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Is the Best American Literature from the South?

The political theorist and my old blog boss Peter Lawler offers a critical but appreciative reflection on Rod’s crunchy conservatism. I’ll leave Rod to respond to Lawler’s philosophical challenges. Because it’s Friday, however, I’d like to take on an apparently throw-away suggestion in his post. According to Lawler, “the best American literature tends to be southern”. A lot of readers and critics make some version of this claim. Is that really true?

I’m not convinced. In the 19th century, there was no doubt that the best American literature tended to be from New England. Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau remain staples of high school and college reading lists. Melville was a New Yorker of Bostonian descent. No one reads Richard Henry Dana or Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., anymore. Still, they’re not without rewards. Then there’s Longfellow, whose work is not is in modern taste. But he was extremely popular at home, and one of the few 19th century American writers to attract a broad audience in Europe.

Twain is the great exception to New England’s literary dominance in the 19th Century. Southern as his persona and themes were, however, Twain lived for 17 years in Hartford, and spent many of his summers in Western New York.

By about 1900, America’s center of literary gravity shifted from Boston to New York City, in a process traced with gentle irony in Van Wyck Brooks’ classic New England: Indian Summer. Around the same time, Midwestern writers like Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson developed a distinctive voice. They were followed, of course, by the so-called Lost Generation. Without continuing to list names, where is the South in all this? There are the Agrarians and Thomas Wolfe. But would anyone contend that they represent the best of American literature?

No, the Southern literary claim  rests primarily on period from approximately 1940 to 1960, when Faulkner, Welty, Percy, Williams, and O’Connor were in their primes. I confess to finding Faulkner unbearable. (Nabokov once teased a fan: “I have read your Faulkner. You must be joking.”) Even so, that’s an estimable lineup.

But I can’t see that the mid-century prominence of Southern writers working in a distinctively Southern idiom clearly outweighs contemporary literary movements such as the neo-Puritan realism of Yates, Cheever, and Updike; the Jewish-American efflorescence represented by Malamud and Bellow; or the quasi-journalism of Mailer and Baldwin.

What about more recent writing? I join Alan Jacobs in wishing luck to the reconstituted Oxford American. Like him, however, I’m not much impressed by the “Grit Lit” aesthetic that informs its contributors. There’s good literature in this style. But I don’t there’s enough to justify Lawler’s assertion.

But maybe this Yankee has got it wrong. Are there figures I’ve neglected who support Lawler’s claim of Southern literary priority? Note that I’m less interested in writers who “happen to be” from the South than those whose work expresses a specifically regional sensibility. I’d be especially pleased to learn of books that avoid mud-blood-whiskey cliches. There’s another Southern art form, country music, that deals with those so much better.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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