Southern literature: the very term defies restrictive definitions and yet it is a compelling and legendary presence on the world’s literary stage. Is it the collected works of authors born and raised in the Deep South — or is it sensibility, topic, pattern of speech and presentation?

Mark Twain, considered by many to be the father of Southern literature, represents the characteristics that many people associate with the genre yet, although he often referred to himself as a “Southern writer,” his birthplace of Missouri is not traditionally considered to be part of The South. And what of writers such as New York native John Berendt and his masterpiece Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with its brilliant evocation of the very essence of Savannah? Surely it must be included in the stellar pantheon of Southern literature.

So clearly, while geography may often play a role, the geographical birthplace of the author is not the primary factor in Southern writing.

Perhaps it is the shared and unique history. Certain themes such as slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, family, religion, community, dialect and the overwhelming sense of “place” emerge consistently throughout the best of Southern literature.

Or is it, quite simply, a way of viewing the world around one and then portraying that vision with inimitable elegance and emotional honesty? As with all things in the Deep South, we must look to the past for answers.

The South as a distinct and remarkable culture emerged in the early 1800s. During this pre-Civil War period, an extraordinary literary community was established in Charleston, South Carolina. In the second half of the 19th century, the South lost the Civil War and suffered through Reconstruction (what many white southerners considered a cruel and unjust occupation). In place of the previous literary works — paeans to the “plantation way of life” — came poetry and novels about the glories of the South’s Civil War fight. Prominent writers such as Henry Timrod, Sideny Lanier and Thomas Nelson Page represent this romanticized perspective.

In 1884, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) published what is perhaps the most influential southern novel of the 19th century, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ernest Hemingway stated, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” This statement is particularly true of Southern literature due to the novel’s bold approach to the topic of race.

And then came the great renaissance of American literature: the outpouring of astounding works by such authors as Tennessee Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Caroline Gordon and others. Artists began to explore the outer reaches of creativity and shook up the status quo with such literary devices as William Faulkner’s “stream of consciousness” narrative.

No discussion of the Southern literature of this period would be remotely complete without mention of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind. After winning the 1937 Pulitzer Prize and, in 1939, becoming a universally acclaimed movie, Mitchell’s sprawling magnum opus heralded a wave of popularity the likes of which Southern literature had not previously experienced.

The 1940s heralded a glorious burst of brilliance with the stunning To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and the works of newly accepted African American and female authors. Zora Neal Hurston, Dori Sanders, Sterling Allen Brown, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers and dozens more streaked across the literary heavens like a blazing comet shower.

Today the definition of Southern literature remains stubbornly elusive. As soon as one dares to presume that we have grasped the shape and content, one is compelled to expand the dimensions and depth of understanding. Authors such as Ferrol Sams, Pat Conroy, Cormac McCarthy, Fannie Flagg, Tom Wolfe, John Grisham, Anne Rice, Terry Kay and many others challenge our views and consistently redefine the field.

I have given great consideration to a question that was posed to me recently: “Who would you consider the Top Three of Southern literature?”

Before being so presumptuous as to nominate my favorites, I would suggest that those who have yet to sample the sumptuous buffet of Southern literature begin with the lush yet light works of authors such as Anne Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Frank. These books, rich in ambience and texture, will prime your palette for the more challenging and sensual flavors of my Top Three.

Though my choices will, no doubt, elicit a thunderous symphony of dissenting voices, I would cite Harper Lee, Pat Conroy and Ferrol Sams as my personal icons of this most narrow and yet all-encompassing genre. (I use the term “all-encompassing” quite consciously for, to my mind, Southern Literature represents the full spectrum of human experience – magnified, dissected and made enduring through imagery and phrase).

These three authors indelibly imprinted the feeling, honour and wondrous beauty of the South within the universal conscious mind. They created characters that have become more real than reality and serve as short-cuts for human communication. Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch; Conrack and the Great Santini; the unforgettable Porter Osborne Jr.: we would all be lesser individuals (and poorer as a collective whole) without their presence in our lives and spirits.

Nelle Harper Lee, the youngest of the four children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee, was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926. Her father, a former newspaper editor, was a lawyer who served in the Alabama state legislature from 1926 to 1938. As a child, Lee was an unrepentant tomboy and a voracious reader who delighted in the company of her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote. (One wonders what rarified air and circumstance bred such genius in these children. How I would love to eavesdrop on their childhood conversations!)

Lee enrolled at the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944–45), and then pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama (1945–49). She chose not to continue with her legal degree, studied for a summer in Oxford, England, and then returned to New York, where she worked as a reservation clerk at an airlines desk.

Harper continued in this line of work until the late ’50s, when she decided to devote herself to writing. She lived a simple life, traveling between her bleak apartment in New York to her home in Alabama where she cared for her ailing and beloved father. We can see her now: far from the blossoming South, transplanted to the cold bustle of a metropolis and conjuring the words to frame a time, a place and people.

Having written several long stories, Harper found an agent in November 1956. During the following month at the East 50th townhouse, she received the extraordinary gift of a year’s wages with a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Within that single year, she had completed the first draft of her timeless classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.

In the words of Harper Lee, “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

With that one novel Harper Lee set the standard by which all fathers shall be measured – and all lost innocence mourned.

Pat Conroy, born on October 26, 1945 in Atlanta, Georgia, was the eldest child of  seven children born to Marine Colonel Donald Conroy and his wife Peggy. His father, a US Marine Corps pilot, was (according to Conroy and others) both physically and emotionally abusive. The resultant agony and angst of this tumultuous childhood breathes through the pages of Conroy’s novels, particularly The Great Santini.

After graduating from the Citadel, Conroy taught English in South Carolina and then accepted a job teaching children in a one-room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island, in South Carolina. After but a single year in this position, Conroy was fired due to his unconventional teaching practices, including his refusal to employ corporal punishment. Based on these experiences, Conroy wrote his book The Water is Wide. The book won him a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the film, Conrack, starring Jon Voight.

The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music: these works capture the essence of the South as profoundly as few other novels have been able to do. Lyrical, honest, delicately structured, at times brutal, often redeeming, Conroy is the master when it comes to the challenges of portraying the dichotomies, complexity and glory of the South.

And now we come to Ferrol Sams. Born in rural Fayette County, Georgia, to Ferrol Aubrey Sams, Sr. and Mildred Matthews, Ferrol Jr. (known to his family and close friends as “Sambo”) attended Emory University School of Medicine for only one semester before joining the United States Army Medical Corps. Both Sams and his wife, Helen, practiced medicine in Fayette County until they retired in 2006.

Sams’ literary career began quietly, for he sought only to pen his memoirs, thus preserving a time, place and way of life for future generations. From this humble aspiration came books of such intricacy and insight that one is transported to a social,  physical and historic time that reveals much of what it is to be “Southern.”

Sams has written eight books, including a remarkable trilogy of works featuring Porter Osborne, Jr., a character who is based upon the author himself. Run With The Horsemen, Sams’ first book, was published in 1982 when Ferrol was 60 years of age and in 1991, Sams was awarded the Townsend Prize for Fiction for his publication of When All the World was Young. Erudite, evocative, dancing with believably eccentric characters, uplifting, moving and exquisitely wrought, the works of Ferrol Sams well deserve a place upon the shelves of any Southern literature connoisseur’s library.

Having indulged in these authors one is ready to move on to the shattering beauty and power of the Masters. Williams, Welty, O’Conner, Wolfe and their brethren await you with words that evoke the deep, earthy and hypnotic magic of rare black truffles. Once having tasted the richness of phrase and imagery, the brilliance of plot and voice and the addictive allure of writers of such profound artistry, you will be altered, uplifted and replete.

After your travels through the pages of these books you may be no closer to a definitive definition of Southern literature. Perhaps to be a Southern writer one must breathe of this rich air, walk among the legends, know what it is to touch the moon through Spanish Moss or to move to the rhythms of the tide. Perhaps it is a mercurial thing that will forever be shaped by the ancient forces that forge the footsteps of the Deep South: the flux of history, the tenacious hold on a way of being that imbues conversation and elicits creativity, the pride of heritage and the abiding devotion to “the home place.” Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is a way of viewing the world that will forever defy restriction or classification for Southern literature is, quite simply, the voice of the human heart.

* This article  originally appeared in St. Marys Magazine (www.stmarysmagazine.com)

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Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.