Southern US = ignorant. Southern US = literature.

If we want to paint with really wide brushes, it seems to me that the southern United States is regarded as less educated and more ignorant and hateful than other parts of the union.

On the other hand, if a writer wants to instantly attach literary “credibility” to a work, he or she could hardly do better than setting it in the South, and the deeper the better. The Oxford American is one of the foremost literary magazines in the country today (when it’s publishing). Our greatest novel (and the guy who wrote it, generally considered our greatest writer), and a disproportionate number of great “American” writers call the South home - in fact, I’ll say the South is their muse.

puts wide brushes away

Is that misperception entirely on my part? Do others see that besides me? If so, is there a good reason - would one expect a region or culture to be considered both uneducated and the source of great artistic achievements? Or is it illusory correlation - when a Faulkner appears in Mississippi, does it stick in the mind more than one more urban writer?

My take: great writers are distributed evenly in populations. However, writers from urban centers aren’t particularly American writers - they’re just good writers. Edgar Allen Poe was American, yes, but was he AMERICAN? Few things could be more distinctly American than the rural South. Therefore, when thinking of peculiarly American writers who are great, a large number seem to come from there.

I think this is it more than anything. Our great New England writers – urban or rural are in large part too close to their English counterparts. Edith Wharton or Henry James were great writers, but not distinctively American writers. It has been said that the American South was the source of the first truly distinctive American culture – you couldn’t really have set Faulkner stuff anywhere else.

Not true. The cultures of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and the West are just as distinctly American as the South’s.

My theory: The South has always been a good setting for literature – especially between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – precisely because it was so ignorant, decadent and backward. That’s what the whole “Southern Gothic” genre was all about.

Note also that the most distinctly Southern intellectual and literary voices, pre-civil-rights ere, were also distinctly ignorant – the so-called “Southern Agrarians.”

Could be. In modern times that is undoubtedly so, but earlier in our history I have always had the impression (from literature and history) that the South was more distinctly different from the British tradition than was New England. YMMV.

To the contrary. Both represented British tradition – just different aspects of it. New England’s culture derived from the Puritan region of East Anglia; the mid-Atlantic from the Quakers of (IIRC) the Midlands; the Tidewater South from the Cavaliers of southern England; and the Highland South from the Scotch-Irish of the Scots lowlands and English border region. See Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer; also The Cousins’ Wars by Kevin Phillips; and Vietnam: The Necessary War, by Michael Lind, in which this analysis is applied to the regional differences in political support for the Vietnam War (and other American wars).

The south as a region has been the scene of some of the greatest atrocities in American culture, that much is true. Much of it was purely economic in nature- the same things that happened here (slavery, religious mania/intolerance, ignorance, discrimination against blacks and others, etc.) happened in the north as well, just earlier and on smaller scales.

The defining features of Southern culture in my mind (as somebody who hasn’t had an ancestor from north of Virginia since long before the Revolution [and that one a Mennonite]) are

1- Isolation/Size

In New England you drive through so many little towns that you sometimes don’t know you’ve left one and entered another. I know there are places in NH, ME, etc., that are isolated, but not generally for as long a distance. In 2006 when I drive from my mother’s house in Montgomery AL to my sister’s house in Gulf Shores (a distance of 180 miles approximately) it’s very easy to go 20 or 30 miles between communities of any size whatever. Today with the Internet and cell phones and satellite television and fast cars all readily available to anybody even working class it’s not as insular as it once was, but for most of Southern history these communities were little principalities unto themselves- there were places in Alabama and other southern states, for example, where it took weeks before they received news of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse (which did not end the war as is so often stated- the cause was more hopeless than it had been since Vicksburg/Gettysburg, but there were still tens of thousands of armed rebel troops about). There were literally people in England and western Europe who knew about it before down here.
Isolation breeds weirdness. Always.

2- Racial Diversity, Trust and Mistrust
The first slaves were unloaded in the south 1619 and the first mulatto child was born in 1620, by which time there were already several children born of white settlers and native Americans. Because the crops for which the South was perfect (tobacco, rice, indigo and above all cotton) were all very labor intensive and very lucrative the demand for African slaves, cheaper in the long run than indentured servants, was many times that of the North, where far more land was used for family farms than for cash farms/plantations. (While there were far more free white yeoman farmers in the south than there were rich planters, the planters owned more land in many counties than the free white small farmers, and of course far more slaves not just numerically but as a percentage of slaveholders.) The point is that the south had an incomparably higher number of non-whites both numerically and percentagewise than the north (where again, every state practiced slavery into the early 19th century- Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Cotton Mather, etc., were all slaveowners).
As I’ve said many times before there is nothing either simple or uniform about southern race relations and there never has been. Even slavery was a very flexible institution- it changed many times over the 2.5 centuries it was practiced. (The original slaves in Virginia, for example, were treated the same as indentured servants- after so many years they were freed and given land, and there were even marriages between whites and blacks in the 17th century south.) Many things happened to change the relationship between the races: the native born blacks came to outnumber the free-born, the rise in number of the biracial/multiracial population, the move westward which increased the isolation aspects, etc…
The Revolutionary War was a wake-up call to white southerners as many were legitimately stunned to see just how many blacks ran to join the British who promised their freedom, destroying the myth of “they’re content in the fields and have no mind for freedom”. The reports of the last British ships leaving Savannah, Charles Town and lesser harbors read like the reports of the Fall of Saigon as thousands of blacks unable to be relocated by the Brits (who actually kept their promise to the degree that they could) swarmed the wharves, many willingly drowning in their attempt to reach the ships.) The slave rebellions in New York and South Carolina in the 18th century were quickly and bloodily suppressed and didn’t have major repercussions on the life of slaves in other places (in Virginia as late as the post-Revolution there were slaves who walked down the street with muskets to go hunting) but after Saint-Domingue- whoo boy, the one and only successful slave revolt in history (if you can call Haiti a success)- THAT’S when the southerners started literally and figuratively cracking the whip, and when Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner

Sorry, I’m way off point. Let me look back and see what the question was…

Oh yeah, the point is that the races have a much longer history of living together, working together, loving each other, hating each other, and sharing each others lives and troubles than in the rest of the country. They’re inseparably linked, and the whites out of what they viewed as necessity drove the blacks into an underclass lower even than the slaves of Rome and Greece, THEN (very important) adjusted their worldviews and mythologies to justify it, and in so doing created a knack for self-justification of horrors unequalled in the rest of the country (at least until Social Darwinism came into play, but this is too long already).

  1. HEAT

It’s hot as hell down here. That’s more important than it sounds. Prior to air conditioning it wasn’t uncommon for women of privilege to sleep twelve hours and take four baths a day. Poor whites and blacks never had the luxury of course. Heat makes things slow and reflective, it kills, it grows things that wouldn’t grow anywhere else, it’s brutal and it’s productive and it’s unbearable and it’s lifegiving and causes emotions to rise (proven physiological fact) and ambition to lower (ditto).

  1. Bloody defeat/poverty

The South was so completely crushed at the end of the Civil War that it totally recarved the regional identity. Not a house was without it’s dead (same was true in many parts of the north as well of course, but not the next part) and it accomplished absolutely nothing and the economy and land was ruined. The cotton market bottomed out after the war- the cotton sold to northern factories for $1+ per pound in 1860 sold for $0.15/pound and kept falling (especially after the Suez Canal when English mills said “pffft!” to the south- we have India and Egypt right here and they belong to us, we don’t need America". This meant that after four years of unimaginable terror and bloodshed southerners (black and white) were working twice/three times as hard for a fraction of the gain.
Just as Germany did in the 1920s, this made them reflect. We’re utterly crushed. But we’re good people. We’re hardworking and God fearing- why are we so destroyed? A martyrdom set in- we’re suffering and we’re persecuted, so we must be righteous.
And of course it just did wonders for race relations. Suddenly a people who comprised a double-digit percentage of the population everywhere in the south and the majority population in many areas and who you had been taught your entire life were congenitally inferior to you were now your neighbors and for a few years they were the judges in your court, representatives in Congress, etc. (the Reconstruction “taunting”) which sort of dispelled that inferiority myth- when Hayes was handed the election in exchange for Reconstruction’s end, the South decided to make that inferiority square peg fit into the round holes of their mythos, and it worked only too well. We said blacks were inferior by nature and by God- we’re gonna see to it that our observations match our beliefs.

  1. Plutocracy & Demagoguery

ALWAYS the case down here. The policy makers usually come from the tiny fraction that owns the huge fraction, and since their interests are at total opposition to their constituents they had to talk a good game and resort to sleight of hand demagoguery that was a work of art. "This aint’ about insurance companies bein’ out of hand and lobbyists… all that mess is too complicated— it’s about DO YOU LOVE THE LORD? DO YOU WANT THE COLOREDS (oh what? they got the vote now… shit…) DO YOU WANT THE QUEERS TO BE HAVING WHAT YOU GOT? No! You’re better’n them. Elect me and I’m gonna help ya see to it…

  1. Agriculture

We’re a lot closer to the earth. Not as much as we once were as the southern landscape changes from unpainted I-houses and dogtrots to strip malls and chain stores and kids in upperscale schools dress like Paris Hilton and Ashton Kutcher (we’ve always been pop culture junkies down here, incidentally- also early adaptors to communication technology- when radios were marketed in the early 1920s southerners and even Appalachian farmers who’d been isolated forever were one of the biggest markets) though they still have the Baptist baggage, which reminds me-

  1. Protestantism

There’s New Orleans and all regions of the South have their Catholic churches and Jews (there are more Jews in the south than many realize- Reform Judaism was a movement begun in Charleston, for example) but the vast majority of the region is Protestant. And on the subject again of reshaping the mythos, Protestantism was generally a lot better for that than the standardized worship in cathedrals- "let’s tinker with this just a tad— there we go, who says KJV can lend itself to justify racism for whites, justify learning to accept your lot for blacks, and self-determinism all around).
Sorry, I can’t remember where I was going with this, but the point is the south is different for a lot of different reasons. And those reasons are organic and manmade in nature but interwoven into the culture. And due to mass media the South is losing a LOT of its personality and flavor and that’s a good thing and a terrible thing, rather like when a barking mad relative that you have both wonderful and nightmarish memories of is dying (I’m told). I don’t miss the days when John Patterson could say “Martin Luther Coon” on broadcast speeches and mobs formed to kill freedom riders, but I do miss the innate courtesy and sense of community that’s also passing. (When I was a kid you knew the name of every family in every house you passed when you drove to school- you knew how much money they had, if their sister had an illegitimate baby, who fooled around, etc.- it could be terrible, but today most people I know don’t know their next door neighbors, which is also bad.)

I think it’s just flat out stupid for anybody to believe one region of the nation is just intrinsically more stupid than others (?!). Ignorance— well, I’ll grant, there’s a lot of that, but I daresay you can find as much provincialism in a Philadelphia, PA highrise as you can in a Philadelphia, MS trailer park. But more than anything else it’s the bloodsoaked, hot, deprived and wonderfully diverse self-justifying-of-psychological-necessity cultures that merged as one to make us.

Two quotes of note:

I’ll yield the point for now, because I haven’t read “Albion’s Seed” yet – though it is lying on the floor next to my bed just waiting to be read. Though I will say (and not just to piggyback on Sampiro’s excellent response) that the South was where the first large-scale mixing of blacks and whites occurred, already a pretty major break from the British experience (and, as has been argued, it was in large part this mixing that formed the American character, for better or worse). But I’ll withold judgment till I read the book. :slight_smile:

I don’t have a good comment to add to the discussion, other than I really enjoyed Sampiro’s posts. Interesting stuff. Thanks.

Related to that – I recall an article on Thomas Jefferson in The Atlantic Monthly (can’t seem to get it online without a subscription) that elite Virginians’ famous manners might be attributable to the fact that they were mostly raised by slave nannies and butlers – who were very polite, because rudeness or even a too-open display of their true emotions might get them in very serious trouble.

Also, there’s a theory that the elite white Southern American dialect of English derived from a fusion of upper-class British English with the English of West African-derived slaves. For the same reasons.

Well, the Britishness of a (refined) Southern accent is easy enough to hear, if you overcome the preconceptions of each.

Sampiro, your points about defeat, poverty and heat are excellent. Victory and happiness may be characteristics of American arts (our tragic hero might be arguably said to be *Batman), but defeat is always more…interesting.

And Tennessee Williams demonstrates what an interesting effect heat has on people. I feel torpid and gross just reading his plays.

Grew up in a hot, small Southern town. My first editor, the local newspaper owner, offered me this wisdom: Go to New York. They think most Southerners are dumb rednecks, but they think Southern writers are quaint. Use it to your advantage.

I would have said that the quintessential AMERICAN writer was Mark Twain (heh–just checked and wikipedia says that Faulkner called Twain the first truly American writer). Are you calling Huck Finn and Missouri Southern? I suppose you could.

Anyway, Willa Cather’s voice could only have come out ot the West; Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow are Chicago; John Steinbeck is California; and surely Hemingway and Fitzgerald are AMERICAN.

I don’t disagree that the South produced a buncha good writers–I’m personally thrilled by Cormac McCarthy–but there are plenty of non-southerners who write in distinctly and noticeably American styles.

A large part of the South being seen as “unintelligent” and “lazy” has to do with hookworm. With infestation rates averaging 35%, hookworm:

Today I wouldn’t, it’s pure midwest, but at Twain’s time I would. It was a slave state, frontier and eventually fielded several Confederate regiments (including Twain’s*) and had lots more Confederate sympathizers. The character changed as it got more populous.
*Twain: "I was a very loyal soldier in the Confederate army. For two weeks. Then I left. And the South lost.

*Twain again: Much of military training comes from within. We never learned much by way of maneuvers and deployment when I was serving in the rebel army, but in one short battle you should be amazed at how quickly me and other men with no military training whatsoever figured out the art of retreat with no outward assistance.

Add to that malnutrition and (I suspect) depression, and you have an explanation for much of the so-called “laziness” of Southerners both white and black.

Are we talking simply about highbrow literature here? If you’re looking for authors with a distinctly regional or local stamp on their writings, could Mickey Spillane have put Mike hammer anywhere but New York, and could Raymond Chandler have set his tales anywhere but L.A.?

See, I think of those men as Southern writers, not American writers. When I think of the “American Voice” my mind turns first to Walt Whitman and the previusly mentioned Saul Bellow. If there’s a more American novel than The Adventures of Augie March, I haven’t seen it. Even somebody like Henry Miller, for all of his love of Europe, has a better grasp of America than Faulkner. Southern writers were masters at evoking and mining the mythology of the South, but if you want authors that were enamored of America as a whole, you have to go north.

Then there are “pack up and go” authors who are great but their stories really could belong to any region. Kurt Vonnegut is a Hoosier who lives in NYC but his stories don’t usually depend on a particular region (of course being a bit minimalist is part of this). Capote was an Alabamian whose best stories are set here, but his greatest novel takes place in Kansas, and Anne Tyler’s books are mostly set in Baltimore but could often be moved to any city of similar size (and this isn’t an insult, she’s one of my favorite authors).

It’ll be interesting to see what Southern writers born post-MLK and post-MTV have to say and if there’s anything really different stylistically from those from any other regions. I’m guessing that they’ll set a lot of their books in the past if they really want to keep any sense of regionalism, but even then it’ll be second hand and research (and you can ALWAYS tell when somebody’s writing about a time and place they don’t really have a connection to).

Okay - can SOMEONE please 'splain to me why this thread has generated weblinks below it to “3-D Virtual Colonoscopy”???
Sampiro - great job on your thread and a number of other posters added insight as well.

To sum it up I think of that old saying, that I have heard was an ancient Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”

The South certainly has been…interesting…over the course of its history…