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Will Southern Literature Survive?
A few weeks ago, a man in our town was hospitalized because he was beaten upside the head with a horseshoe by his ex-wife. As I understand it, she showed up to her ex-husband’s family reunion as the “Plus One” of his second cousin. The incident occurred when the assailant found out that her ex, who hadn’t paid child support in months, was in the backyard gambling over leaners and ringers. Witnesses said the woman never said a word. She simply slipped up behind her ex while he was sitting in a lawn chair eating a pimento cheese sandwich, picked up an iron horseshoe, and commenced beating him about the neck and ears.
A month or so before that, another local man was arrested for indecent exposure when the law arrived to find him wearing nothing but a motorcycle helmet he had lifted from his neighbor’s carport. As to exactly what he had covered with the headwear, details remain sketchy. What is now known, however, is that he wasn’t running through the countryside buck naked of his own volition. While he was taking a bath, his wife gathered the clothes he had just discarded and took them outside. There she added them to the smoldering pile which was formerly all of his other clothes. He claims that she pulled a shotgun on him as he was getting out of the tub, ordering him out of the house. She maintains no guns were involved. Either way, they were both in agreement that he shouldn’t have been messing around yet again with “that whore from the hardware store.”
Just this past weekend, a local young man was killed in a car crash when he attempted to outrun the police after robbing a local convenience store. He stole no cash or lottery tickets, but he absconded with every bottle of nose spray and mouthwash they had in stock.
These are my people. I don’t mean that I sympathize with their plight, or else identify with them in some sick and twisted way. No, I am being quite literal. These are my people–on my daddy’s side. This is the main reason I believe that Southern Literature is safe for at least another generation or two.
Southern Literature will remain because the South still sits a bit off-kilter. We have our own peculiar brand of literature down here simply because we have our own way of being in the world. What the rest of the country rhapsodizes as “Southern Gothic,” natives of Dixie simply call, “life.”
Flannery O’Connor once quipped that the reason that oddballs, freaks, misfits, and tragecomedians loom so large in Southern fiction is that we still have the ability to recognize them. Hell, we ought to. Half the time we reside under the same roof. There’s enough drama at most Sunday dinners to inspire nineteen Faulkner novels. And I’ve seen people at family reunions that make the cast of Deliverance look like Mensa candidates and runway models. So I don’t worry over such things as stereotypes and caricatures. Let your imagination do its worst–then let me introduce you to the cousins.
Stories about these kinds of people by these kinds of people will always hold their appeal. Curious onlookers from other regions will always be shocked or entertained by them, and natives will forever appreciate them with knowing smiles and nods. “Yep,” they’ll say. “Them’s my people.” And the stories will remain.
Even so, there are new kinds of Southern lit that aren’t going to make it. And I confess, I will not cry at the funerals. There’s the kitschy, faux-Southern Tiktok hicklib literature on the one hand. On the other is the neo-traditionalist equivalent– imaginary pastorals, replete with bonnets and butter churns, scratched out on corn husks by ersatz agrarians deep in the wilds of the Raleigh suburbs.
But the rough-and-tumble South will live on. Nothing has been able to kill it yet. We picked a fight with every other region of the country and lost–but we kept our stories. We weathered Reconstruction, a Great Depression, Segregation, Integration, and one or two years when the SEC didn’t take home a college football trophy–and lived to tell about it. The South, at once object, subject and muse, persists with a certain red-faced Scotch-Irish cussedness. And her stories will remain.
Our inbred orneriness will see to it that we win the grudge match against time. Think of our penchant for duels and feuds and genealogical snobbery. It isn’t so much that we have short tempers, but that we have long memories. The stories will remain because we will remember them.