Bless Your Heart, Regionalism and Southern Literature Just Ain’t the Same Thing

Kudzu Vines (photo)

Southern Literature: the hallowed playground of venerated authors such William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. Their novels and short stories have created such a comprehensive and detailed landscape that when we revisit texts such as The Sound and the Fury or Wise Blood, our minds cannot help but conjure images of the black-water rivers that run deep and still as they slowly meander through the heart of the countryside, the pale green tails of Spanish Moss strung high and loose from the sprawling limbs of mighty oaks, and the blankets of Kudzu vine that smother entire forests with resolute abandon.

We also tend to think of the Southern literature as being explicitly engaged with regionality. After all, what is Southern literature if not a simulacrum of a distinct geographic region and the people that live within?

Well, frankly, it is literature. More specifically, Southern literature. But that doesn’t necessarily make it regional literature.

Those are two distinctly separate things.

People seem to be so continually dead set on associating Southern literature with regional literature, that they’ve never stopped to think whether the former is capable of existing without the qualification of the latter.

Spoiler Alert: It can.

There seems to be a pervasive need, by readers and scholars alike, to link Southern literature with regional literature. The association with regional literature, or “regionalism,” most likely stems from Southern Literature’s tendency to remain deeply rooted within its sense of place, as Southern Lit traditionally places a heavy emphasis on characterization — regarding both the characters of the stories as well the landscape itself. The emphasis on the importance of place also serves to highlight the widely distinctive Southern setting using imagery, characterization, and dialogue. This is where readers originally began to confuse the Southern literary tradition with the more familiar “local flavor” aspect of regionalism.

This is not entirely the readers’ fault.

The association of Southern literature with regionalism stems from the “local color” writing that came to define regional literature in the 19th century. Local color often bordered on caricature in its depiction of the Southern people, their mannerisms, and highly distinct dialects—often portrayed as either a grossly exaggerated over-articulation (the landed gentry) or under-articulation (their “low-born” rural cousins) in their patterns of speech. When we combine the heightened portrayal of character and setting found within the Southern literary tradition, it starts to become a little easier to understand how the two became so conflated, right?

Not so fast, partner.

Just because there is a loose historical association between regionalism and Southern literature does not excuse our inability to separate caricature from vibrancy. We, as readers, should be able to discern between mockery and humor with ease, yet somehow the border between regionalism and Southern literature remains nebulous — if not entirely insecure.

But it’s not terribly difficult to discern the distinctions between the two. All we must do is simply ask ourselves: Are we laughing with them? Or at them?

William Peden, author of The American Short Story: Continuity and Change 1940 – 1975, in suggests that — over 100 years later — it is high time that we reconsider the term “regionalism.” Peden argues that “regionalism has become almost a dirty word, frequently associated with parochialism, shallowness, and mediocrity.”

Peden is correct in his assertion that regionalism denotes an especially narrow view, one that relies on stereotype and caricature in the place of imagination and thought.

Most notably, Peden finds regionalism to be mediocre. As if the low quality of regionalism is enough to devalue the genre as a serious consideration of Southern literature.

He isn’t the only one who feels this way.

Flannery O’Connor — the vaunted novelist, revered short story writer, and native Georgian — holds an equally dim view of regionalism: “The woods are full of regional writers, and it is the great horror of every serious Southern writer that he will become one of them.”

Goodness gracious. O’Connor draws such a clearly defined line between “serious” Southern writers and those backwoods, regional philistines that it renders any further delineation between the two entirely irrelevant.

In fact, O’Connor holds regional writers in such disregard that she is mortified to even be associated with them. Considering what we’ve learned thus far in regards regional literature, can we really blame her?

So, if these wide chasms separating regional and Southern literature truly exist, why are the two continuously lumped together? And why are we not abandoning regional entirely in favor of Southern?

As it turns out, Eudora Welty — you know, the Eudora Welty — has a few thoughts on the subject: “Regionalism, I think, is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; it has no meaning for the insider who is doing the writing” (qtd. in Peden).

Suffice it to say, Welty is not here for your blanket associations.

Instead, Welty has asserted that the only reason an association between regional and Southern literature exists is based solely on a construction perpetuated by those outside of the region.

As opposed to, you know, the writers who actually created the work.

Regionalism, then, can no longer hold any credibility if the insiders, or the writers of the literature, ascribe zero meaning to the term themselves.

Like Welty, celebrated Appalachian author Ron Rash furthers the idea of “gatekeeping” by suggesting that it is not only Southern literature that has been categorized by outsiders, but the writers themselves: “The one thing that bothers me about that term ‘Southern writer’ is that, particularly in the U.S. outside the South, it means that’s all you are. Your work doesn’t transcend the South” (Bjerre).

Rash expands this idea of Southern literature achieving a universality beyond its origins and transcending the South, reasoning that “The best Southern literature transcends the region; it has to” (Bjerre) — a sentiment not only shared by O’Connor and Welty, but put into practice as well.

Perhaps it is within this idea of accession, or lack thereof, that O’Connor found such terror. If she could be reduced to such a simple classification as a mere regional writer by those outside of the South, then what hope might she have had of her writing ever transcending those boundaries?

I reckon that we, as readers, owe it to the writers of Southern literature to respect their wishes regarding their own craft. We ought to not force an association between regional literature and Southern literature in the absence of one.

Or, at the very least, not without pausing to consider whether there should be a delineation to begin with.

As literary citizens, we should continue to relegate literary ownership to the creators beyond just Southern literature. It is the inherent right of all writers, regardless of their origin, to dictate the limits of their own literary horizons. It ain’t our place to say otherwise.

And as Welty implied, to do so would be just plain ignorant.


Works Cited

Bjerre, Thomas Ærvold. “‘The Natural World Is the Most Universal of Languages’: An Interview with Ron Rash.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, 2007, pp. 216–227. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40934679.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Fiction Writer & His Country.” Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1957.

Peden, William. The American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940-1975. Houghton Mifflin, 1975. 

 

Tucker C. Newsome (MA ’23)

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