Walker Percy once remarked that it is difficult to write about the South without succumbing “to the ghosts of the Old South or the happy hustlers of the new Sunbelt.” Two new books on the South—Rick Bragg’s My Southern Journey and Margaret Eby’s South Toward Home—easily avoid the latter. There’s no fawning over pristine suburbs with adjacent golf courses and shopping centers or breathless praise of waterparks. But they both happily embrace ghosts—not those of the Old South, mind you, but the ghosts of his “people” for Bragg and the spirits of Southern literature for Eby. And why not? After all, what’s wrong with a little feel-good nostalgia?
Not much, perhaps, but not nothing either.
In a way, Bragg has been writing about ghosts his whole life. In All Over But the Shoutin’, first published in 1991, he remembers his impoverished childhood and the love and sacrifices of his mother. It’s a moving portrait notable for Bragg’s refusal to ignore the harshness of life. In Ava’s Man (2001), he tells the story of his mother’s father, a family legend, who did his best to support his seven children in the foothills of the Appalachia during the Great Depression by working odd jobs, bootlegging, or whatever means possible.
My Southern Journey is lighter fare, composed mostly of short reflections (some no longer than a page) on contemporary life in the South. In essays on the art of piddling, the tradition of Sunday lunch, or the experience of a rare winter snowfall, Bragg affects a good ole boy pose, as he often does, and writes with a conversational ease, wisdom, and humor that goes down as smoothly as a mint julep.
In one particularly entertaining piece, Bragg argues that Southerners cannot be trusted with fireworks. “The North had most of the artillery,” he writes, which is why Southerners are fascinated by bottle rockets and unable to use them properly. “I love my people, but you know there is truth in this. Even when we are sober, bad things happen.” In another, he muses on the relatively popular remark that the defining characteristic of Southern literature is not its interest in place or commitment to lost causes but the simple presence of a dead mule. “Southern writers were killing mules even before Faulkner drowned a perfectly good team in the Yoknapatawpha River in As I Lay Dying,” he writes.
The essays that deal with his family—and many of them do—touch on the simpler parts of home life. He remembers long prayers before Sunday lunch and writes about the old skill of his brother in the garden or evenings sitting on the front porch. He recalls playing in the region’s ubiquitous red dirt as a young boy and imagines that the clay has entered into his very bones.
Nostalgia is part of what makes the South the South. As Bragg puts it: “spirits are welcome here.” But it can be a bit thick sometimes in My Southern Journey. Whenever Bragg casts his eye backwards, it’s all folksy goodness. Faith was “less political” in the good old days, he tells us. The men were stronger, the women were sweeter, and the fried chicken was so good it could save your soul.
His bravado can also be tiresome. A real “Southern man,” he tells us, is “not supposed to like” clothes. He’ll never have “washboard abs” because, again, he is “a Southern man, and Southern men, the real ones, eat badly.” He wonders what “real rednecks”—you know, “the ones who could fight a whole army with a tire tool”—think of hipsters in skinny jeans and Caterpillar hats.
The last essay of the collection is, fittingly, “Born Too Late.” Bragg writes that he doesn’t “want to turn back time,” that “too much justice has come to be, out of the darkness of our past.” Still, he can’t help yearning for certain things—the days of two-channel television or the time when American cars were made out of beautiful Detroit steel. It’s a common sentiment, and not just among Southerners, to want to return to the simpler, seemingly nobler days of the past. But it’s rarely a bedfellow to great writing.
In South Toward Home, Eby, who was raised in Alabama but now lives in New York, is interested in a different past than Bragg. Her “people” were those found in the books of Eudora Welty, Harry Crews, and Flannery O’Connor. These and other writers shaped her identity as a Southerner, and she decides to visit the places they had lived and written about “to breathe the same air, to hear the same accents, and meet the same people,” as well as to see “how much had … changed” and “how much the actual place matched the idea I had from their fiction.”
Eby is at her best when she focuses on specific objects from these homes and places—Faulkner’s liquor cabinet, Harper Lee’s courthouse—or shares an anecdote that humanizes these sometimes large-than-life figures. In her essay on O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, Georgia, for example, she reflects on O’Connor’s love of peacocks. O’Connor once wrote that “You can’t have a peacock anywhere without having a map of the universe” and that according to “medieval symbology” the bird’s feathers “are the eyes of the Church.” There were once as many as 50 peacocks living at on the grounds of Andalusia while O’Connor was alive. Eby writes that the peacocks represent both the “link between the physical and the ethereal worlds” in O’Connor’s fiction and O’Connor herself—“an exotic creature living in a humble environment … whose stark, sharp, odd voice punctured the pleasant myths that Southern writers swathed themselves in.”
Eby also visits New Orleans, the hometown of John Kennedy Toole. She buys a hot dog at a Lucky Dog hotdog cart and sees that the cart offers a perfect place from which to observe the constant activity of the French Quarter, where most of the novel is set. (Paradise Hot Dog is Toole’s version of Lucky Dog, and Ignatius J. Reilly’s ill-fated stint working the cart figures prominently in the novel.) Later, she heads to the quiet neighborhood where Toole, like Ignatius, lived with his mother until he committed suicide at the age of 31. She finds that the contrast of location mirrors Toole’s own double-life—the Toole who “impressed girls with his dance skills and quaffed cocktails in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar, the gifted mimic and notorious cheapskate” and the Toole who was “slowly unraveling in the stuffiness of his family home.” For Eby, this contrast makes the “glee” of Confederacy of Dunces all the more remarkable.
If not particularly original, these snippets of biographical criticism generally make for entertaining reading. Unfortunately, they are occasionally punctuated by clichéd descriptions of the places she visits or the themes of the writers’ work. Eudora Welty’s garden is “tinged by moonlight” and “thick with the scent of … honeysuckles.” Faulkner’s novels “painted an indelible … and often damning portrait” of his home. As if on cue, she finds that there is something “slightly menacing and fantastical” about O’Connor’s home. She also flubs her attempt in the book’s introduction to account for the originality of Southern literature. (What ultimately makes it unique, she suggests, is its specific portraits of a people and a place. That is both circular and true of all literature.)
In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Quentin Compson is asked by his Harvard roommate to explain the South. Quentin answers: “You can’t understand it. You would have to be born there.” Eby writes: “It’s a good line, but it’s not true.” Perhaps. Yet, as both Bragg and Eby demonstrate, while it may not be impossible to explain the South, it’s not easy either.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and edits the literary newsletter Prufrock.