January 09, 2006

Myth and Myopia VIII: The Old South Strikes Back (and Other Sundries)

By now, a counter-Gothic movement was beginning to rise within the South. Stark Young had already proven the success of positive portrayals of the Old South when a young Atlanta journalist (and former colleague of Erskine Caldwell) named Margaret Mitchell responded to the Gothic novelists with a historical romance of her own.

The book was Gone with the Wind, and it was an instant best-seller when it was published in 1936, selling a million copies in six months. Gone with the Wind became the smash-hit of the decade, and a movie version, which premiered in Atlanta in 1939, is still the highest grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). Cash calls the book "a new confession of the Southern faith" and the scene it prompted in Atlanta when the movie was released "one of the most remarkable which America has seen in our time." The publication of Gone with the Wind, which won the Pulitzer Prize, both demonstrated and revitalized the popularity of the South’s mythic past throughout the United States. A host of novels in the same vein followed closely in its wake.

The book itself follows Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled and selfish Southern belle, from her idyllic existence in the antebellum South, through the hardships of the Civil War, and into her opportunistic struggles during Reconstruction. However, although the movie version falls squarely into the fallacies of Southern myth, the novel is much more complex, striving for some level of historical accuracy while often portraying its characters as flawed.

Following directly in the footsteps of Margaret Mitchell was the African-American writer Frank Yerby. His first Southern historical romance, The Foxes of Harrow, was released in 1946. Yerby dominated the market for about two decades, writing (strangely) for an audience which was largely composed of white females. Although he won an award for his short fiction (which dealt with racial issues) in the early 1940s, many of his critics complained that he disregarded questions of race in his later works. To this, Yerby replied with his stated belief that a writer should not "inflict on the public his private ideas on politics, religion or race."

Two other Southerners, William Alexander Percy and Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, asserted the value of their Southern heritage during the 1940s with autobiographical works. Both exhibit the typical Southern historical consciousness in their work and wrestle with assumptions which have been instilled in them all their lives about sectional and racial differences. Percy, with Lanterns on the Levee (1941), defended the region against liberal criticism from the North while reminiscing about his tranquil youth in the South. Speaking for the Southern aristocracy, he tried to rationalize and justify white supremacy.

Du Pre Lumpkin, on the other hand, took a quite different approach in The Making of a Southerner (1946). She struggles to overcome the generations of racism and acceptance of slavery which exist in her family history, ultimately recognizing the incompatibility of prejudice and Christianity and rejecting the attitudes of the past.

Shelby Foote published six novels during the late 1940s and early 1950s, most of which were set during the Civil War period. However, his tour de force, The Civil War: A Narrative, was a three-volume history which he began in 1954. His immersion in the period and intense familiarity with it earned him the admiration of a number of fellow authors and is indicative of a writer who sought to celebrate the South and its history without either worshipping or vilifying.

Throughout the Southern Literary Renaissance, authors appeared and disappeared, often completely independent of any group and with little in common save that they were all Southern natives. No two lists of the important voices of the period look exactly alike, partly because few examinations of the Renaissance are able to devote sufficient space for a comprehensive study and so some writers must go unmentioned. Almost inevitably, these are the ones who are not easily categorized, operating on the fringes of the Renaissance, or only publishing one important work in their entire careers.

Katherine Anne Porter, a Texas writer, examined universal themes about human mythmaking, often making use of the South and of Southern history. Beginning in 1930, she wrote stories and short novels almost exclusively, with the exception of one full-length novel, Ship of Fools (1962). Her style is deeply personal, opening itself up to the reader and allowing the reader to be drawn deeper into the story and the experiences of the characters.

Lillian Hellman, of Louisiana, wrote numerous plays and screenplays from the 1930s to the 1960s. Her best known work is The Little Foxes (1939), a story of family greed set in the post-Civil War South. Although Hellman moved to New York City at a young age, her family roots were buried deep in Southern soil. Truman Capote was another such writer. Born in New Orleans but moving to New York City as a child, Capote became instantly famous when he published his first novel in 1948. He continued to write prolifically, often about deeply Southern characters like the exiled Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). His crowning achievement came with the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965. It was the first non-fiction novel.

Capote’s childhood friend, Harper Lee, also achieved lasting fame with her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which combines a tender, nostalgic, coming-of-age story with themes of racism and injustice in small-town Alabama. And Walker Percy, orphaned as a child and raised by his father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, used his Christian existentialist beliefs and Southern settings and characters to explore universal themes in novels like The Last Gentleman (1966).

During the Renaissance, African-American writers were also beginning to gain a significant voice. While their impact may have been less at the time than that of white authors (and less than it would be later), they still had much of importance to say about the region they had inhabited as a race almost as long as the Europeans, and in which they too had played a vital role. Many prominent black authors emerged from the Harlem Renaissance and produced literature equally important in the South.

The best examples of such writers are Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Hughes, although not a Southerner, borrowed heavily from the Southern black experience in his poetry. Hurston published several novels in the 1930s and 1940s which discussed the racial problems of the South in softer, less vindictive terms than other African-Americans. Her most important work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), gained immense popularity after her death as a portrait of the strength of black women in the South. However, other black authors criticized her work, most notably Richard Wright.

Wright’s most important works, Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), portrayed a very violent picture of black life. His often amoral characters reflect the effects of their environment, and are plagued by the effects of poverty and prejudice. Ralph Ellison, yet another important black writer of this period, was inspired to become a writer as the result of a chance reading of “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot.

Moving to New York, he met and was heavily influenced by both Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. His most important work, Invisible Man, received the National Book Award when it was published in 1952. It chronicles the life of a black man who finds that he is socially invisible in the white man’s world. Meanwhile, poet and novelist Margaret Walker challenged the romanticized vision of the Old South in her works, particularly in her novel Jubilee (1966).

Posted by Jared at January 9, 2006 07:08 PM | TrackBack