12 The South Literature: Craft & Voice Nicholas Delbanco and Alan Cheuse
The South • The South is comprised of those states below the Mason-Dixon line and takes in a diverse geographical area, which includes the Texas plains, the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, the Tennessee Valley, the Louisiana bayou, the Florida everglades, Mississippi River towns, the tobacco farms of the Carolinas, small towns like Oxford, Mississippi, and more. • The South could be considered as much an emotional, intellectual, and cultural construct as a geographical one. • Flannery O’Connor describes the region as “rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech.” • The uniqueness of Southern speech – although not uniform – sets it apart from other regions. Consider the Southern drawl. • The South has a rich oral and oratory tradition. • The South has wrestled with race relations, more so than any other region of the country. Today, the South approaches this issue with a new sensibility.
The South continued … • The roots of Southern literature extend back to colonization and John Smith’s promotional tracts in the early 1600s and the slave culture of cotton and tobacco farming. • Southern literature is as diverse as its landscape, but authors often draw from its language, history, values, and settings, frequently exploring tradition, the family, and the community and the individual’s obligation to each. • Southern literature continues to be haunted by its past. One critic joked that every Southern story has grandparents in it and very few Northern stories go back a generation. • More than authors from other regions, Southern authors write about race relations and social class and the individual’s place and obligation to class. • Southern writers often create intense worlds with Gothic overtones, building, it would seem, off the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. Sometimes adding dark humor. • Through writers like Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, and others, the South has been a major force in twentieth century American literature.
“A Rose For Emily” William Faulkner is one of America’s great twentieth-century authors. “A Rose for Emily” is perhaps his most widely anthologized story. Notice how Faulkner’s rich prose and stylistic flourishes (which are never mere window dressing) present a sensitive portrait of the deranged protagonist. • Point of View The story is told in the first-person plural point of view. The narrator speaks for the town, using the communal “we” rather than the individualist “I.” • Title The title emphasizes the town’s sympathetic view of Emily and suggests that the story is a tribute to Emily – the rose as a gift implying affection or the rose tossed atop a coffin at the final stage of burial. The story is a kind of eulogy, meant to tell the truth but in a very sympathetic way.
“A Rose for Emily” continued … • Structure Interpreting “A Rose for Emily” as a eulogy provides an explanation for the disordering of the story’s events. The disordering de-sensationalizes the story, obscures the murder, and manipulates the reader into feeling so sorry for Emily that by the end of the story we can forgive her for the murder we just discovered she committed. • Unreliable Narrator? If the narrator intentionally disorders the story’s events, does he lose credibility? Can he still be considered reliable? Can we assume his view of Emily accurate? Do his racist and misogynist comments affect our evaluation of him and his credibility? • Emily The narrator writes this portrait of Emily not long after her death. Emily has murdered Homer Barron, but the community thinks of her with fondness and refuses to define her as a murderer. Is it because Homer was from the North? That Homer was perhaps gay? (See opening paragraph to section IV.) That the community is almost patronizing to Emily since her family was once so powerful? Or that she was insane? (Insanity ran in her family.) Evidence of her insanity can be found in her inability to accept and even recognize change, which includes death. In a sense Emily is the town eccentric. She has become “a tradition, a duty, and a care.” Consider how the community waived her taxes, sent children to her for china-painting lessons, and rid her home of the stench. To the community, she is “dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.”
“A Rose for Emily” continued … • Emily as “a fallen monument” How is Emily “a fallen monument”? Does Emily represent the decaying Old South? Does the town recognize the need for change even while nostalgically clinging to the past with its good old days? What are the signs of transition in the town? • Emily’s Funeral Focus on the old soldiers, dressed “in their brushed Confederate uniforms,” “confusing time with its mathematical progression,” and believing they danced or courted Emily. The narrator tells us that they see the past not as a “diminishing road” but as “a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches.” The recent decade of years to them is like a “narrow bottleneck.” What does this image suggest about nostalgia and the accuracy of human memory? Why are they more comfortable in the past?
“Barn Burning” Plot At the end of “Barn Burning,” we are left with a question which has fascinated readers since the story’s publication: Does Major de Spain kill Abner Snopes? Three shots ring out and as Sarty runs away, he trips over “something,” looks back, and sobs “Father!” Has Sarty tripped over the dead body of his father, whom he immediately eulogizes with “Father,” instead of his more usual “Pap”? The eulogy is more obvious in the next paragraph when Sarty refers to his father as “brave” and “Father. My Father” (italics Faulkner’s). The confusion is fueled by Faulkner’s use of Abner in later fictions. Flem is the primary Snopes in the trilogy of novels The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, but Abner is still alive and renowned for his barn burning. Of course, it is possible that Abner was only wounded by Major de Spain. (Faulkner’s characters often appear in more than one work.) • Point of View Who is the narrator? The narrator has access to Sarty’s innermost thoughts. Is the narrator a close friend recording Sarty’s story? It almost sounds as if the narrator is referencing an interview with the phrase “twenty years later.” • Sentence Structure Consider Faulkner’s use of sentence structure to convey mood. Whenever Sarty, for instance, is anxious or in a heightened emotional state, the sentences correspond as they grow longer and more complex, surging forward like a torrent. Consider the story’s opening paragraph and, later, when Sarty jumps out of the way of Major de Spain’s galloping horse (paragraph beginning “Behind him the white man…”).
Sarty Snopes • Sarty Snopes “Barn Burning” chronicles a turning point in Sarty’s life as he decides to resolve his dilemma. He must choose either truth, dignity, loneliness, and perhaps death or dishonesty, meanness, life, and family. His decision is not easy. Sarty is only ten years old and craves his father’s attention and love. Consider how he imitates his father’s behavior as he climbs on the wagon in the opening scene, and how he tries to persuade his father not to seek revenge on Major de Spain for the penalty. He feels as if he is “being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses.” Two events bring Sarty’s dilemma to a crisis point. First, just before the family arrives at Major de Spain’s, Abner tells Sarty, “You’re getting to be a man. … You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.” Second, Abner prepares to burn Major de Spain’s barn without his customary warning. Trusting his father’s words about becoming a man and realizing the absolute wickedness of his father’s impending action, he breaks free from the clutches of his mother and warns Major de Spain and thus forever separates himself from his family. Sarty never regrets his decision and the implication is that he has grown into a decent man. Consider the last sentence of the story and note that the events related in the narrative occurred at least twenty years ago.
Abner Snopes • Abner Snopes Overwhelmed by his sense of humiliation, Abner is incapable of resolving disputes, working under anyone, accepting reprimands, or accepting even the most lenient of penalties for obvious wrongdoings. He is mean-spirited, irascible, and snarling to everyone, including his family. His fierce pride masks his insecurity, and so he assumes a “wolflike” posture that places himself above the law and oozes defiance to an absurd extreme. He reveals no redeeming qualities. Only Sarty seems to escape his influence as his older son Flem is following in his footsteps. • Fire and Abner Fire is the instrument through which Abner preserves his integrity. He feels empowered with fire as he uses it to place others, or at least their possessions, at his mercy for however so brief a time. For Abner, the resulting destruction compensates for the injury inflicted on him and his family by their enemies. Of course, these injuries are largely Abner’s own doing and result largely from his heightened sensitivity and psychoses.
The Snopes Women • The Snopes Women An unappealing bunch. The wife is under the husband’s subjection, the aunt is lazy, and the daughters are completely unattractive and slow witted. Some have questioned Faulkner’s attitude toward women. Is he unnecessarily hostile? Or is the presentation of Sarty’s sisters, for instance, just darkly humorous? Consider the descriptions of his sisters: “hulking,” “big, bovine, in a flutter of cheap ribbons,” “the flat loud voices of the two girls … emanated an incorrigible idle inertia,” and they gave “the impression of being, encompassing as much living meat and volume and weight as any other two of the family … wearing only an expression of bovine interest.”
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” Flannery O’Connor’s work is deeply informed by her Southernness and her Catholicity. The sense of both place and religion is strong in her work and needs to be considered for even a rudimentary understanding of her achievement. • Consider the following quotation from Dorothy Walters In her book Flannery O’Connor: [For O’Connor’s characters], the path to salvation is never easy; the journey is marked by violence, suffering, often acute disaster. To arouse the recipients of grace, divinity often resorts to drastic modes of awakening. A kind of redemption through catastrophe.
“A Good Man” continued … • Grandmother – “redemption through catastrophe” As O’Connor’s other works of fiction, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is about a character’s redemption through catastrophe. Here, the grandmother, a silly and annoying woman, finds salvation in the moment just before death. Chart the grandmother’s movement towards salvation. She begins by trying to flatter the Misfit into releasing the family (“You wouldn’t shoot an old lady …”). Soon the flattery transforms into sincerity as she seems to recognize some goodness in him. She evokes the power of prayer and genuinely seems to want to help him, although her son is already dead: “If you would pray … Jesus would help you.” Confusion and doubt follow for the grandmother before the power of grace takes full effect:: “… the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” She reaches out with compassion, sympathy, and unselfishness. O’Connor comments on this scene are illuminating: “It’s the moment of grace for her anyway – a silly old woman – but it leads him to shoot her. The moment of grace excites the devil to frenzy.” The grandmother dies redeemed, a martyr, as emphasized by her crossed legs and her smiling toward heaven.
“A Good Man” continued … • Misfit’s Salvation? The grandmother’s efforts to save the Misfit do not seem to have been in vain. O’Connor said the grandmother’s gesture, “like the mustard seed, will grow to be a crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart” and redeem him yet. The process seems to have begun. Close to the end of the story, the Misfit declares, “No pleasure but meanness,” but after the murder, he says, “It’s no real pleasure in life.” A subtle but significant movement. • Structure and Tone Consider the story’s structure. How does the tone change with the Misfit’s arrival? (Note how in the first half humor dominates the darker undertones. But after the Misfit arrives, the darkness dominates the humor.) Does the tonal shift make for an imbalanced, perhaps confused story? Or does the imbalanced tone or seemingly confused structure reflect O’Connor’s world view? • The Family Is the family representative of the American suburban family?
“Revelation” • In “Revelation,” we meet two grotesque figures: Ruby Turpin, who is in need of salvation, and Mary Grace, the unwitting agent of that salvation. • Point of View Flannery O’Connor uses a third-person limited point of view. We see only into Ruby consciousness. Note Ruby’s arrogance as she studies the individuals in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. • Structure The story is structured conventionally. The action builds to the turning point when Mary Grace attacks Ruby. Ruby then contemplates Mary Grace’s verbal assault and, in the climax of the story, questions God: “Who do you think you are?” After her final revelation in which she sees people entering heaven, Ruby becomes fully aware of her deeply flawed character.
Ruby Turpin • Ruby Turpin Ruby is likened to a hog. She is overweight and has small, fierce eyes, but, more importantly, she is emotionally and spiritually a hog, reflective of her arrogance and selfishness. Before her transformation, Ruby is condescending, domineering, smug, self-congratulatory, and capable of only a superficial reflection of God. Mary Grace calls Ruby a wart hog, resulting in her extended self-examination. Ruby asks herself, “How am I a hog?” Her self-examination is intense and O’Connor communicates the intensity to us through a metaphorical language. Ruby, we read, “gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs,” suggesting that she peered into her own heart. As she looks at the pigs, she absorbs “some abysmal life-giving knowledge” – what she discovers about herself is ugly, but ultimately life-giving as she transforms into a better, more profound, more introspective, more honest, and more compassionate individual.
“Revelation” continued … • Language and Imagery Consider the almost Biblical language and imagery that O’Connor uses to convey Ruby’s transformation. Ruby falls silent and awe-struck as she realizes the sacredness of all life. Everything “was taking on a mysterious hue [and] “burned” with “a transparent intensity … a purple streak in the sky … a field of crimson … a visionary light settled in her eyes … a field of living fire … a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven … white trash, clean for the first time in their lives … shouting hallelujah.”
“Revelation” continued … • Mary Grace Her obviously symbolic name suggests that Mary Grace is the one God has selected to work through to send grace to Ruby. Significantly, in the waiting room, she reads Human Development, which is exactly what Ruby needs. • Consider what Joyce Carol Oates said of Mary Grace: Mary Grace is one of those “pathetic, overeducated, physically unattractive girls like Joy-Hulga in ‘Good Country People.’ … That O’Connor identifies with these girls is obvious; it is she, through Mary Grace, who throws that textbook on human development at all of us, striking us in the foreheads, hopefully to bring about a change in our lives.” • In O’Connor, mean-spirited characters are often the agents of grace and salvation for her protagonists • O’Connor on Ruby and Mary Grace “[Ruby Turpin] gets the vision. Wouldn’t have been any point in that story if she hadn’t. I like Mrs. Turpin as well as Mary Grace. You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hog pen. She’s a county female Jacob. And that vision is purgatorial.”
“Battle Royal” First published as a short story in 1948, “Battle Royal” was used as the opening chapter of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s classic novel published in 1952. • In Ralph Ellison, Mark Busby writes that Ellison’s regional background, especially his Southwestern frontier childhood, had a profound effect on his work. “Ordered chaos, visible darkness, traditional individuality, antagonistic cooperation: all characterize Ralph Ellison’s complex worldview drawn from his experience on the frontier where cultural minglings flourished.” • Narrator and Invisibility “Battle Royal” is narrated by an older man looking back at an experience in his youth. At the time of the story the narrator is confused about many things, and he admits he has a lot to learn. He has to learn, for instance, that he is “invisible.” How does the experience related in the story help him understand the concept of invisibility? The narrator feels “invisible” because he is not looked upon as an individual. He is considered only as a type (a black boy) whose talents, desires, and goals are only relevant to the town leaders if they can be exploited.
“Battle Royal” • Narrator and the “prize” When the narrator is awarded his “prize,” he is grateful, “moved” and “overjoyed.” His family and neighbors are also excited for him. Does the scholarship, to a certain extent, excuse the townsmen’s behavior toward the narrator and the other black boys? Or does it represent another gesture of humiliation and oppression? If so, why would they want to educate the narrator? Consider the superintendent’s words: “… some day he’ll lead his people in the proper paths … Keep developing as you are and some day [this brief case] will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people.” • Do you think the town’s leaders have plans to use the narrator for their own purposes after his graduation? • What do you think the superintendent means by “proper paths”? • Are the town’s leaders altruistic? • Why are they so upset by the phrase “social equality”? • What is the difference between “social equality” and social responsibility”?
“Battle Royal” continued … • Town Leaders and Public Posture At the smoker, the town leaders drop the mask of dignity and decorum that they wear during the day. Consider the narrator’s surprise when he enters the room and notices that many are drunk, and then hears the superintendent “yell, ‘Bring up the shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!’” • Battle Royal as Symbol The Battle Royal is symbolic of the leader’s communal strategy to keep the African Americans divided and subjugated. At the smoker and in the community, the leaders confuse, humiliate, and exploit the boys, and then pay them a small fee, which makes the boys and, symbolically, the larger black community dependent upon the leaders who control all opportunities. Thus, the Battle Royal mirrors the larger battle for African-American equality and the more personal battle of the narrator as he evaluates the conflicting messages from his grandfather and the town leaders. • Grandfather’s Advice The grandfather found a way to live within a racist culture with at least some integrity and dignity. Was he too passive? Can his yeses been seen as a subversive action?
“Battle Royal” continued … • Dancer In one way, the dancer with the tattooed American flag on her belly represents the American dream. The black boys can get close enough to see it, but they cannot touch it, or, implicitly, participate fully in what America offers. The men at the smoker abuse the dancer in the same way they exploit American freedom and ideals. However, as a woman, the dancer serves to point out that the culture of this small town is not only racist, but also sexist. Like the boys, the dancer is similarly abused, degraded, and exploited, and therefore indicative of the way the community treats women. • Narrator’s Dream The dream suggests that the neighbors (i.e., the black community) who congratulate the narrator on his scholarship are the clowns and that the town leaders laugh at them for their foolish acceptance of the situation. The message in the brief case implies that one way to control the black community and, particularly, its very intelligent and therefore potentially dangerous members, is to keep them busy. If they are kept moving, they may not have the time to think and they will buy into an illusion of advancement. Are there other ways to interpret the dream?
“A Party Down at the Square” • Ralph Ellison sets this story in a small Southern town sometime in the mid-twentieth century. As the story suggests, lynching were all too common in the South until well into the Civil Rights movement. (During the Cold War, the Soviet Union criticized the United States for the frequent lynchings of African-Americans.) “A Party Down at the Square,” with its disarming title, depicts all the violence, hatred, degeneracy, and horror of a vigilante lynching. • The Crowd Note the response of the crowd to the lynching. Most find it an outlet for their own anger and their own disappointments as well as a source of entertainment. Consider the crowd’s reaction to Jed and his response to the Negro’s appeal for a Christian to put him out of his misery. • Use of Nigger The casual use of nigger, in the story and in actuality, not only indicates disrespect and racism towards African Americans but also desensitizes whites to blacks by dehumanizing them. Therefore, if blacks are less than human, a lynching and burning are justified or, at least, more easily tolerated.
“A Party Down at the Square” continued … • Narrator The narrator, a young boy from Ohio, is visiting his uncle in Alabama. He is shocked by the execution he witnesses in the town square. As the leaders prepare to burn the man, a violent storm breaks and a plane crashes, but nothing deters the execution. The storm reflects the narrator’s inner turmoil and confusion: “The heat was too much for me. … My heart was pounding … everything came up and spilled in a big gush over the ground. I was sick, and tied, and weak, and cold.” Despite the brutality, the horror, and the inhumanity of what he witnesses, the narrator remains non-committal about his experience. He condemns no one. But he is young and that, as his casual use of nigger indicates, he was raised in, almost certainly, a racist family milieu. He is haunted by the burning and recalls it every time he eats barbecue. At the end of the story, the narrator seems almost ready to shed his inculcated racist attitudes. He does protest his uncle’s derisive statement that he is “the gutless wonder from Cincinnati”; he never goes to another lynching; and he notes their ineffectiveness: whites still look “hungry” and blacks look “mean as hell when you pass them at the store.” This story represents a way for him to process what he saw and a first step in accepting African Americans as equals.
“A Party Down at the Square” continued … • Statue On the site of the execution stands a statue of a Confederate general appearing resolute and intractable. Could the statue be a symbol of the Old South and its values, which include racism and vigilante justice? Is it significant that the statue is not affected by the crashing of the plane, the execution, or the storm? At one point, the narrator is unable to leave and sees only the statue. Could his lack of movement be emblematic of his wanting to leave his racist attitudes behind but not being quite able? • Irony How is the title of the story ironic? How are Jed’s words ironic when he says that there are no Christians or Jews here, only “one hundred percent Americans”?
For Further Consideration 1. Eudora Welty once said, “Fiction depends for its life on place … every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” Test Welty’s statement by shifting the location of one of the stories in this chapter. 2. James D. Houston states that fiction reveals a “form of dialogue between a place … and the lives being lived.” How does this demonstrate itself in the stories in this chapter? 3. Compare and contrast the South (or Souths) of Faulkner, O’Connor and Ellison.