Chronicling the Crossroads of a new literary generation
by Jeanne McDonald
In one of his last interviews, the great Civil War chronicler Shelby Foote speculated about the future of Southern literature. “There are good writers around,” he said, “but with the exception of Cormac McCarthy, I can’t find anybody of the stature I was accustomed to when Faulkner and the rest of them were going full-speed ahead. I would bet, though, that when Theodore Dreiser died, a great many Americans said, ‘Literature is dead,’ and there were Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald going full-blast, writing away like mad, better than Dreiser ever dreamed of being.”
Over the last decade, we’ve mourned the passing of Foote himself as well as Eudora Welty, Willie Morris and, locally, Richard Marius, to name only a few. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s not over yet. In addition to already established poets and writers like Lee Smith, George Scarborough, Fred Chappell, Doris Betts, Nikki Giovanni and Elizabeth Spencer, there is another literary generation emerging to fill in the spaces left by those who have passed on. Morris once said, “It isn’t that the South has had a lock on good writers, it just happens to have had a ‘gracious plenty’ who have been awfully good at their craft.”
Ted Olson is an editor who keeps an eye open for those ‘gracious plenty’ and solicits their work for a collection that has become a yearly publication. With Crossroads: A Southern Culture Annual (Mercer University Press), his aim is to present material that “chronicles a diversity of cultural experiences within the South and represents fresh, sensitively reasoned intellectual perspectives about the South….” In this volume, historical selections are just as important as literary ones because, in a sense, the South is shrinking. It no longer exists as that insulated region whose qualities Willie Morris described in North Toward Home : “Southern driftlessness, a closeness to the earth, a sense of time standing still, a lingering isolation from America’s relentless currents of change and homogeneity.”
That was in the 1940s, when Willie Morris was a boy. Now it is almost impossible to remain isolated from those relentless currents. There are too many interstates, too many subdivisions, too many technologies and, yes, too much homogeneity. So now it is up to scholars like Olson to keep us attuned to the special qualities of our region by choosing an amalgam of Southern writing that informs and delights. For example, in this collection, Knoxville poet Judy Loest takes the reader on a rainy walk across the Clinch Avenue Bridge, explaining how to go about “Finding Wang Wei in Knoxville, Tennessee.” By the time you finish this brief and intuitive essay, you, too, will imagine the T’ang Dynasty poet “descending the mossy slope of the Hill, his carved walking stick his only companion, his broad-brimmed straw-woven hat still dripping along the rim.”
And then there’s a provocative argument by Margaret Bauer, whose essay, “He Didn’t Come Here on the Mayflower: In Defense of Alex Haley’s Roots ,” began as a response to Philip Nobile’s accusations in the Village Voice that Roots was a “hoax” and Haley a plagiarist. Bauer’s thoughtful defense might be convincing enough to make critics reconsider some of their accusations.
Lynn Zimmerman examines “The Myth of Southern Womanhood: Portraits in Black and White,” and finds both contradictions and ambiguity. “The Southern white woman,” she says, “is a construct, part myth and part reality. In order to understand what it is to be a Southern white woman, one must understand what it means to be a Southern white man, and what it means to be black in the South”
In “The Phantoms of the Opry,” Stephen Newton, who worked at the Opry when he was a student, relates numerous ghost stories about the Grand Old Opry, the telling of which evolves into other ghost stories in other places. But none of them is as scary as his story about working on the midnight crew responsible for cleaning up the Opry’s filthy bathrooms.
Likewise, poems by local poets Connie Green and Linda Parsons Marion and an essay by Danny Marion evoke nostalgic memories of the past. Thomas McConnell, of the University of South Carolina Upstate, pens a tribute to the great southern critic and writing teacher Andrew Lytle, who taught at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. When cult writer Harry Crews submitted his first short story to this great mentor, Lytle read only the opening paragraph and then handed it back, advising, “Burn it, son. Fire’s a great refiner.”
Despite those relentless currents of change, Southern stories will survive as long as the South does. Except that now, thanks to the keen eyes of editors like Olson, there will be a new generation telling them.