Southern Literature Stuck in the Past?

Chris Tusa thinks so, and makes his case in the Spring 2011 issue of Sto­ry South.

Any­one who’s spent any length of time liv­ing in the south knows that his­to­ry is impor­tant to us. In the south, we cling to words like “tra­di­tion” and “her­itage.” If you search the term “Deep South” on Wikipedia, you’ll find head­ings like His­to­ry, Civ­il War, and Recon­struc­tion. The recent debate con­cern­ing the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag only fur­ther demon­strat­ed this, imme­di­ate­ly prompt­ing the con­struc­tion of south­ern-based web­sites with titles like “Pre­serv­ing the South­ern Her­itage” and “His­to­ry not Hate.”

So why is this? Why, as south­ern­ers, are we so obsessed with the past? Is there some­thing hid­den in our red­neck genes, some­thing wrig­gling deep in our south­ern-fried DNA that caus­es us, as south­ern­ers, to cling to the past? One answer might be that as south­ern­ers we are so obsessed with the past that we sim­ply aren’t inter­est­ed or con­cerned with exam­in­ing our present or our future. Some might even argue (most­ly north­ern­ers I pre­sume) that it’s pre­cise­ly this kind of back­ward think­ing, this con­stant look­ing to the past, that has led to the south’s obvi­ous lack of progress, espe­cial­ly in terms of edu­ca­tion, pol­lu­tion, unem­ploy­ment, and pover­ty. Regard­less of your opin­ions one way or the oth­er, it’s dif­fi­cult to ignore the fact that these days young south­ern writ­ers seem inex­orably drawn to the south’s past, rather than its present. Over and over, young con­tem­po­rary south­ern writ­ers seem much more con­tent to drudge knee-deep through the south’s bloody his­to­ry than explore its present. And, when they aren’t explor­ing the south’s past, they seem much more com­pelled to rewrite great south­ern lit­er­ary tra­di­tions than explore the south’s present, or even its future for that mat­ter. Who can for­get Susan Lori Parks’ won­der­ful trib­ute to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Alice Randall’s rethink­ing of Mitchell’s Gone with The Wind. Don’t get me wrong. These are all won­der­ful­ly cre­ative and skill­ful books, but as a south­ern writer in my thir­ties, I can­not help but won­der why such writ­ers aren’t as equal­ly con­cerned with exam­in­ing the south’s present. More.

I think Tusa's essay (by the way, I read his book Dirty Lit­tle Angels and real­ly liked it) hits me in some ways–the search for the new, how­ev­er you find it, and in what­ev­er time period–ought to be a pri­ma­ry goal of good region­al writ­ing, for instance. Not being from the South myself, I feel  hes­i­tant to say what I think of the thing in its entire­ty except to list books and writ­ers I've read that argue against his view–Silas House's Clay's Quilt, the sto­ries of Paula K. Gov­er, who no one seems to care about but me, Amy Greene's Blood­root and so many moredoesn't real­ly address the point. There are oth­er names I could add and antholo­gies and books clos­er to home and among my friend­slists I could sug­gest, but I see his point over­all and don't want to dis­tract, though my instinct is to kick against the idea.  I do think Tusa could expand his read­ing, though.


I apol­o­gize if the rest of you saw this essay already, but I thought it worth men­tion­ing here. I'm away from the com­put­er for a few days and so won't approve com­ments until prob­a­bly Sat­ur­day or so, but have at it if you like and I'll do the best I can to approve quickly.


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13 Responses to Southern Literature Stuck in the Past?

  1. Chris Tusa says:


    I didn't say any­thing about prin­ci­ples or val­ues. My point is that con­tem­po­rary south­ern lit­er­a­ture doesn't accu­rate­ly depict the con­tem­po­rary south in terms of the peo­ple and their surroundings.

  2. Michael says:

    South­ern lit­er­a­ture isn't stuck in the past; it is lit­er­a­ture about peo­ple who are stuck on prin­ci­ples and val­ues worth being stuck on.

  3. Chris Tusa says:

    As far as Arkansas being south­ern, it looks like Bran­don dis­agrees. When asked why he chose to set the nov­el he Arkansas, he said the following:

    I like to write about places I've been to only briefly. If I know a place too well, and there's no mys­tery, I lose inter­est. If the place is too set in my mind, if I know every 7‑Eleven and car wash and know the peo­ple who work there, it's hard­er for me to mold that place into what I need it to be. Arkansas is a hard place to pin down, so any­thing seems pos­si­ble. It's South­ern, to be sure, but much of its his­to­ry is West­ern. Okla­homa is right there, and that's prairie coun­try. If you go north, into Mis­souri, you're in the Mid­west. Most states, you know what you're get­ting into about five min­utes after you arrive. To me, Arkansas isn't that way. Any­thing could be hap­pen­ing there. I guess I felt a lot of wig­gle room, using Arkansas as a set­ting. Oth­er writ­ers would get that wig­gle-room feel­ing from oth­er places, I'm sure, like big, sexy cities.

  4. Chris Tusa says:

    On the McSweeney's site, a sub­scriber (Alex Ver­non, of Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas) makes some inter­est­ing obser­va­tions about Brandon's use of Arkansas as the set­ting (and title ) for his novel: 

    He says:
    Peo­ple out­side Arkansas have trou­ble imag­ing where it sits on the map, and, I sus­pect, have less of a sense of the Nat­ur­al State than they do of the state of my child­hood, Kansas (flat wheat­lands with open skies, Mid­west­ern mil­que­toast Repub­li­cans, mis­sile silos, tor­na­does, and ruby slip­pers). Arkansas isn't the Deep South; it isn't the Mid­west. It lacks the next-to-Texas qual­i­ty of Okla­homa, even though it is next to Texas. As John Brandon's nov­el Arkansas quips, "Lit­tle Rock keeps embar­rass­ing itself by try­ing to attract tourists, claim­ing to be a tech­no­log­i­cal hub and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal. Cap­i­tal of what? The North­west­ern Mid-South?" And else­where: "Here's your restau­rant. The Heart­land Fry­er. Is this the heartland?"

    Brandon's Arkansas isn't Arkansans' Arkansas. The nov­el does occa­sion­al­ly ground itself in recent state his­to­ry, such as ref­er­ences to Lit­tle Rock's gang trou­bles of the ear­ly 1990s and the Mitch Mus­tain dra­ma of the Razor­backs' 2006–2007 foot­ball sea­son. But the nov­el also delib­er­ate­ly decou­ples itself from the state whose name it bears: the descrip­tion of Hot Springs does not both­er with accu­ra­cy, and the Bar­nett Build­ing in down­town Lit­tle Rock does not exist. Actu­al­ly, it does exist: it's the name of Brandon's par­ents' bank build­ing in Florida.

    Bran­don has trav­eled through Arkansas a num­ber of times, as he and his wife have crossed the coun­try for her career. But he has nev­er stayed in the state longer than a hotel night. In this sense, Brandon's Arkansas is Brandon's Arkansas. His tran­sient expe­ri­ence informs the book. None of the major char­ac­ters call Arkansas home; they each find them­selves in the state acci­den­tal­ly. And though much of the nov­el is set in a park-ranger hous­ing com­pound (includ­ing two trail­er homes) at the Felsen­thal wildlife refuge, in the south­ern part of the state, the char­ac­ters' drift­ing nature and their con­stant drug- run­ning turns the book into a road narrative.

    The nowhere­ness of Arkansas to non-Arkansans, and the state's fron­tier her­itage, pulls the imag­i­na­tion in a cer­tain direc­tion. Unlike Annie Proulx's Close Range: Wyoming Sto­ries, this nov­el is bound by real­ism, but oth­er­wise sim­i­lar­ly locates itself in a place where—at least for its author—anything can hap­pen. The Coen broth­ers' Far­go strikes me as a bet­ter com­par­i­son, in the use of a nowhere set­ting to explore acts of vio­lence and char­ac­ter that just might actu­al­ly occur. As with that movie's title, the book's title cre­ates an inter­est­ing ten­sion. Does the nowhere set­ting remove place as an influ­enc­ing fac­tor in order to high­light char­ac­ter, or is imag­ined non­place itself a bit deter­min­is­tic? "Arkansas is what I say it is," the book's drug boss declares. Really?

  5. Chris Tusa says:

    Hey Charles,

    I nev­er men­tioned south­ern goth­ic fic­tion in my essay (or sur­re­al­is­tic fic­tion, or post-mod­ern fic­tion, etc) because I agree that these tra­di­tions tend to dis­tort set­ting and time. My prob­lem is with con­tem­po­rary fic­tion that pos­tures itself as real­ism (set in the present-day south). All the writ­ers you men­tioned (Crews, Faulkn­er, Han­nah, etc) wrote fic­tion that accu­rate­ly depict­ed the cur­rent cul­ture of their time. All I'm say­ing is that if you choose to write real­ism (set in con­tem­po­rary south) have the cour­tesy to depict the south accurately.

  6. Jason Stuart says:

    I'm a bit late com­ing back to this fray. But, I would argue that Brandon's Arkansas is indeed a South­ern nov­el. It's a lot of the New South that I think Tusa is inter­est­ed in. It breaks with a lot of the stereo­types, and turns the usu­al car­i­ca­tures on their heads. It makes use of the ways, as Tusa describes, new tech­nolo­gies have changed the face of the old South. And, while you may be right about the geog­ra­phy (as I have not spent much time in Arky myself, either), I think that's less of a con­cern. I think Bran­don is pre­cise­ly the "New South­ern" writer, one simul­ta­ne­ous­ly stuck in the past but also well-locat­ed in the present world of mobile devices and e‑criminals, iden­ti­ty theft, faux-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, etc. 

    In fact, some of the best aspects of Arkansas are its rather loud, embed­ded indict­ments of aca­d­e­m­ic pre­ten­tious­ness and naiveté.

  7. Matthew says:

    Brandon's nov­el ARKANSAS is not a south­ern nov­el. He just uses Arkansas as a set­ting — fails to even under­stand the basic geog­ra­phy of the place. I don't think he's ever been there, in fact. Just FYI.

  8. Chris Tusa says:

    Hey Jason,

    Are you read­ing at the Fairhope con­fer­ence this week­end by chance? I saw your name on the read­ing sched­ule, and I fig­ured it might be you (even though Stu­art is a fair­ly com­mon name).


  9. Chris,

    I've got to take seri­ous issue with this claim, main­ly because I feel like you gross­ly over­sim­pli­fy. Goth­ic and real­is­tic tra­di­tions work in fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent ways. In cre­at­ing a Goth­ic dream, even one set in the present, one can­not delve too far into minute "real­is­tic" details with­out doing vio­lence to the illu­sion that is at the heart of this kind of sto­ry­telling. You seem to be mak­ing a rather broad polemic, one that ignores this impor­tant aes­thet­ic truth. And it does so hap­pen that many South­ern writ­ers do work in this tra­di­tion, going all the way back to Poe, thence to Faulkn­er, McCullers, O'Connor, Crews, Han­nah, etc. 

    Also, Ron Rash has writ­ten at least two nov­els and sev­er­al short sto­ries set in the present. Chris Holbrook's sto­ry col­lec­tions, Crys­tal Wilkinson's, Chris Offutt's, most of Alex Taylor's col­lec­tion NAME OF THE NEAREST RIVER, John McManus, the list goes on and on.

  10. Chris Tusa says:

    Daniel Woodrell is a mas­ter. Not a big fan of Silas House. He seems to be writ­ing about a place that doesn't exist. Love Franklin's short sto­ries, espe­cial­ly The Nap (an incred­i­ble sto­ry if you haven't read it). Hadn't heard of Bran­don, but I checked him out, and his nov­el, Arkansas, seems right up my alley. Thanks for the suggestion.

  11. Chris Tusa says:

    Hey Guys,
    My point (and per­haps I didn't con­vey it as clear as I would have liked) was that south­ern lit­er­a­ture doesn't seem very con­tem­po­rary. Believe me, Jason, mid­dle class, sub­ur­ban, white-col­lar sto­ries are not what I want. I love sto­ries with Meth labs and pick­up trucks. I sim­ply think they should be writ­ten about in a more con­tem­po­rary con­text (throw a GPS sys­tem in the pick­up. Put the Meth lab in an aban­doned Burg­er King). Most of the south­ern books I read these days seem as if they are try­ing to be south­ern. The books are pop­u­lat­ed by char­ac­ters who seem detached from tech­nol­o­gy (and from the Amer­i­can cul­ture as a whole), which to me is sim­ply not believ­able. The south is pre­sent­ed as some impov­er­ished, racist place (which in some ways it is), but what’s inter­est­ing to me is that many writ­ers seem to pur­pose­ful­ly avoid any ref­er­ence to civ­i­liza­tion or tech­nol­o­gy. It’s as if the writer thinks that the sto­ry will be less authen­tic, less south­ern, if he/she men­tions Wal­mart or Block­buster or Youtube. I guess I’m just sus­pi­cious of books that act as if tech­nol­o­gy hasn’t altered the land­scape of the impov­er­ished south, espe­cial­ly when I know it has. By the way, Woodrell hap­pens to be one of my favorite writ­ers (Sweet Mis­ter could eas­i­ly be my favorite book of all time).

  12. Michael Hoerman says:

    Stuck in the past or exclud­ed from the future seems to be the question. 

    Con­ver­gence mod­els in nature and rur­al cul­ture, which can inform con­tem­po­rary art, cre­ative econ­o­my and sus­tain­abil­i­ty prac­tices, remain vir­tu­al­ly unknown or ignored by var­i­ous "inno­va­tors" in those fields. 

    Say CSA with regard to the South and most peo­ple make the obvi­ous asso­ci­a­tion. Say CSA absent any "south­ern" con­no­ta­tion here in the North­east and most peo­ple think com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed agriculture. 

    We south­ern­ers often find our­selves stuck in a past, safe­ly out of the future, in field like com­mu­ni­ty farm­ing prac­tices where expe­ri­ence matters.

    I have worked on projects with organ­ic farms in the North­east, includ­ing bought and split shares in CSAs here, and I can say for sure that the way my grand­ma and her neigh­bors lever­aged their indi­vid­ual veg­gie yield engen­dered com­mu­ni­ty in a more organ­ic, effi­cient and a less com­mer­cial­ly-admin­is­tered way than CSAs.

    Too many CSAs find recent immi­grants bring­ing pre­cious agri­cul­ture skills to bear through hard work on plots of land, with low pay, for dis­tri­b­u­tion pri­mar­i­ly to share­hold­ers who can afford the pre­mi­um for CSA produce.

    I can say for def­i­nite cer­tain that my grand­ma and her neigh­bors' prac­tice of grow­ing what inter­est­ed them, almost always includ­ing some items their neigh­bors did not grow, then trad­ing their pro­duce with each oth­er, engen­dered true com­mu­ni­ty in a way that CSAs do not.

    But this is not to say Long Live the CSA. My own fam­i­ly his­to­ry is too com­pli­cat­ed for that sim­ple view. But I do take pride when I see how my old granny and her neigh­bors did some­thing CSA-like in a way that most sus­tain­abil­i­ty gurus can't see through the for­est of their trees. 

    She is the past. They are the future. Like that.

  13. Jason Stuart says:

    Since I can't post com­ments on the orig­i­nal post, I will men­tion them here. I think some of what Tusa wants is a bit of mid­dle class wish­ful think­ing. I got a lot, and I mean a LOT, of this same rhetoric in the work­shops at South Mis­sis­sip­pi. "Write what you know. Not this meth-head, pick­up dri­ving stuff. Write what you know!" they yelled and yelled at me. Sad news, then and now, friends, THAT is what I know. 

    Could South­ern Lit­er­a­ture use a good kick in the pants? Maybe so. But, Daniel Woodrell is doing fine work up there in the Ozarks, stereo­types or no. Tom Franklin's new Crooked Let­ter is a good entry, as are both of John Brandon's offer­ings thus far. 

    But, the sim­ple truth is, meth-heads and pick­ups remain what a great many of us (those of us with cal­lus­es on our hands) know. Do I wish I knew oth­er things? Sure. I wish I knew nice, fat lives grow­ing up in the sub­urbs with a two-car garage and a whitecoller dad. But, then I prob­a­bly wouldn't be a writer.

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