Confronting Traditional Custom and Belief in 21st Century Southern Writing

Move over Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. Step aside Larry Brown, Harry Crews, and Barry Hannah. Twenty-First-Century Southern Writers: New Voices, New Perspectives presents essays on nineteen contemporary fiction writers who, though steeped in their forebears, have their own tales to tell. Edited by Jean W. Cash and Richard Gaughran, the book provides overviews and analyses of writers from Virginia to Florida and New Orleans to Wilmington, North Carolina. As the editors assert in their introduction, these writers promise “that southern literature will continue to express itself with a distinctive voice, one that will speak with authority in the decades to come.”

Reading this collection is a good time to consider what the term Southern literature means, and to whom it applies. Many of the writers fit within the Grit Lit tradition, or its more extreme off-shoot Rough South, which can be summed up by the following overview by Kevin Catalano in his chapter on Joe Samuel Starnes: 

“focus[ed] on working-class characters with strong ties to home and problems with the bottle; in lush and vivid prose he both sanctifies the rural landscape and reveals its brutality; and collectively, his books and their characters speak to larger American themes by using the South as a kind of antithesis, southerners as underdogs out to achieve their southern American dream.”

Such writers often come out of the Larry Brown-Harry Crews school of Southern writers. Others, like Jamie Quattro, David Armand, and Thomas Pierce, fall more in the Flannery O’Connor-Cormac McCarthy camp in their search for metaphysical purpose and human connection. Neither of these categories takes race into consideration explicitly. While Jesmyn Ward is most often compared to Faulkner, as in the stand-out essay by Joan Wylie Hall, and Tayari Jones is placed in a tradition dating back to Harriet Jacobs and forward to Toni Morrison, Ravi Howard is presented without affiliation. This might please Howard, however, who has stated, “I prefer the idea of layers of labeling. We can define ourselves with those layers. Black writer. Southern writer. Some folks are Urban Southern. Historical Southern. Gulf Coast writers. Layers give you specificity. And you can use as many layers as you need to get to the heart of the matter” (qtd. in Cash and Gaughran). The one thing they all share is a reverence for place, no matter how they define it. Now let’s get to the heart of the matter.

Phillip Howarton’s “Skip Horack: Representing the People,” is as good a place as any to dive in, for Horack “depicts the South he knows rather than a mythical place.” This unvarnished approach allows Horack to show that the region is “infinitely complex, more than a simple division between rough and genteel or the two sides of a railroad track.” In covering Horack’s work, Howerton makes a strong case for the writer’s importance within his region and the larger writing community. Horack’s characters go in search of the American dream, suffer losses due to Desert Storm, and confront the hardships of aging, yet they never give in to the noirish Rough South world around them. This perseverance is a standout quality for characters who could easily become stereotypes of bad Southern behavior.

Similarly, Emily D. Langhorne explains that Barb Johnson’s characters “struggle to carve out space for their individual authenticity within their working-class environment.” Throughout her work, as Langhorne explains, Johnson considers not just themes of conventional living versus the cult of American individuality but race, class, and gender, as well. Langhorne is at her best in connecting these issues to masculinity, as evidenced in the characters of Dooley and Pudge from Johnson’s More of this World or Maybe Another. Dooley does not fit the model of the Southern man, symbolized by his avoidance of the rite of passage that is hunting, while “Pudge’s weaknesses come not from his sensitive nature but from his inability to feel confident about his identity in the face of external judgment. Having abandoned his search for authentic personhood, he is a stagnant human, lost in a maze of addiction, indecision, and inaction.” As they grow older, both ultimately fail in their bids to escape conventional Southern ways of being and become trapped in extended adolescence.

Just as Dooley and Pudge represent attempts at nonconformist living, a number of writers under consideration depict the region in transition. Destiny O. Birdsong makes a persuasive case for Tayari Jones’s inclusion in this group in “Difficult Women: Tayari Jones and the Recuperation of Representations.” Birdsong hones in on Jones’s urban settings and Black female protagonists in order to argue that the writer “makes a case for new paradigms, new conversations, and new representations” in Southern writing. She concludes with a call to arms, stating that “we as critics are forever talking in circles about a ‘New South,’ with its new subjects and aesthetics. Well, Tayari Jones has been offering us one for nearly two decades. It’s high time we picked up our pens.” 

Thomas Pierce provides another version of the “New South,” as identified in Richard Gaughran’s chapter, “‘The Right Place for Love’: The Fiction of Thomas Pierce,” which “takes place in an American South in transition, a landscape in which collard greens and fried chicken compete with flax-seed pancakes and whole-wheat spaghetti with black-bean meatballs.” Pierce shares Flannery O’Connor’s interest in “metaphysical quests, for mystery. His characters, however, often labor to discern these vital meanings in a new context, one in which new technologies arrive continually, in which new knowledge confronts traditional custom and belief.” A version of this interpretation could serve as a second subtitle for the collection: confronting traditional custom and belief.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of this fine, thought-provoking collection, failing to include Nick Ripatrazone’s excellent chapter on Jamie Quatro or Shawn E. Miller’s thoughtful consideration of Taylor Brown, another exemplar of the changing South. Along with Destiny O. Birdsong, I hope that this collection of nineteen inspired essays spurs future discussion of Southern writers of our contemporary moment. The time may finally have come to allow the past to be the past.

Twenty-First-Century Southern Writers: New Voices, New Perspectives
Edited by Jean W. Cash and Richard Gaughran
University Press of Mississippi
Published March 4, 2021