Today is Monday March 8, 2010

Southern Writers: What Makes Them So Special?

Author: hemmi1

Southern writers are men and women who have so enchanted, scolded, entertained, educated, and so amazed us that I am in awe of them, their stories, and their life experiences.

Some of their stories are influenced by the prurient, such as adultery and excesses including drinking and gambling; however they manage to make their characters who fall prey to these vices endearing to us. They reveal the kinds of circumstances and motivations that make all this fit together. Take for example Tennessee Williams. Prurience is in all his stories in abundance – from Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If you knew my family, you’d know that they could have been the inspiration for that Hot Tin Roof story.

Big Daddy was like my great grandfather — a man larger than life; he could have inspired Tom Wolfe to write of “A Man in Full.” But, my parents turned out like his children — Bo and his wife (played by Elizabeth Taylor in a film adaptation with Burl Ives and Paul Newman). High hopes and shattered dreams — I’ve seen it all firsthand in real life, and even more so in Southern fiction. It’s no wonder I’m fascinated by this genre. For me, it’s not just a form of writing, but reflection of the society I grew up with.

In the books, I admire the heroes, while in my life, I admire those who saved me from being stifled like a weed under black plastic. They gave me their morals, their values, the strength of their intellect, and the high expectations that made me try to be better than I would have been otherwise. Disappointment is no stranger to us, though our poverty is a genteel one. We can sip tea made in a solid silver teapot, but not have any idea what we’re going to do in order to fill a $300  prescription.

I think Thomas Wolfe (no relation to Thomas Wolfe) was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, though he only lived 37 years. His “Look Homeward Angel” is so beautiful that I read it once and so loved it that I re-read it to appreciate his writing which was largely autobiographical. It’s rare that I do that since there is always so much I long to have the time to read. W.O. Gantt in his stories is  a rascal in his own way, and the boundless love he has for his children, and the zest for life he enjoys are truly remarkable. His wife Elizabeth is a perfect foil, being a very pragmatic woman. Southern literature is full of strong women — yet they are wise enough to remain feminine despite their strength and mental acumen. I fell in love with the protagonist, Eugene. The whole of  Look Homeward,  Angel show us who Thomas Wolfe was as a child and young man. His ability to gain admittance to Harvard University and his later experiences  in Europe were all remarkable, and true!

In my book club, www.HoustonBookClub.com, we have decided on a topic of “books by Southern Writers.” We know who the Southern writers are, and I thought I’d take a stab at defining what it great and good and different about their writing. It’s impossible to discuss Southern writing without looking at the history of the South.

More emphasis on the Gothic and the  supernatural  in a casual manner.  The term “Gothic” is used by me to denote the storytelling tradition of the Goths. From these came tales of vampires, werewolves, witches and other things that delighted and frightened children for centuries.

There were two other story telling influences — the Celtic and the African. Given all this, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Rock ‘n Roll came out of the South.

Southerners are more likely to see their religion as a central part of their lives and certainly their communities. Southerners are in touch with their piety, but also their vices. There’s a sort of wildness about this land. Another thing that strikes me is that unlike our northern cousins, we don’t hide our ‘eccentrics’  in attics or mental hospitals. We put them on the porch and let ‘em rock. We say good morning to them when they take their imaginary dog for a walk by the courthouse (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) or seek the counsel of a friend long dead. I sometimes shout at my personal ghost — his name usually, so as not to forget that there are indeed some things that one simply does not get over despite the relentless march of time.  As I see the middle-age (if I live to be 104!) paunch, the graying eyebrows, and the other reminders of what is to come, I think sometimes that my ghost had the right idea to exit stage right and be remembered as he was in his prime.

The influence of immigrants is not strong in Southern writing. Most immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries landed and were processed up North, and they pretty much stayed up their, believing that the South was an odd place and believed the Anglos’ prejudices about Southern attitudes, accents, and way of life. The way thousands of these immigrants were pressed into military service of the Union against the freedom-loving Southerners was just shameful.

Southerners have a lot of pride, perhaps to the point of hubris, and a feeling of being special (i.e., perhaps at least a little better overall for being taught the value of courtesy) from our Yankee cousins.

People in the South tend to enjoy words and embrace orality (the history of oral tradition), only too glad to breathe new life into old stories by setting them down to paper. We do so get a kick out of our natural talent for having a ‘linguistic flair.’

Here’s an example from my own family:

The Toast

As told by Gene Wilkinson of Roswell, Georgia. April, 2003 to his wife’s grandson, Louis Latimer Hemmi.

“My uncle Jim, from West Point, Georgia went to the World’s Fair held in Saint Louis during the latter part of the nineteenth century (ed. note—closed Dec 21, 1904). The way he told it, he came on to a group of Civil War veterans – South and Yankee vets.”

A Northerner held his glass high and proposed the following toast.

“Here’s to the golden eagle,
this wonderful bird of prey.
She feeds on Northern harvests
and dumps on Southern clay.”

A Confederate vet made his rebuttal toast;

“Here’s to dear old Dixie
that land so fair and rich
She needs no turds from
your goddamned birds
you Yankee son of a bitch.”

The English language does indeed evolve wherever it is spoken, and the South is no exception. The American Heritage dictionary does a good job of etymology, and is deserving of praise for noting that words such as ‘tump’ are “chiefly Southern” or “chiefly northern” for “you’se” or “lawr.”

I’d love to hear from you? What do you find special about the South?

Louis Hemmi – Houston, Texas

green bean recipe
lincoln university pa
art institute of atlanta
microsoft office online
att uverse coupon code

One Response to “Southern Writers: What Makes Them So Special?”

  1. Catherine says:

    Great analysis. I really enjoyed reading your exposition, you are very insightful; and I am sure ther are some great discussions in your book club. I really miss these types of deliberations from my English classes in college.


Leave a Reply