January 10, 2006

Myth and Myopia IX: Good Southern Writers of the Second Generation

Naturally, many of the authors already discussed are very difficult to assign to specific, narrow periods, as many of them continued writing well into the 1970s and 1980s. However, those writers who became prominent literary figures during the Great Depression are generally regarded as the first generation of the Southern Literary Renaissance. Following the return to prosperity which took place during World War II, a second generation of Southern writers continued the legacy of the Renaissance before many in the first generation had left off.

Some of these authors have already been reviewed. But the South after World War II was beginning to change very rapidly. Finally able to begin shaking off the images of a Benighted South, the region was enjoying a new prosperity. Soon, though, the African-American crusade for civil rights would once again influence the national image of the South for the worse. Meanwhile, a whole new group of powerful Southern voices flooded the literary market with their works.

Among these authors were Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Smith, and Flannery O’Connor. Among the themes they addressed were the increasing struggle Southerners faced in joining the modern world, and the ever-pressing question of whether the South would be able to remain a "white man’s country" much longer.

At the heart of Eudora Welty’s writing there is a sense of the importance of the South as a setting, of the importance of the past, and of the importance of connections within family life. The best representative of her distinctly Southern fiction is probably Delta Wedding (1946), which portrays a large Southern family in the early 1920s gathered together to celebrate the wedding of a daughter.

Carson McCullers published her first (and possibly best) novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in 1940. She became famous with the publication of The Member of the Wedding (1946). The book is an exploration of relationships and individuality as the main character experiences isolation from everyone around her. Much of her writing uses the South symbolically to represent the problems and the worries of all of America. McCullers also dealt sympathetically with both sides in the question of race during the early 1940s, but held out little hope for future change. Her attitude towards the South, unlike Welty’s, remained ambivalent, and her writing has even been classified as Southern Gothic by some.

Tennessee Williams, a playwright, wrote several popular plays and screenplays during the 1940s and 1950s. Like William Faulkner and Lillian Hellman, Williams helped to transform a number of his own works into movie form. With a penchant for the grotesque, Williams’s plays and films often depict a very decadent vision of the South as a region full of eccentricity and violated sexual taboos. However, they can also profoundly depict a South in the throes of transformation from old to new.

In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) two fallen aristocrats, Blanche and Stella, find themselves living in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Stella, symbolically making herself comfortable with the brutish and uneducated New South of the future, has married Stanley Kowalski, a low-class, often abusive man. Blanche, on the other hand, a sensitive former English teacher who has found herself unable to cope with the fall from wealth and society that life has dealt her, becomes increasingly unstable, entering a fantasy world rooted in the nonexistent past of moonlight and magnolias. Eventually it is revealed that not everything is as it seems in Blanche’s past. She too has behaved both immorally and opportunistically in order to survive in the New South, but her mind is too fragile to survive the effects of her actions.

A later play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), presents a family of lower-class whites risen to power and prestige, but now rapidly falling to pieces as the family patriarch nears death and his two sons and their wives squabble over the inheritance and attempt to come to terms with issues of their own. The title character, "Maggie the Cat," wife of the younger son, expects her only victory in life to be that of a "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," simply to stay where she is as long as she can.

However, the ending brings familial reconciliation with it. Maggie, addressing her husband Brick in the final scene, seems almost also to be addressing the Old South in the voice of the New when she says, "Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you, gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of, and I can!"

Lillian Smith became one of the strongest white Southern voices in favor of civil rights beginning in the mid-1940s. Her writing arose less from "a sense of personal guilt than [from] a feeling of shame for the behavior of [her] homeland." She wrote with a strong awareness of the close correlation between "white supremacy and white male supremacy." Her best known works are Strange Fruit (1944) and Killers of the Dream (1949, rev. 1961).

In the latter, which opens with the words "even its children know that the South is in trouble," she asserted that the burden of whites was their childhood, how they had been raised all their lives to believe and act. To Smith, the killers of the dream were "Southerners who honored and passed on a flawed Southern culture" to their children. Her book is a moving autobiographical examination of the development of Southern culture and its flaws. Smith charged that Southern whites had "segregated Southern money from [the poor white] and [. . .] segregated Southern mores from [the rich white] and [. . .] segregated Southern churches from Christianity and [. . .] segregated Southern minds from honest thinking and [. . .] segregated the Negro from everything." Unlike many Southern social critics of her day, who were advocating a gradual move towards true racial equality, Smith continued to call loudly for an immediate end to segregation until her death in 1966.

Undoubtedly the most important literary voice of the second generation, however, was Flannery O’Connor, who completed two novels and two collections of short stories between 1952 and her death in 1964. Additionally, her collected essays were published under the title Mystery and Manners in 1969. These essays attempt to explain both the Southerner and the Southern writer. O’Connor was often referred to as a Southern Gothic, but her use of the grotesque was very different from that of previous authors who had received that label.

"In the 1930s Erskine Caldwell had written about the grotesque inhabitants of Tobacco Road and attributed their condition to a social system that could be redeemed through political and economic reform. Two decades later, Flannery O’Connor wrote about more or less the same people and attributed the condition of each to an unfulfilled longing for God’s grace, which made social reform rather beside the point." O’Connor asserted that "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted," and her fiction labors within this context.

Her stories are distinctly Southern in a variety of ways, most notably her use of humor and stereotypes. Among the themes she develops are: tension between city and country, anti-intellectualism, the centrality of family and community, the prominence of history and the past, parent-child relationships, racial tension, and self-knowledge and hypocrisy. However, dominating all of these ideas, or perhaps binding them together, is the presence of strong religious motifs and the overpowering force of God’s saving Grace. O’Connor’s characters inevitably find themselves confronted by a drastic, often violent, situation which leads to a moral epiphany.

Posted by Jared at January 10, 2006 11:59 PM | TrackBack