The Storied South

The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists

WILLIAM FERRIS
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469607559_ferris
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  • Book Info
    The Storied South
    Book Description:

    The Storied Southfeatures the voices--by turn searching and honest, coy and scathing--of twenty-six of the most luminous artists and thinkers in the American cultural firmament, from Eudora Welty, Pete Seeger, and Alice Walker to William Eggleston, Bobby Rush, and C. Vann Woodward. Masterfully drawn from one-on-one interviews conducted by renowned folklorist William Ferris over the past forty years, the book reveals how storytelling is viscerally tied to southern identity and how the work of these southern or southern-inspired creators has shaped the way Americans think and talk about the South.The Storied Southoffers a unique, intimate opportunity to sit at the table with these men and women and learn how they worked and how they perceived their art. The volume also features 45 of Ferris's striking photographic portraits of the speakers and a CD and a DVD of original audio and films of the interviews.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1248-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    The South is a land of talkers whose stories are as old as the region itself. We tell stories at home, on the street, in settings familiar to every southerner. Our stories transport the listener, like a leaf turning on water, into another world. The story is the inescapable net that binds southerners together. Southern writers translate the story into fiction. Scholars use story to explain the region’s history. Musicians transform story into song. And photographers and painters capture story in images. Through storytelling, the South reveals its soul. As the people in this book talk about the South, they...

  5. WRITERS

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 21-22)

      Southern writers dominated American literature during the twentieth century. Movements such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Southern Literary Renaissance produced literary figures whose work is rooted in the American South and its storytelling tradition. Writers in this section and their literary circles were an important part of these worlds. While Eudora Welty, Alex Haley, and Margaret Walker remained in the South, Sterling Brown, Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, and Robert Penn Warren wrote from outside the region.

      When I taught at Jackson State University from 1970 to 1972, I visited regularly with Alice Walker, Margaret Walker, and Eudora Welty. Each...

    • Eudora Welty 1909–2001
      (pp. 23-42)

      In 1929, my grandparents Eugene and Martha Ferris moved to Jackson and bought a home on Laurel Street. The Welty family lived three blocks away with their children, Walter, Edward, and Eudora. My grandmother often told me about the Weltys, who were among her close friends in Jackson.

      At the age of twelve, I remember seeing Eudora Welty and a group of her friends when they visited our farm to picnic and sketch the landscape. They sat on a hillside below our home, and after they left, my mother told me that one of the group was an important writer....

    • Ernest Gaines 1933–
      (pp. 43-52)

      Alice Walker introduced me to the work of Ernest Gaines in 1971 when I taught at Jackson State University. At that time Alice and her husband, Mel Leventhal, lived in Jackson with their young baby, Rebecca. Alice had recently sent Gaines her manuscript ofThe Third Life of Grange Copeland, and he in turn shared his galleys ofThe Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittmanwith her. Alice spoke enthusiastically about Gaines’s literary talents and his generosity in helping younger writers.

      The following year I began teaching American and Afro-American studies at Yale University, where I used Gaines’s recently published The...

    • Robert Penn Warren 1905–1989
      (pp. 53-66)

      By any measure Robert Penn Warren is one of America’s most prominent literary figures. His published work includes twelve books of poetry, eleven volumes of prose, and twelve novels. Warren is best known for All the King’s Men (1946), a novel based on the life of Huey Long, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. In his later years Warren produced his finest poetry and received two more Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry volumes, Promises: Poems, 1954–1956 (1957) and Now and Then: Poems, 1976–1978 (1978). In recognition of his poetry, he served as a chancellor of the Academy...

    • Alice Walker 1944–
      (pp. 67-78)

      My friendship with Alice Walker began in the fall of 1970 when I taught in the English Department at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Walker lived in Jackson and had recently finished her manuscript ofThe Third Life of Grange Copeland. She shared with me encouraging comments that Ernest Gaines wrote her about the manuscript. During that time Walker also published her poetry collectionRevolutionary Petunias, and her interview with Eudora Welty appeared in theHarvard Advocate.

      When Walker visited Yale University in 1976 to conduct a seminar for Michael Cooke, we photographed each other standing in a bed...

    • Alex Haley 1921–1992
      (pp. 79-91)

      Alex Haley’s legacy is forever tied to his legendary works—The Autobiography of Malcolm XandRoots:The Saga of an American Family, two of the most influential books on the black experience in the twentieth century. When hisAutobiography of Malcolm Xappeared in 1964, it transformed America’s understanding of black life and culture. The book moved readers, just as Richard Wright’s Native Son did when it was first published in 1940. Twenty-four years apart, Haley and Wright both parted the veil of race in America and exposed—with unvarnished clarity—black rage. Haley’s work on Malcolm X was...

    • Margaret Walker 1915–1998
      (pp. 92-103)

      I met Margaret Walker in the fall of 1970 at Jackson State University. We both taught in the English Department, and I will never forget a lecture that she gave my students on Zora Neale Hurston. In her lecture she recalled meeting Hurston, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes. Her memories of Wright were especially powerful, and I reminded my students that Wright once lived on Lynch Street—the street that runs through the Jackson State campus—before he moved to Chicago.

      Walker founded and directed the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People (now...

    • Sterling Brown 1901–1989
      (pp. 104-110)

      I first met Sterling Brown when he spoke and read his poetry at Yale in 1979. His visit was organized by Robert Stepto and Michael Harper, who dedicated their bookChant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarshipto Brown. In his foreword to the volume, John Hope Franklin describes Brown as the “dean of Afro-American letters.”

      I had long admired Sterling Brown’s poetry and asked if he would speak with me about his interest in folklore and his experience at the Works Progress Administration when he collected oral histories of blacks in Virginia. Brown and Zora...

  6. SCHOLARS

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 111-113)

      Scholars help us understand the literature, history, and music of the American South. Cleanth Brooks, John Blassingame, and C. Vann Woodward were born in the region; Charles Seeger and John Dollard approached it from outside. Each wrestled with southern worlds, and their research on the region forever defined their careers as scholars and teachers.

      Brooks, Blassingame, Dollard, and Woodward taught at Yale, and Seeger at the University of California, Los Angeles. Each wrote major books on the South, and their students expanded their work in the next generation. Blassingame studied under Woodward for his PhD in history at Yale. Seeger’s...

    • Cleanth Brooks 1906–1994
      (pp. 114-126)

      Cleanth Brooks was a major figure in twentieth-century literary criticism. As a younger member of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, a Rhodes Scholar, cofounder with Robert Penn Warren of theSouthern Review, a distinguished professor at Yale, and the author of important books on William Faulkner and the study of literature, Brooks had a profound influence on both southern and American letters.

      Brooks’s best-known works,The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry(1947) andModern Poetry and the Tradition(1939), are landmark studies that established him as a central figure in New Criticism, an important movement that shaped American...

    • John Blassingame 1940–2000
      (pp. 127-134)

      To say that I always looked up to John Blassingame would be an understatement. Blassingame’s tall, thin, Lincolnesque figure, his wry smile, and his glasses slipping down his nose were a beloved, familiar part of my seven years at Yale. He was a towering man, literally and figuratively. The picture I carry of Blassingame in my mind is of him bending over to speak to one of his many admirers, always smiling, always with a twinkle in his eye. Blassingame hired me from Jackson State University as the first white scholar brought to Yale to teach in the Afro-American studies...

    • Charles Seeger 1886–1979
      (pp. 135-143)

      On May 12, 1975, I spent a memorable day with Charles Seeger at Yale. We met as he walked on the cross campus green with his elegant, long stride. Under his arm, he carried a first edition ofThe Social Harpthat he donated to the Yale Music Library. Later that day, Seeger did an interview with me and recalled the history of his family and his discovery of American folk music. At the age of eighty-nine, both his eloquence and his vivid memory were striking.

      Seeger occupies a unique place in American and southern music. A distinguished composer, scholar,...

    • John Dollard 1900–1980
      (pp. 144-151)

      John Dollard’sCaste and Class in a Southern Town(1937) offers a psychologist’s perspective on how caste and class shape race relations in the Deep South. Dollard’s interest in caste and class was inspired by William Lloyd Warner, a sociologist and anthropologist who studied class structure in American society in hisSocial Class in America(1949).

      Dollard spent five months in Indianola, Mississippi, doing field research for his book. Anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker completed research in Indianola earlier, and herAfter Freedom(1939) is an equally important study. At the same time that Dollard and Powdermaker conducted their research in Indianola,...

    • C. Vann Woodward 1908–1999
      (pp. 152-156)

      C. Vann Woodward is one of the leading historians of the twentieth century. Born in Vanndale, Arkansas, his work focused on the American South and race. The topic of his PhD dissertation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was Georgia populist Tom Watson. During a long, distinguished career as a teacher and scholar Woodward published fourteen major books that transformed the field of southern history. HisThe Strange Career of Jim Crow(1955) traces the African American community from Reconstruction to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King called the book “the historical Bible of the civil...

  7. MUSICIANS

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 157-158)

      Southern music is revered throughout the world. From nineteenth-century ballads and spirituals to twentieth-century country music, blues, gospel, jazz, and rock and roll, the region’s singers defined the sound of popular music. British rock groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were inspired by blues, and the Stones took their name from the Muddy Waters song, “I’m a Rolling Stone.”

      Bobby Rush and Pete Seeger bring two complementary musical voices to the South. Both have spent their lives performing on the road, and both are beloved by fans at their concerts.

      Rush grew up in Louisiana, where he...

    • Bobby Rush 1935–
      (pp. 159-165)

      Bobby Rush’s musical career has carried him from his birthplace in Homer, Louisiana, to Arkansas, Chicago, and now Jackson, Mississippi, where he has lived since the early 1980s. His first musical instrument was a one-strand diddley bow that he made from the wire on a broom handle. Rush’s father, Emmit Ellis Sr., was a minister who played guitar and harmonica in his church and encouraged his son to play music.

      Born Emmit Ellis Jr., Rush first discovered that he “really loved the blues” as a child. Rush listened to Nashville’s 50,000-watt radio station wlac and its disc jockeys Bill “Hoss...

    • Pete Seeger 1919–
      (pp. 166-174)

      Pete Seeger has long been my hero. As an undergraduate at Davidson College in the early sixties, I listened to his records and learned to sing folksongs from them. When we organized civil rights meetings and marches at Davidson, his music and his unwavering commitment to human rights were an inspiration. “We Shall Overcome” was our anthem, and we sang it often at gatherings in the early sixties.

      During my graduate study in English literature at Northwestern University in 1965, I attended a concert that Seeger gave at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. My seat was at the very top of...

  8. PHOTOGRAPHERS

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 175-176)

      Photography has long been an important part of the American South. Matthew Brady’s graphic images of the Civil War and cherished tintypes of ancestors are examples of how photographs captured the region’s history in the nineteenth century. Generations of twentieth-century photographers have documented and defined the changing worlds of the South. During the New Deal, Farm Security Administration photographers focused on the region’s poverty in an effort to bring social change to communities. During the civil rights movement photographers graphically captured marches and sit-ins.

      Walker Evans is the acknowledged master of black-and-white photography. His images have a luminescent quality that...

    • Walker Evans 1903–1975
      (pp. 177-184)

      Few books touched me as deeply asLet Us Now Praise Famous Men(1941). I read it first as an undergraduate student at Davidson College in the early sixties and was struck by both James Agee’s prose and Walker Evans’s photographs. Encountering their portrait of white sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama, was an epiphany. The book captured the South’s stark poverty through Agee’s eloquent prose and Evan’s striking photography in a manner that was both shocking and beautiful.

      A decade later, in the fall of 1972, I began teaching at Yale and met Evans in the home of our mutual...

    • William Christenberry 1936–
      (pp. 185-189)

      William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Walker Evans define southern photography just as surely as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward shape southern literature and history. Both groups are bound by their deep love for the American South and by their admiration for one another’s work—an admiration that I share. Walker Evans introduced me to Bill Christenberry’s work in 1973, shortly after he and Christenberry had traveled together to Hale County, Alabama. I met Christenberry not long after that trip, and we have been close friends ever since.

      Our understanding of place and how it shapes southerners...

    • William Eggleston 1939–
      (pp. 190-196)

      I first met Bill Eggleston during the summer of 1975 when two Memphis photographers, Mary Hohenberg and Perry Walker, took me to his home to see his color photography. It was late at night, and I was surprised to see his home fully lit and family and friends moving through the home. Eggleston greeted me warmly and took me into his living room where large piles of dye transfer color prints were stacked on top of his piano. I looked through the images and was stunned by their beauty and freshness. It was like an epiphany. Thus began a friendship...

  9. PAINTERS

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 197-199)

      These southern painters grew up in a region that lacked museums and galleries where they could find inspiration for their own work. They turned instead to writers such as William Faulkner, whose stream-of-consciousness style transformed the southern story into a modern, abstract form. As a successful literary artist, Faulkner was an important model for aspiring painters. Each of these painters wrestles with the southern story and how to tell it using paint and canvas. Sam Gilliam explains that “ southern artists use visual memory, visual histories, and visual images. In literature—and particularly in the literature of Faulkner—works appear...

    • Sam Gilliam 1933–
      (pp. 200-205)

      Entering Sam Gilliam’s studio is like walking through a field of paint. Large painted canvasses are laid out one after the other on the floor, and the floor itself is covered with splashed paint. Canvasses hang from the walls, leaving only the windows uncovered to allow light into the large space. Gilliam walks between and beside canvases that frame his studio in a powerful way.

      Gilliam’s abstract style has deep roots in the American South. “These paintings are closely related to a feeling of having been born in a certain region. A vast array of southern artists are abstract. The...

    • Ed McGowin 1938–
      (pp. 206-211)

      Ed McGowin lives in New York City and is acutely aware of how his southern roots define him. His wife, Claudia DeMonte, is a successful artist who grew up in New York City, and McGowin reflects on how language defines their very different backgrounds. “In New York, everything is one-liners. My wife is a New Yorker. We have culture clashes daily that are indescribable. My wife can speak pages in a threesentence burst in very rapid fire. I can try to give you directions to get around the corner, and it will take half an hour. It is very confusing...

    • Benny Andrews 1930–2006
      (pp. 212-214)

      Benny Andrews chronicles stories of rural black experience in Georgia, where he grew up as one of ten children born in a sharecropper’s family. He vividly remembers working “from sunup to sundown in flat lands of cotton. Just as far as you could see would be cotton. It would be hot, and you would be doing this repetitive thing.”

      Andrews explains that he had a white grandfather and a black grandmother. His grandmother had a secret room in her home where his grandfather hid when the Ku Klux Klan came looking for him. “They had said that it would be...

    • Carroll Cloar 1913–1993
      (pp. 215-219)

      Carroll Cloar’s pointillist paintings depict scenes from the artist’s childhood in Earle, Arkansas. Cloar studied at the Memphis College of Art and the Art Students League of New York from 1936 to 1940. He returned to Memphis to familiar worlds that he wanted to paint. He recalls, “I feel that I understand the South—its history, its landscape, its places. I have a great affection for it. And since I came back, I know this is where I belong. When I think of the South, I think of the places I have known—country houses, cotton fields, country stores, and...

    • Rebecca Davenport 1943–
      (pp. 220-224)

      Rebecca Davenport is inspired by writers such as Flannery O’Connor, whose literary work she tries to translate into her paintings. She did a series that began with a piece she callsFrantic Fran. These works “possess a narrative quality. They tell a story. You are given information about a person by the things that are there on the canvas.”

      Davenport feels strongly that the past influences her work as a painter: “There is a sense of the past living in the present, of tradition. That is the thing that is so unique about the South which I have not experienced...

    • William Dunlap 1944–
      (pp. 225-231)

      William Dunlap is as celebrated for his storytelling as he is for his painting. An eloquent commentator on the southern arts scene, Dunlap acknowledges his debt to southern writers who inspired him to develop a narrative theme and a “visual vocabulary” for his paintings: “Writers have influenced me a lot more than painters. These pictures of mine are literary. They are the equivalent of allegories, of fables. These buildings, barns, dogs, and severed deer heads are all symbolic. I have developed a visual vocabulary. At this point in my career I feel like I have mastered the vocabulary, and I...

    • Maud Gatewood 1934–2004
      (pp. 232-238)

      Maud Gatewood lived and painted in Yanceyville in Caswell County, North Carolina. She was a close observer of both the town and the countryside. Her front door looked out on downtown Yanceyville, and her back door opened into the countryside of Caswell County. She knew both worlds intimately and embraced them in her paintings. Gatewood’s career as a painter was influenced by her family’s long association with the community: “Living in Caswell County—and my family having lived here for more than 200 years—gives me a sense of place. I have no choice but to consider this my home...

    • George Wardlaw 1927–
      (pp. 239-243)

      George Wardlaw draws on multiple southern narratives for his paintings. His father was an artist and storyteller, and his mother was a quilt maker. These early influences were enriched later when Wardlaw learned he had Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestry. He integrates stories, quilts, and Indian images into his paintings as an expression of his southern roots.

      Religion strongly influences how Wardlaw views the artist’s role in society. As a child, he admired the Old Testament prophets because they were “the ones with the ideas, with the visions, with the insights. After thinking about it, I announced to my cousins that...

    • Julien Binford 1909–1997
      (pp. 244-248)

      Julien Binford was born on Norwood Plantation in Powhatan County, Virginia. While a medical student at Emory University, his artistic talent was recognized by Roland McKinney, the first director of the High Museum in Atlanta. At McKinney’s suggestion, Binford enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute and later studied for three years in Paris, where he married the poet Elisabeth Bollée. They moved back to Virginia in 1935 and spent the rest of their lives in a home that once belonged to Robert E. Lee’s brother Charles Carter Lee.

      Binford is deeply influenced by French painters and feels the primary focus...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 249-250)

    Each time I return home to the farm and visit with family and friends there, I plunge into stories, both familiar and new. They reassure me that I am home and that the worlds I knew as a child are still alive and well. It is the same feeling I have when reading these voices. Their stories are the water in which I love to swim, and their literature and art are drenched in it. While each speaker loves to tell tales, it is clear that the American South is also the spine for each person’s life story.

    These speakers...

  11. Selected Bibliography, Discography, and Filmography
    (pp. 251-258)
  12. Index
    (pp. 259-260)
  13. Textual Credits
    (pp. 261-262)
  14. CD and DVD Notes
    (pp. 263-264)