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Southern Writers at Century's End

Southern Writers at Century's End

JEFFREY J. FOLKS
JAMES A. PERKINS
Foreword by JAMES H. JUSTUS
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130j8h6
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  • Book Info
    Southern Writers at Century's End
    Book Description:

    Since the end of World War II, the South has experienced a greater awareness of growth and of its accompanying tensions than other regions of the United States. The rapid change that climaxed with the war in Vietnam, the Cold War, civil rights demonstrations, and Watergate has forced the traditional South to come to terms with social upheaval. As the essays collected inSouthern Writers at Century's Endpoint out, southern writing: since 1975 reflects the confusion and violence that have characterized late-twentieth-century public culture.

    These essays consider the work of twenty-one of the foremost southern writers whose most important fiction has appeared in the last quarter of this century. As the region's contemporary writers have begun to gain a wide audience, critics have begun to distinguish what Hugh Holman has called "the fresh, the vital, and the new" in southern literary culture. Southern Writers at Century's End is the first volume to take an extensive look at the current generation of southern writers.

    Authors considered include: James Lee Burke, Fred Chappell, Robert Drake, Andre Dubus, Clyde Edgerton, Richard Ford, Kaye Gibbons, John Grisham, Barry Hannah, Mary Hood, Josephine Humphreys, Randall Kenan, Richard Marius, Bobbie Ann Mason, Cormac McCarthy, Tim McLaurin, T.R. Pearson, Lee Smith, Anne Tyle,r Alice Walker, and James Wilcox.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5726-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    James H. Justus

    One of the minor issues in Southern studies that lost relevance about a decade ago—for which we should all be grateful—is whether or not the Southern Renascence ended in 1955. The Southern Renascence itself—which truly existed despite its inaccurate nomenclature—was premised on the assumption that writing from the South was distinctively different from that generated in other parts of the country. And one of the defining traits always listed, usually with the highest priority, was Southerners’ heightened sense of place. And the revered text that ratified the critical consensus, the one that explicitly enunciated what critics...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins

    We began this collection with the intention of bringing together those authors of Southern narrative who began to publish their most significant work only after the mid-1970s. In planning this book, we sought essays that would introduce and analyze a varied group of the foremost Southern writers, including well-known artists such as Alice Walker, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, and Anne Tyler, and more recent or lesser-known figures such as James Wilcox and Tim McLaurin. Some of our authors have only just begun their careers, having published only a few books, while others, later in life, have continued their narrative writing....

  6. Part I. New Faces

    • Randall Garrett Kenan: Myth and Reality in Tims Creek
      (pp. 9-20)
      Doris Betts

      The chinquapin, a Southern edible nut like a miniature chestnut, grows within a burr on a small bushy tree. As a child, I picked and ate many in pastureland in Piedmont, North Carolina, strung some as beads. Randall Garrett Kenan saw but did not eat them as a boy growing up thirty years later in the unincorporated community bearing that name, Chinquapin, Cypress Township, with its own post office and one “high” and one “low” Baptist Church, located in the southeastern part of southeastern Duplin County, North Carolina.

      When Kenan was born in 1963, that county, 822 square miles of...

    • Mary Hood: The Dark Side of the Moon
      (pp. 21-31)
      David Aiken

      Mary Hood’s hair was as red as the clay from which her north Georgia characters are drawn when she started writing poems and short stories more than twenty-five years ago. She spent the first ten years of her career collecting rejection slips for works she had carefully placed on yellow legal pads with an old ink pen. These stories she revised at her typewriter and mailed out, hopeful an editor somewhere would accept her early efforts and give them a final resting place on the printed page. Mary Hood’s hair has lost most of its redness, and her work—far...

    • James Wilcox: The Normality of Madness
      (pp. 32-43)
      Hugh Ruppersburg

      Mental disorder has traditionally served in Southern literature as a signifier of social and cultural decay. In William Faulkner’sThe Sound and the Fury,Benjy Compson, described in the Appendix to that novel as a mongoloid idiot, is incapable of speech, reason, or the ability to differentiate between past and present. He is the emblem of a once noble Southern family’s decline, of the Old South’s decay, of modernist horror. Other congenitally handicapped characters in Faulkner’s work, such as Tommy inSanctuaryand Ike Snopes inThe Hamlet,hold similar meanings. Mentally aberrant characters allow a literary work to redefine...

    • John Grisham: Obsessive Imagery
      (pp. 44-59)
      Randolph Paul Runyon

      Born in Arkansas in 1955, and raised in numerous towns throughout the South until his parents finally settled in Southaven, Mississippi, John Grisham has achieved remarkable success as a writer of compelling mysteries, all of which involve lawyers and take place almost entirely below the Mason-Dixon line.A Time To Kill(1989) is set in Ford County, a fictive northwest Mississippi locale to which he would return inThe Chamber(1994), though the latter transpires primarily at the Mississippi State Prison at Parchman. Memphis is the setting forThe Firm(1991),The Client(1993), andThe Rainmaker(1995).The Pelican...

    • James Lee Burke: “. . . always the first inning”
      (pp. 60-69)
      William Bedford Clark and Charlene Kerne Clark

      Pursuing a craft driven by contradictions, American writers both dream of and dread success, the “bitch goddess” William James rightly identified as a national obsession. In our culture, where the misleading dichotomy between “high” and “low” art yet persists against the even more pernicious assaults of the “new theory,” it is still customary to distinguish between artistic and popular—which is to saycommercial—success. Writers, save for rare exceptions, yearn for a receptive audience, but a widespread readership and the financial gain that accompanies it are too often taken as signs of meretriciousness. The onus is compounded if an...

    • T.R. Pearson: Debatable Heroes
      (pp. 70-81)
      Mary Bozeman Hodges

      T.R. Pearson has forged his way into the late-twentieth-century literary world with the novelsA Short History of a Small Place(1985),Off for the Sweet Hereafter(1986),The Last of How It Was(1987),Call and Response(1989),Gospel Hour(1991), andCry Me a River(1993). In the manner of Mark Twain, Pearson’s criticism of human nature goes down with a dose of humor, and like Twain’s humor, Pearson’s lies both in the situations he creates and in the narrator’s voice. Unlike the innocent Huck, however, Pearson’s narrators and major characters are all too aware of the depraved...

    • Tim McLaurin: Keeper of the Moon
      (pp. 82-88)
      Sue Laslie Kimball

      Tim McLaurin and Huck Finn enjoyed similar childhoods; they would have had a great time together. Beard Station, just east of Fayetteville, North Carolina, has much in common with Hannibal, Missouri. Both are near a river; the families are working class; the children do not own expensive toys; and their games are richly imaginative. While McLaurin loved his father and still mourns his loss, his family dreaded the days and nights when their “Pap” had imbibed too freely. Huck’s Jim becomes McLaurin’s boyhood friend, LJ (always written without punctuation) Williams, whom he hired more than once—in the mode of...

    • Richard Marius: “The Brooding Mystery”
      (pp. 89-103)
      Carroll Viera

      Richard Marius—novelist, historian, educator—became a writer during his high school and college years when he worked as a reporter for his hometown newspaper,The Lenoir City(Tenn.) News. In his essay “How I Write,” he credits his newspaper experience with teaching him that a writer must be concerned with truth: “Report the wrong second prize winner in the Garden Club’s contest for the best dry arrangement, and see what happens. . . . You get an outraged gardener sometimes weeping on the telephone or, worse, standing over your desk shaking a mean-looking trowel in your face” (149).

      Marius’s...

    • Robert Drake: The Railroad as Metaphor
      (pp. 104-111)
      James A. Perkins

      Robert Drake was born in 1930 in Ripley, Tennessee, the county seat of Lauderdale County and about fifty miles north of Memphis. In his first teaching position at the University of Michigan, he showed Austin Warren a short story he had been working on. Warren encouraged the young Drake by saying, “I want you to bring me a new story to read every Monday” (Drake, “Appendix,” 183). Drake continued to write and in 1965 producedAmazing Grace,his first collection of short stories. In a letter, Robert Penn Warren said that although Drake did not write at the “height of...

    • Kaye Gibbons: Her Full-Time Women
      (pp. 112-122)
      Nancy Lewis

      “I think the Southerner is a talker by nature,” said Eudora Welty in an interview twenty years ago, “but not only a talker—we are used to an audience. We are used to a listener and that does something to our narrative style.” (Conversations94).

      Storytelling is a Southern tradition. In local stores, on porch steps, the storyteller has had an audience of family and neighbors, and through generations of storytelling, much of local custom, character, and mores has been retained. Southern writers are proud of their past and of their literary heritage. In a changed and changing South, writing...

  7. Part II. Old Friends

    • Barry Hannah: Geronimo Rex in Retrospect
      (pp. 125-133)
      David Madden and James A. Perkins

      “The best first novel I’ve ever reviewed.” Several years ago, I ended a newspaper review of Barry Hannah’sGeronimo Rexwith that statement, and with the prediction that the next novel would be “a lasting contribution to literature.” It remains the best first novel I have reviewed. First novels interest me as a literary phenomenon. I can look back on Susan Sontag’sThe Benefactor,Yves Berger’sThe Garden,Joyce Carol Oates’sWith Shuddering Fall,Steven Millhauser’sEdwin Mullhouse, The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954 by Jeffery Cartwright,and the fictional memoir Stop-time by Frank Conroy. Here is...

    • Anne Tyler: Wrestling with the “lowlier angel”
      (pp. 134-150)
      James Grove

      Place is one of the lesser angels watching over the racing hand of Anne Tyler’s fiction. Like Welty, whom she admires, Tyler believes that character is the highest angel of literature because of its great capacity to embody human feeling. At the same time, Tyler also supports Welty’s contention that a sense of place is essential for fiction since it helps make character sing by confining and defining it—by creating a believable outer surface that holds and objectifies what the writer strains to express (Welty, “Place in Fiction,” 120, 122). Thus, Tyler praises Welty because “in telling a story,...

    • Bobbie Ann Mason: Searching for Home
      (pp. 151-163)
      Albert E. Wilhelm

      In the Bobbie Ann Mason story “Lying Doggo,” a young woman proclaims, “One day I was listening to Hank Williams and shelling corn for the chickens and the next day I was expected to know what wines went with what” (Shiloh207). In “Graveyard Day,” a divorced mother observes that families “shift membership, like clubs” (167), and “a stepfather is like a substitute host on a talk show” (173). In a third story, entitled “A New-Wave Format,” the developmentally disabled characters “can’t keep up with today’s fast pace” and “need a world that is slowed down” (217).

      Such fragmentary passages,...

    • Cormac McCarthy: Restless Seekers
      (pp. 164-176)
      John G. Cawelti

      Southerners have a favorite set of self-images involving associations with stability, tradition, and dedication to local communities, all the symbology of “down-home.” But in fact the South was founded by a horde of restless seekers who left their home places behind them in pursuit of a plethora of dreams: wealth and grandeur, religious salvation, dreams of Utopia, or all three in various combinations. Faulkner understood this well, and two of his most significant characters, Thomas Sutpen and Flem Snopes, represent different generations of poor whites seeking to rise in the world. Even Faulkner’s great aristocratic families, the Sartorises, the Compsons,...

    • Alice Walker: The Color Purple as Allegory
      (pp. 177-184)
      Winifred Morgan

      Since the 1982 publication ofThe Color Purple,Alice Walker has continued to publish essays, poetry, and fiction. She has also maintained a high profile in news media for her role in spearheading a campaign against the primarily African practice of female genital mutilation, clitorectomy. Regardless of these accomplishments, Walker remains best known forThe Color Purple.Since its publication, buoyed up by the enthusiastic support of feminists and black studies departments, the novel has enjoyed considerable success. This was true both before and after Stephen Spielberg’s cinematic revisioning of the novel.¹ Walker’s novel certainly has appealing qualities which generally...

    • Fred Chappell: Midquestions
      (pp. 185-200)
      Randolph Paul Runyon

      Born in western North Carolina, in 1936, Fred Chappell has drawn increasingly on his Appalachian heritage in recent years. His best works—the epic poemMidquest(1981) and the novelI Am One of You Forever(1985)—are rooted in a quasi-autobiographical network of recurring hill-country characters, including his parents and grandparents, various eccentric uncles, and general-store proprietor Virgil Campbell, whose prankish independence harks back to Sut Lovingood but whose first name has a deserved Old World resonance.

      This is particularly true inMidquest,which takes place in the Dantean middle of the protagonist’s life, his thirty-fifth birthday (as well...

    • Josephine Humphreys: “Hope’s last stand”
      (pp. 201-211)
      Elizabeth A. Ford

      Few bodies of literature more seductively invite historically informed criticism than Southern fiction. From Faulkner to Warren, from Welty to Mason, great Southern writers have reveled in conflicted time and troubled place, and their combined pages yield up an embarrassment of cultural riches. Yet, the application of history to literature is itself a conflicted endeavor, as a currentPMLAforum on interdisciplinarity demonstrates.¹ Although many bemoan the methodological and theoretical difficulties that plague the intersection of literary and historical analysis, we keep producing such studies because, as Clarisse Zimra states, “we cannot resist boldly going where no one has gone...

    • Richard Ford: Postmodern Cowboys
      (pp. 212-225)
      Jeffrey J. Folks

      Richard Ford approaches the mythology and literary conventions of Western fiction from the perspective of a native Southerner who has spent most of his life in the South and the East, and, following the publication ofRock SpringsandWildlife,he has not returned to the Western subject. As Russell Martin puts it, in explaining Ford’s absence from his 1992 anthology of contemporary Western writing, Ford is among those “writers with strong connections to this Western country whose lives and work are now focused elsewhere” (xxii). But why should Ford have decided to write about the West at all? Why,...

    • Andre Dubus: “Never Truly Members”
      (pp. 226-237)
      Lucy Ferriss

      With Andre Dubus’s writing life still in its summertime, we, his readers, seem already to have planted him in the patch of ground we most wanted to fill—that fertile place, looking out on the human condition, that was being shunned by the metafictionists and minimalists of the seventies and the eighties. Critics have praised Dubus’s keen realism, his craftsmanship, the care he takes to remove the scaffolding that obscures our suspension of disbelief. According to the one book-length study of his work, by Thomas Kennedy, Dubus’s fiction is “consistently concerned with an existential Christian vision of a real world...

    • Clyde Edgerton: Death and Dying
      (pp. 238-246)
      James A. Grimshaw Jr.

      “Dying is a part of living,” Pearl tells her sister, Mattie Rigsbee, matter-of-factly in Clyde Edgerton’s second published novel,Walking across Egypt(1987). And she believes it too. Pearl’s words may serve as an overall thematic statement for Edgerton’s fiction from 1985 to 1995 because when readers enter Edgerton’s fictive world, they enter a mind-set focused on death and dying. Rhonda’s observation in the epigraph captures that thematic essence pointedly. In his six published novels—the other five areRaney(1985),The Floatplane Notebooks(1988),Killer Diller(1991),In Memory of Junior(1992), andRedeye: A Western(1995)—the major...

    • Lee Smith: Ivy Rowe as Woman and Artist
      (pp. 247-261)
      Elizabeth Pell Broadwell

      Although her short fiction about life in the suburbs appears regularly in anthologies of contemporary Southern literature and has won several prizes, Lee Smith is best known for her novels set in the mountains of Appalachia. Having grown up in the southwestern corner of Virginia, where the hills and hollows have been scarred by the coal mining and logging industries, she creates characters who are alienated from their modern environment and who have been fragmented by a past that, in some cases, lacks the vitality to sustain them.

      In six novels set in the Appalachian region, Smith’s protagonists often struggle...

  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 262-272)
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 273-275)
  10. Index
    (pp. 276-290)