I’m a bit of an Ameri-lit junkie, especially of writings set in the Deep South. If it has fireflies, mad as a fish Southern relatives and moccasin snakes, I’ll read it. If it has Spanish Moss, palmetto, piney woods and a drawl as thick as sorghum, I’ll probably read it more than once. I have been known to seek out online recordings of screeching insects (Cicadas no less) to accompany my readings for that authentic touch and my allotment shed even has a porch built onto it. All we need now is humidity levels saturated enough to send a dog mad and a red clay road dried to cracks so deep you could lose your aunt down them and I’ll die happy. I am aware that I am hopelessly outdated and a dinosaur, clinging onto a vision of the south that is trying really hard to disappear in a cloud of dust down an old track; I am also aware that it is not ‘my’ south to make demands upon. I am, at best, a fascinated onlooker.
The New South is a term that asks us to refashion these older constructions and explore the duality of the Old South. As people acknowledge and face the horrors of Jim Crow’s laws of segregation and the slavery and crop sharing that predated it, it is to be hoped that literature will both reflect this and also move forward in a more progressive and inclusive manner.
Fred Hobson in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World has said that the problem for the new neo-gothic writers of the contemporary South is that southern social reality no longer so dramatically supports a writerly fiction. Read this excerpt from ‘Deep South: memory and observation‘ by Erskine Caldwell and see what I mean about an evocative portrayal of a South that may no longer exist except in our own imaginations:
“Along the trails and footpaths in the ravines, out of sight of paved roads and highways, shacks and cabins tilt and sag and rot on the verge of collapse in the shadow of the green summer thatch of white oaks and black walnuts. The faces of the old people are saying that all is lost and tomorrow will be like yesterday and today- unless it is worse”
The poetry in Caldwells writing is subdued but lucid, it doesn’t get between the reader and the story but instead offers a series of vignettes, scenes, that infuse our minds eye with vivid imagery whether we have been to this place or not- but it does feel ‘old’. It induces within me a nostalgia for the childhood I never had in a place I never grew up in and exists within me as a habit, an evocative Southern tic.
The inimitable Bailey White is author of what is perhaps my most favourite line ever. Her collection of short stories and family vignettes, ‘Mama Makes up her Mind’ – is sublimely hilarious and creepy, saturated with left field weirdness which stays in your head, coming out to torment in the dark of night. Writing about her hardscrabble collection of gothic bizarre family members and the family home, slowly collapsing onto its own foundations, subsiding into a crawlspace literally and metaphorically invokes a terrible fear of creepy crawlies and what she describes as “The high knobbly kneed scrambling gait, a scuttling sound and then the worst thing of all…The watching silence of spiders”
More Carson McCullers than Steel Magnolias, White’s cast of characters inhabit a world of man eating clam shells, bellowing alligators that perform on command, sinkholes that bear resemblance to the Gardens of Eden and an Uncle called Jimbuddy who is slowly and accidentally chopping off bits of his body. The formidable Mama, customer of a North Florida jukejoint so intimidating it frightened Hemingway is the fulcrum of all the zaniness. The tales spill over into volume II ‘Sleeping at the Starlite Motel’ and ‘Nothing With Strings: NPR’s Beloved Holiday Stories‘ whilst her first novel ‘Quite A Year for Plums’ continues in a similar dialectic – about a peanut pathologist called Roger and the various small town women in hot pursuit of him.
The phrase ‘Woman of Letters’ (whilst originally referring to a more scholarly approach) could be applied to my next love, Julia Reed whose light hearted and throaty accounts of life down South belie her fierce intelligence and journalistic pedigree. Contributing editor at Newsweek, Vogue and The New York Times Magazine among others, Reed has a long and noble history as once political correspondent, flying around the South covering the three times Governor of New Orleans, Edwin Edwards’ final comeback, and managing to make it sound as if she gaily thrived on a diet of Galatoires oysters, chicory coffee and the fumes of chicanery when in fact it was a gruelling tour around the political stumps. Any woman who can survive three weeks with a politician who states “To fall out of favour with the voters of Louisiana, I’d have to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy” and not knock his smug block off, deserves the utmost respect.
Reed has an encyclopedic knowledge of the South and New Orleans in particular- the food, culture, music and politics and having spent many years travelling the world for work, is possessed of anecdotes extraordinary in their breadth and hilarity. This is the woman whose account of Hurricane Katrina and her response to the devastation and political mess was in turn moving, confusingly flippant and self centred. Anna Wintour (her editor at Vogue) even told her to cut some paragraphs out because they made her sound like Marie Antoinette (oh the irony of that). Yet the love she has for New Orleans shines out and she managed to evade the National Guard to re-enter the closed off city after the hurricane to rescue friends pets, empty out their stinking fridges and feed the hungry young men and women sent to enforce curfew and rescue citizens because she couldn’t bear to think of them subsisting on MRE’s in a city known for its fine food. After peeling enough tomatoes to feed the thousands of folks evacuated to her parents home in Greenford, Mississippi and transporting pounds of home fried chicken to troops, we see the blitz spirit is not solely the preserve of the British.
Her book ‘The House on First Street’ is an autobiographical love letter to a city and then to a house – the Greek revival home she made in the Garden District after decades of unsettled roaming from place to place. Alognside her love of art, architecture and interior design, Reed is healthily obsessed with food, a source of amazement to me considering the fact that she is a long time American Vogue editor- a place not known for eating heartily. Littered with accounts of restaurants and functioning as part travel and gustatory guide, the descriptions of her appetite evolution, times with the famous, the notorious and the notable provide enough anecdotes to keep a chat show host employed for a century. I have read and re-read all of Reed’s books – ‘Queen of The Turtle Derby’, ‘But Mama Always Puts Vodka in the Sangria‘ and ‘Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns & Other Southern Specialities‘ and I couldn’t choose one over the other -you’d best read them all.
Patrick Dunne, the owner of Lucillus, a culinary antiques shop is a close friend of Reed and in his book ‘The Epicurean Collector’ he distills a soupcon of the sumptuous and epic set like charm of his store into this wonderful and informative coffee table book. Originally a series of articles written for Southern Accents Magazine, he expands upon these combining primary historical sources with personal anecdotes and exquisite photographs to tell the story of the objet d’art he has discovered, sold and owned – salt safes and pigs, cooking irons and a pair of porcelain chocolate pots, the latter inspiring an historical tit bit- Madame De Pompadour employed staff to ‘warm her frigid blood before conjugal visits from Louis XV’. ‘Like all of History’ writes Dunne, ‘the story of how we eat is yet another part of our long tale about being human’
The central power of the biographical form is not set in stone. There is the grand impersonal narrative of history and then there is the life lived and few have lived as fully as fine southern gentleman and food writer James Villas. Born a Tarheel and fiercely proud of it with a mamma who makes the best biscuits and ‘pimmena cheese’ (Pimento Cheese) in the land, Villas has sailed the Queen Mary in the company of Dali, eaten at La Cote D’Or as a young penniless student (without realising where he was), sang with Elaine Strich, tried to keep Tennessee Williams from drinking restaurants dry and was nursed through a bad oyster by MK Fisher. In between all this grandness, detailed in his many books (‘Between Bites’, ‘Villas at Table’, ‘American Tastes‘ and ‘Stalking the Green Fairy’) Villas is also capable of rhapsodising about the treasures to be found in wholesale shopping clubs, Dukes mayonnaise, the low rent food loves of chefs and the best way to make a Brunswick stew. He is, by far, my favourite American food writer.
“Don’t try to out-Cracker me,” writes novelist and expert in Crackerdom Janice Owens. Those words headline a blog post on her website just below a recipe for Thanksgiving Potato Basil Chicken Soup and refer to her proud cultural identity as Queen of Florida crackerdom whose ancestors have been cooking cornbread in the state since 1767. The Florida Cracker has a complicated etymology with some claiming it as a racially and culturally charged slur (on a par with the British ‘Chav’ and ‘Pikey), however to a Floridian it has been redefined to encompass pride and cultural value. The historian Dana Ste. Claire describes a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.” The Florida cracker heritage is valued and increasingly celebrated by writers such as Owens in her cookbook ‘The Cracker Kitchen’ and her novel ‘American Ghosts’. The latter addresses intergenerational Southern allegiances and the regions dark history in this tale of a relationship between local girl Jodie and her Jewish lover and its dangerous reach into the future of the people involved.
We don’t tend to think of the Jewish experience when we imagine life in the South and that is why I love Roy Hoffman’s ‘Chicken Dreaming Corn’. The title is derived from a term used by the authors Romanian Jewish grandmother to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary and the book recounts the American dream of its protagonist Morris Kleinman as he runs his clothing shop in the southern port city of Mobile, Alabama. Praised by Harper Lee for its “lean and clean prose”, Hoffman was inspired by works like ‘Ragtime’ to blend both real and fictional names whilst retaining a storytelling ethos- 50% imagination and a blend of research and family stories.
It took a Hawaiian-Japanese friend to introduce me to the joys of Michael Lee West. Her early book ‘Consuming Passions’ was at there at the start of my love for southern writing when it arrived one day on my doormat via the USAF at Lakenheath. Anyone with a mamma whose leaving home gift to her daughter is a jar of Vaseline to rub on the fire escape to foil burglars (especially when her first home did not have a fire escape) and an Uncle called Bun who went to Brazil and married a South American nymphomaniac is destined to be a writer. It would be a crime against the literature loving masses to NOT commit these vignettes to paper. Each chapter is rounded off with an authentic family essay, predominately food driven (How to season a cast iron pan, ‘How to make perfect iced tea) although you do not have to be food obsessed to find them absolutely charming and riven with fun. Lee West has written quite a few fiction novels to but it is this food memoir that I love the most.
Now I know that West Virginia is not the ‘Deep South’- I was traumatised enough when I discovered that Walton’s Mountain in ‘Virginia’ was, in fact, part of the back lot of Warner Bros in Southern California so I am not going to tolerate any more southern geographical tall tales. Falling below the Mason Dixon Line is a southern qualifier and although he lives and teaches just outside of Chicago these days, Glenn Taylor is a West Virginia storyteller at heart. The author of the 2008 NBCC Award Finalist novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and the recently published The Marrowbone Marble Company is one of the finest storytellers I am reading today in the true tradition of the term. Taylor clearly follows in the footsteps of his father who, dedicated to the preservation of the heritage and stories of the West Virginia hills, has spent years taping the oral histories of the older members of the community. In a Guardian feature, Taylor has this to say about the way Southern literature is categorised, after a conversation he had with a store manager at a recent signing:
“When I finished signing the stack of books, the store manager took them off to be shelved. I browsed. She called to me from two aisles over: ‘Do you want to be shelved in fiction or Southern fiction?’ I laughed. I thought of all the things I always think of when folks wonder about southern West Virginia’s regional designation. The civil war. Lincoln’s presidential decree. The creation of my home state in the year 1864. Violence. Blood. Cuisine, culture, storytelling. A slow ease to things. I answered her: ‘I’ll let you decide. I’m just happy to be here. West Virginia is not the South. Yet, as soon as I write that, I have to question what South we’re speaking of. Are we talking about maps or music? Are we talking about parts of speech, burial custom, family gatherings, cornbread, religion? Coal or cotton? Hill or field? In the end, I get tired of thinking about it. I get tired of labels on literature, of categorising fiction by region or race, of trying to figure what Southern voices New York likes and doesn’t like. Yet, at times, I freely embrace such cataloguing.”
The story of the south, its food and heritage cannot be told without acknowledging that it is also the story of the people forcibly immigrated there to work as slaves and their story needs to be told via their own mouths, not refocused through the lens of white writers although they, of course, also have their own experiences to tell. The south is not just the land of Mayberry despite my own cliched fantasies and I am aware that in part, some of my literary loves pander to the literature of bigotry by memorializing an old south which has little fond memories for a lot of those forced to live and raise their families there. There has been controversy surrounding the publication of books like ‘The Help’ which went on to become filmic best sellers and their representation of southern black vernacular. As columnist Clarence Page who is African American, said
“There is an old saying, ‘You can joke about your own crowd, but not about someone else’s. Whether you are writing for yourself or a poetic work of fiction, you take a risk; like if I tried to write a book with a Yiddish dialect.”
The books author Kathryn Stockett has gone on record as saying that ‘The Help’ addressed, in part, the lack of the female perspective in southern Civil Rights literature but in fact the book still fails to address the paucity of first person oral testimony from black women, whether fictionalized or not. We have the voice of Abileen, a black maid, heard through the narrative lens of the white author but what we also have is the noble white protagonist, there to navigate us through the troubled waters of the Civil Rights Movement. For me, that is the biggest flaw because it infantilises African Americans and re appropriates their Civil Rights struggle as one led by white people, or at the very least, guided and legitimised by them. When we have post war southern writers addressing the troubled relationship between whites and blacks and also drawing attention to the dehumanizing effects of the Jim Crow laws, is it (an albeit well meaning) extension of that dehumanisation to speak in dialect as a black character, apparently drawn from a real living person when you are a white writer?
There is a heritage of hatred and prejudice and fear but also one filled with enormous richness and beauty to draw from- southerners have been placed, as Camus said, “Halfway between the sun and misery’. Writers and commentators walk different pathways with respect to this- they can cope with dehumanization by straddling the two conflicting worlds with their ugly message of ‘separate but equal’ or they can instead, rehumanize their experiences by creating dazzling works of literature that focus solely upon their own lives, framed solely by it and independent of much of that from which they are excluded. Zora Neale Hurston in ‘Dust Tracks’ chose not to focus solely on the inheritance of oppression (although it cannot be totally ignored) but instead draws upon a rich and complete black folk culture as the story of her move from the rural poverty of her youth to the intellectual jazz crowd of the Harlem Renaissance unfolds.
This in itself caused some disquiet and criticism because how can any child grow up alongside Jim Crowe and appear so beautifically unaware of it, especially when many other writers were using the zoom lens on racial oppression? Young Zora contends that she did not realise she was black until she was nine years old and having experienced the death of her mother, was sent to Jacksonville to live. Life away from the prism of her previously familiar surroundings precipitates a more outward looking existence. Hurston’s use of traditional black legend and black vernacular in the speech of her characters is uncompromising- ‘This is THE world because it is MY world’ and, in a reverse of the usual power structures, we, as readers, have to adapt. You didn’t know that death is referred to as the”Square-toed one that comes from the West?” Well, work it out by getting to know the folks that people the book.
The story of people is also the story of the land and its food and is there a place generating more orgiastic hyperbole when it comes to this? It is indisputable though, that the culinary history of the south is as richly nuanced and disputed as a bowl of gumbo and in the introduction to her book ‘The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking’ Jessica Harris cites the ancestry of this as a perfect example of the southern culinary diaspora. Despite the exhaustive nature of Harris’s research, Sara Roahen is inspired to explore both it and the broader topic of the New Orleans culinary legacy taking us on a romp through the definitive NoLa cocktail- the Sazerac through Sno-Cones to Turducken, a roasted bird within a bird within a bird. Her book ‘Gumbo Tales: Finding my place at the New Orleans Table’ is a great read and introduction to this subject and a city that is one of the most mesmerising places on earth.
The story of the south is one of environmental damage and deprivation and after Hurricane Katrina laid bare the peril to South Louisiana in particular, author Ian McNulty embarked upon a series of trips to discover more about the regions diverse landscapes and culture in ‘Louisiana Rambles’. There is Zydeco and crawfish, Boudin eating and dark smokehouses, riverine pub crawls, Angola prison rodeos and the Turnoi, a local marriage between medieval jousting, jockeying and horsemanship. There is also the story of the disappearing Cajun way of life with its fishermen and furriers and trappers, all of them inextricably linked to the welfare of the watery bayou and the Delta which are, in turn being gobbled up by the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that the southern end of Louisiana is being converted to open water at a rate estimated to be equal to one American football field every thirty eight minutes? No landmass is vanishing faster. The fragile brackish and fresh water habitats of Louisiana- home to the seafood and fish that form the majority of domestic seafood consumption are dying because the sediment carried along by the Mississippi, usually deposited along the land abutting its course is, instead, being carried far out into the Gulf and deposited there. Louisiana and the Delta are paying the price for Mississippi flood control further up its course. Only when that early bird special of all you can eat at the Red Lobster for $10 is under threat will the rest of America wake up to the environmental catastrophe unfolding ‘down below’. McNulty’s book is structured around chapters, each telling the story of a person, place of event in Louisiana. The advantages of this is that you can put the book down without losing the ‘story’ and take deep breaths to overcome the anger and frustration that will be engendered by descriptions of wanton destruction and lack of care over a place that is diverse and beautiful yet functional- a powerhouse of industry and work and activity.
You might prefer this format in fiction too which is where my next choice, ‘New Stories from the South’ comes in. Edited by Shannon Ravenel it was compiled in part in response to the ‘why is Southern literature populated with crazy old coots?’ argument yet, as the editor explains in the preface, ends up addressing ‘the temperature under the skins and inside the hearts of their characters’ for they relate universal motivations and emotions. Sixteen short stories encompassing traditional tales and more up to date stories from established writers like Lee Smith and newer voices deal with drug dealing (‘Black Cat Bone’) a politicians funeral (‘Cousin Aubrey’) and emigration from Vietnam (‘Relic’) offering a great dip in and dip out volume.
If you are looking for some true southern gothic, then Rick Bass’s short story ‘The History of Rodney‘ in the 1995 collection called ‘In the Loyal Mountains’ has a Mississippi ghost town, a young couple and a newly purchased house, romantic imagery, symbolism and beautiful prose. Or try Tim Gatreaux’s ‘Waiting for the Evening News’, an exploration of the strains of modern life through a farmer raising a baby grandchild, a man in love with his own radio voice and a train driver coping after causing a disaster, among many other voices. Set in his beloved Louisiana, they will not disappoint. Finally, Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Starting Over’ appears to take its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes or recuperate from the vicissitudes of life and reboot. Spencer is one of America’s best short story writers- her writing skewers the social niceties that underpinned racism and segregation, fed ‘The Old South’ and allowed for the maintenance of a politesse that belied the ugly, impolite truth.