IN its December 1977 issue, when Jimmy Carter’s presidency made national media rediscover the South, Esquire magazine published Walker Percy’s non-interview with himself, entitled “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself.” Chiefly, he grumbled about pesky interviewers who kept asking him over and over again what he thought of the South, of the New South, of southern writers, adding, “I’m sick and tired of talking about the South and hearing about the South.”
He went on to skewer the sacred cows of regional literary critics who regularly approached him with predictable assumptions they espoused in classrooms and scholarly articles: how literature below the Mason-Dixon had been nourished by the storytelling tradition, sense of identity, tragic dimension, Bible Belt, historical guilt, and so on. “I’m not sure that the opposite is not the case. People don’t read much in the South and don’t take writers very seriously, which is probably as it should be,” Percy wrote. “I’ve managed to live here for thirty years and am less well-known than the Budweiser distributor.”
Now twenty-two more years have passed; the piney woods have been bulldozed so Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Borders, Waldenbooks, and other bookstore chains could open shop in Dixie; and new scholars of southern literature who learned it in Denmark, France, and Austria continue to ask writers to speak with a drawl into the microphone, please—to tell one of grandpa’s front porch anecdotes, or give details about their personal regrets for the Civil War.
Tired and repetitious questions persist, since often the questioner’s preconception of the real South is restricted to a one-dimensional Tara, or Dogpatch, or Yoknapatawpha.
Still, the multi-dimensional South has, said Alfred Kazin, “produced writers as the Dark Ages produced saints”—a somewhat left-handed compliment.
Not everyone even agrees about what the South is. Sociologist John Shelton Reed sometimes shows audiences a series of photographic slides that depict onscreen the spread of kudzu as one way of marking the boundaries of the South and beginning a definition as good a method as most. In search of a clearer definition, annual polls conducted for twelve years from the University of North Carolina have asked respondents from eleven former Confederate states plus Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Washington D.C., and Missouri for their own definitions: did they live in the South or consider themselves southerners? (The list was enlarged to include states the Bureau of the Census deems “southern.”)
From the grass (or kudzu) roots, then, the results are now in. In 1999, self-identified southerners number 90% in Mississippi; 89% in Louisiana; 88% in Alabama; 84% in Tennessee; 82% in South Carolina; 81% in Arkansas and Georgia; 80% in North Carolina—dropping off to 68% in Kentucky and Texas; 60% in Virginia; 53% in Oklahoma; 51% in Florida; and well below half on down to a bottom of 6% in Michigan. Evidently some who move to New Mexico (13%) stay southerners, while in the sunbelt, Yankee immigrants convert. “Southern” Baptists now preach in every state in the union; meantime, commentators like John Egerton and Peter Applebome publish books about the ways modern Dixie is getting Americanized while America grows more and more southernized.
Charles Reagan Wilson’s essay presents a broad look at creativity in the south, calling it a place where religion has been “part of the landscape.” Southern history, he notes, made clear that the Confederates were not “David killing the giant.”
As for southern novels, stories, and poems, they are neither overrun by kudzu nor shadowed by slavery, as the contents of this issue of Image will make clear. No effort was made to represent a tribal psyche, although this journal’s subtitle, “arts and religion” are activities that do seem interconnected in the region.
Tim Gautreaux, who teaches writing at Southeastern Louisiana University in his native state, has a definite southerner’s instinct for the fundamental unfairness of human life, though his setting—“The Pine Oil Writers Conference”—resembles every other such summer gathering at any latitude. Still, to choose a Presbyterian minister for a narrator without turning him into Jimmy Swaggert? That’s not the New York way.
Southern ways have expanded, almost exploded, once integration enlarged arts as well as public institutions. The liveliest writers in the South today are female and African American, with Native Americans and Hispanics hot on their heels. John Holman, a gifted storywriter, opens “Wave” with a familiar roadside figure: the stranger who waves at every passerby. Mine, standing alongside highway 15-501, saw me to UNC every morning for years and flapped me home every afternoon, so when at last he disappeared I knew he must be dead, and felt a personal loss. Holman’s story also pinpoints a continuing southern tradition, doubtless fueled by the parable of the Good Samaritan, of duty to any victim in the ditch. (When visiting northern metropolitan areas, we’re horrified that a beggar moaning for help on the sidewalk produces from natives instructions to “Hurry by, don’t look at him!”) After reading Holman’s story, you’ll never feel the same about that poem, “Not waving, but Drowning.”
Tim Gautreaux has a definite southerner’s instinct for the fundamental unfairness of human life, though his setting—”The Pine Oil Writers’ Conference”—resembles every other such summer gathering at any latitude. Still, to choose a Presbyterian minister for a narrator wihtoug turning him into Jimmy Swaggart? That’s not the New York Way.
Of course, New York in the early ’60s was the place where two southerners in exile, Tulane graduates Emilie Griffin and John Kennedy Toole, deepened their friendship, talked about becoming writers, wondered about ultimate meaning. Griffin’s memoir ponders anew the question Walker Percy once asked her about how vital for Toole, an eventual suicide, were his religious beliefs.
The fiction of Percy (a convert) is paired with that of Andre Dubus (a cradle Catholic) in an essay by Patrick Samway, S.J. Though the two authors never met, both wrote often of seminarians and priests—Percy in novels and essays as part of his theoretical overview of the Church in contemporary America, and Dubus in short stories that offered more personal portraits of priests serving in parish and confessional. The comparisons and contrasts are given a sad timeliness because of Dubus’s recent death and recall the essay that he wrote about giving up guns after his crippling accident. “I gave up answers that are made of steel that fire lead, and I decided to sit in a wheelchair on the frighteningly invisible palm of God.”
If the southern woods are full of would-be writers, many of them devout, (Flannery O’Connor added that it was every serious writer’s fear of being taken for one of them,) what is often called “outsider” art seems an inside job in much of the South where, for instance, the dispersion sale of a major folk art collection at Barton College became front-page controversy in my home state. If you enter North Carolina from Virginia, you may pass between Hillsborough and Yanceyville a miniature village of white quartz assembled by former gas station owner Henry Warren. Before he died, he was bringing it up to date with the inclusion of a Watergate Hotel. South of Chapel Hill, Clyde Jones of Bynum, a pulpwood worker before a falling tree broke his leg, now makes and sells chainsaw animal carvings. Vollis Simpson’s Windmill Park at Lucama displays giant whirligigs that incorporate reflective glass and on the Tar Heel coast, Annie Hooper has made over twenty-five hundred biblical figures using driftwood and cement.
This latter fascination with religious subject matter sent Carol Crown on the road to see and photograph folk art examples in several southern states, much of it devoted to Adam and Eve, Christ, Satan, and the prophetic themes of the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. Though the work of southern amateur artists is less famous than the Rodias Towers in Watts, Los Angeles, local self-taught creators were in the recycling business long before environmentalists, with urgent aims to save not the earth but human souls.
In her discussion of photography and how it can move beyond two dimensions to produce the “sense of an unseen presence,” Maude Schuyler Clay makes clear that religious content may be not in the eye of the maker but the eye of the beholder. Having given photographers a theme of “Faith and Doubt,” she now bounces it in mingled black and white onto the reader, who must decide, when examining these pictures, which element is primary. The Cross is steadily present in the photographs Tom Rankin introduces, but he makes a strong point that (at least in the public mind) the whole diverse multitude of a changing southern population is not yet assembled around it.
Southern poetry has not usually been as strong as southern fiction. Between the two world wars, the Nashville fugitives were its best known practitioners, followed by James Dickey, A. R. Ammons, Randall Jarrell, etc. But later poets living in the South, such as Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, and Wendell Berry, have continued to work with local place, and an even younger generation (A.B. Spellman, Nikki Giovanni and their students and inheritors) is often African-American, female, and employed in academia. These poets have made southern “place” more urban and directed their themes to social issues.
Personae represented in the poems represented in this issue mention God by His Protestant given name of Jehovah, read family bibles, climb mountains and hear mountain music, and still come home to the South, changed and modernized though it may be.
One second-career poet, Jimmy Carter, interviewed here by Arkansas fellow poet Miller Williams, seems to distill his verse from literal experience such as his sister’s real funeral or his own effort to get Westminster Abbey to honor Dylan Thomas.
And last, if Walker Percy wearied of being chopped off to fit Procrustean definitions of the South, a writer like Clyde Edgerton has had more fun being playful with the stereotypes in order to outwit them. His narrative style often sounds like a front-porch tale telling itself, both amusing and wryly amused at life in a southern village that is ceasing to be a village. Edgergon picks banjo for the Tarwater band. He often wonders how weekday racists think through the Good Samaritan story on Sundays. He has said that he is “working toward meaning and order, toward making something out of chaos, something that makes sense, something that helps me understand human beings, behavior, good and evil. I guess that sounds like I’m engaged in a religious enterprise, doesn’t it?”
But he doesn’t preach. In this issue, Edgerton’s story “Debra’s Flap and Snap” is amusing right up to the moment when it tells a truth.
That playful style of handling the cliché assumptions that so irritated Walker Percy is one of the most “southern” of all behaviors. It’s best summed up in this example by Roy Blount, Jr., in What Men Don’t Tell Women:
If a Northern visitor makes it clear to Southerners that he thinks it would be typical of them to rustle up a big, piping hot meal of hushpuppies and blackstrap, Southerners will do that, even if they were planning to have just a little salad that night.
Then the visitor will ask how to eat hushpuppies and blackstrap. The strictly accurate answer is that nobody in his or her right mind eats these two things, together, in any way at all. But that isn’t a sociable answer. So Southerners may say, ‘First you pour your plate full of the molasses, and then you crumble your hushpuppies up in it, and then you take the back of your spoon, and…’ Southerners will say things like that just to see whether it is still true that Northerners will believe anything. About the South.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.