6 Unexpected Southern Literature Recommendations

Posted by Elizabeth Knauss

Eudora Welty. You’ll want to read her Collected Stories.

Utter the term “Southern Literature” and most people immediately imagine all those depressing Southern white dudes they were made to read in high school or college. William Faulkner? Yawn. Tennessee Williams? I can get drunk and feel lonely on my own, thanks.

But the literary scene of the American South, past and present, has more going for it than a few guys with bleak worldviews. Here’s a list of six unexpected (or at least, less expected) Southern reading recommendations. I suggest enjoying them when the summer heat is at its worst, for a real Southern experience no matter what region of country you’re currently in.

Cane by Jean Toomer: This genre-bending collection of poetry and prose is one of the most stunning texts of American modernism. Toomer was a member of the Harlem Renaissance, but his 1923 work focuses much of its powerful language and startling imagery on the Georgia of Toomer’s youth. The vignettes, which began as mere sketches, are structured as a circle, moving from the South to the North and then to the South again, as well as through the cycle of a farming season.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty: If Welty isn’t officially known as Mississippi’s favorite daughter, she should be. Her diverse and powerful fiction is among the best ever produced in the state. Her novel The Optimist’s Daughter won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize, but I’ve always been fond of Welty’s short fiction. This collected edition covers pretty much everything she ever published, from the subtle but biting “Why I Live at the PO” to the affecting “Where is the Voice Coming From?” The latter story imagines the 1963 murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers through the eyes of the murderer himself.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor: Most of us were introduced to O’Connor in high school as the author of the macabre-yet-amusing short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But O’Connor’s fiction, especially her longer works, are worth trying out as well. Wise Blood (1952) is the dark and twisted tale of Hazel Motes, an evangelical atheist intent on spreading his anti-God message like a twisted Southern street preacher. Hazel’s mission is usurped by a con man who forms the “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ,” leading Hazel down an increasingly weird path to his ultimate demise.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy: American literature has no shortage of novels about disaffected young men struggling to make their own path. But if you only read one more of these, make it this 1961 novel. Percy’s distinctly Southern work is an excellent antidote to the East Coast elitism of Brooklyn’s sad young literary men. It’s also really charming and occasionally even hilarious. Binx Bolling wanders through his native New Orleans, womanizing, reflecting on his odd religious upbringing, and trying to connect with his dazed and depressed cousin Kate.

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews: Crews was born in the deliciously-named Bacon County, Georgia, but he spent much of his life living in rural north Florida. Featured in the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, he appears as a doughy, brilliant, hard-scrabble kind of a guy—weird enough that you just know he’s capable of true genius on the page. His 1976 novel A Feast of Snakes, a horrific and weird tale about the annual Rattlesnake Roundup in Mystic, Georgia, is among his best-known and most-acclaimed.

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey: Our newest Poet Laureate is set to take on her duties in September 2012; get to know her work beforehand. Her 2006 collection Native Guard is a good place to start. The poems were inspired in part by Trethewey’s mother, who was murdered in 1985 when Trethewey was only 19 years old. Their subject matter ranges from national history—including the first black regiment of the Union Army, Louisiana’s Native Guard—to personal history—like the story of Trethewey’s parents, an interracial couple who got married a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-micegenation laws.