's short stories, journalism, or novel-length fiction, any Crews outing is sure to make even the most jaded readers a bit squeamish. His cast of characters is of the toothless, unwashed, and incestuous variety. In much of Crews' work, the protagonists are so brutal and self-assuredly stupid that it's virtually impossible to feel any empathy for them. I couldn't hazard a guess as to what great truths Crews is trying to reveal through his slaughterhouse-style writing, but his stories are always chock full of interesting characters and action galore--more than enough reason to keep reading.
Larry Brown's work, like Crews', features characters from the wrong side of the tracks, but his downtrodden protagonists always manage to transcend their circumstances with quiet dignity. Hailing from Oxford, Miss., the home of Faulkner and the literary capital of the South, Brown has become an important force in modern Southern writing. His first short story collection, 1988's Facing the Music, features excellent examples of the emerging style that would flower in novels such as Joe, Father and Son, and Fay.
Falling somewhere in between Crews' literary cannibalism and Brown's more humanistic writing is Tom Franklin, a relative newcomer to the Southern-noir style. Franklin's magnum opus, "Poachers," is the title story and centerpiece of his first collection and was featured in the 1999 edition of New Stories From the South (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). Well-written, terse, and enthralling, "Poachers" is nonetheless fraught with the inherent lack of authenticity that is part and parcel of the redneck, neo-Gothic mode of writing. The story chronicles a trio of raping, pillaging, poaching backwater brothers' clash with the long arm of the law, turning into a brackish whodunit as murder and mayhem ensues. Perhaps in the most remote corners of the South, people like this actually exist. Perhaps.
Which is what irks me about the new school of Southern fiction, which I christen "Redneck Lit." As pure entertainment, even as morality tale, the best Redneck Lit is just dandy. But it is a faux depiction of what real life is like for real, modern people below the Mason-Dixon Line. The first wave of Southern writers (Faulkner et al.) wrote accurate stories about a region in transition. The Redneck Lit writers present readers with a fanciful twilight zone that is, at best, a reality only in the most poverty-stricken, desolate areas of the rural South. While Faulkner's fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County is representative of the post-Civil War deep South, the swamplands and backwoods of Franklin and Crews just don't ring true.
Today's South is just like anywhere else in America: a ceaseless expanse of shopping malls, chain restaurants, and suburban residences with intermittent urban areas. Thanks to the wonders of technology (cable television, corporate marketing, the Internet) and the continuous increase in population, our lives below the Mason-Dixon Line are as predictable as those of our Northern and Western counterparts. And you're about as likely to find poachers living off the land in rural areas of California or New York state as you are down South. Southern noir can be darkly funny, but the characters of current Redneck Lit are so extreme that they almost parody themselves.
Southern traditions are decaying like the palatial mansions and slave cabins of the plantation era, and so be it. Lots of things about the old South (as racism, old-boy political networking, and the Confederate battle flag) need to be discarded and forgotten as soon as possible. At present, there isn't really any kind of unified Southern sensibility. So how could Southern writers reflect a regional mindset and setting that doesn't really exist? Our cinder blocks and fast food are made from the same nameless paste as everyone else's. The trowel of globalization has smoothed over the South's local aesthetic. It's just a part of the natural-selection process, in which regional idiosyncrasies die out. All that is left for "Southern" writers to plunder is a satirical rehash of stereotypes that can be entertaining but not edifying.
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