January 08, 2006

Myth and Myopia VII: The First Generation Looks Homeward

When Thomas Wolfe published Look Homeward, Angel and William Faulkner came out with Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury in 1929, people all over the United States began to notice that something unique was stirring in the South. Faulkner published three more major works during the next three years. In 1930, Katherine Anne Porter produced Flowering Judas, and in 1932 Erskine Caldwell delivered Tobacco Road and T. S. Stribling’s The Store won the Pulitzer Prize. And, of course, I’ll Take My Stand was released in 1930. The Southern Literary Renaissance had begun in earnest.

It would, perhaps, be best to begin with William Faulkner, who is called "the major writer to emerge from the Renaissance and the greatest American writer of the 20th century [. . .] a writer for the ages, a Shakespeare in Southern homespun." Faulkner, a native of Mississippi and the great-grandson of a Confederate officer, created a fictional county in his home state, which he called Yoknapatawpha, and where most of his novels are set. His works create a detailed history for Yoknapatawpha, and populate it with a cast of rich, Southern characters, which Faulkner then uses to examine important questions about the South, its history, and its predicament.

Faulkner’s novels are often full of horror, violence, and the grotesque, portraying bleak visions of a disintegrating Southern society where honor and valor have all but disappeared. His characters find themselves trapped in destructive, repeating cycles set in motion long before they were born, and which they are seldom able to break free of. Some reflect the sadness and nostalgia of fallen greatness, while others represent the worst of human nature: savage, corrupt, and selfish. His style was heavily influenced by James Joyce, and his greatest works are narrated using a complex stream-of-consciousness point of view that switches between various characters.

In As I Lay Dying (1930), for instance, Faulkner speaks in no fewer than sixteen voices as he tells the story of the Bundren clan’s struggles to transport the body of Addie Bundren to its final resting place far away from their home. Faulkner went on to alternately produce novels and Hollywood screenplays for over three decades until his death in 1962. Many critics, however, state that he had passed his creative peak by the mid- to late-1940s. Certainly his influence in the Renaissance is most strongly felt during the Depression years, after he had first burst upon the literary scene. Faulkner’s novels, in the words of one of his characters, "Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all."

Thomas Wolfe only managed to publish a few novels before his untimely death in 1938. Nevertheless, his impact during those years was undeniable. William Faulkner ranked him among the greatest writers in America. Wolfe’s writing was informed by his personal experiences in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, by his studies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, and by his travels in Europe. He realized that progress was slowly transforming the South, making it a part of modern America, but also that Southerners had by no means yet joined that world. He lived in an atmosphere of great change, of forward movement, and this movement is reflected in his writing.

Wolfe’s work was particularly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel; he attempted to account, as much as possible, for all of human experience, emphasizing the interconnected nature of history. "Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time," he declared in his first novel. Wolfe had a desire to tell the truth about the people of the South, and could be quite critical of them, particularly greedy, scrambling efforts to attract wealthy tourists. However, he could no more abandon his Southern roots than he could purge them from his writing (as much as he tried to speak for all of America). "His was the story of a man at odds with an environment that both bewildered and charmed him."

Erskine Caldwell, unlike either Faulkner or Wolfe, wrote in a very plain, stark style. Caldwell (who set his novels in his home state of Tennessee) wrote with a social agenda, decrying the dehumanizing effects of poverty on tenant farmers and of racial injustice on blacks in the South. His novels, like those of Faulkner, were sometimes full of violence and grotesque characters, but they lack the balance Faulkner’s nostalgia sometimes provided in his own works. Caldwell’s picture of the South, then, is also an extremely critical one. His South is full of lynchings, rape, and starvation. The atmosphere is oppressive, yet his characters impel a bleak sort of humor in the midst of their surroundings. The title of his most successful work, Tobacco Road, became a byword for rural poverty and [he] established a vogue of tenant literature for a decade."

T. S. Stribling, who began publishing novels a few years before any of the other three, portrayed Alabama in the same way the others were portraying Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Stribling’s historical trilogy, published in the early 1930s, ostensibly traced the economic development of northern Alabama from 1860 to 1920. However, Stribling wove themes of racial injustice and Southern narrow-mindedness into the story as well. While his work lacked the extremities of monstrosity sometimes achieved by Faulkner and Caldwell, he certainly didn’t whitewash the South either. For reasons which remain obscure Stribling published his last novel in 1938, even though he didn’t die until 1962.

In 1941, Cash observed that "if a few greeted such writers as Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, and Caldwell with tolerance [. . .] the prevailing attitude toward them was likely to be one of squeamish distaste and shock, of denial that they told the essential truth or any part of it [. . .] of bitter resentment against them on the ground that they had libeled and misrepresented the South with malicious intent." Yet, whether or not their opinions were popular among Southerners, the fact remained that the rest of the country was beginning to take notice.

To the audience of the 1930s, "long conditioned by attacks on the Benighted South and by liberation from gentility [. . . the literary] thrust seemed to be at best a liberal critique of contemporary error, at worst a sensational exposé of degradation." The works of such authors soon came to be known as "Southern Gothic," a label that would plague many other Southern writers for decades to come. Meanwhile, the South continued to suffer from the extreme poverty of the Great Depression, and events like the Scottsboro trial of the 1930s and Roosevelt’s statement in 1938 that the South was "the Nation’s No. I economic problem" ensured that the image of the Benighted South would remain entrenched for some decades longer.

Meanwhile, some authors chose to approach the subject of the Depression from a different, less Gothic angle, most notably James Agee of Tennessee. In 1936, Agee journeyed to the South with photographer Walker Evans to produce an article on sharecroppers for Fortune. The magazine ultimately rejected the article, and it grew steadily in size and scope until it was published in 1941 under the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Although little noticed at first, it was eventually hailed as “the most sensitive and effective evocation of tenant life.” Nor was it the only book released at the time which made use of photography to document Southern life during the Depression. Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White produced You Have Seen Their Faces in 1937, and other writer-photographer teams followed suit, combining social reportage with striking images.

Posted by Jared at January 8, 2006 10:37 PM | TrackBack