This spring, my wife and I recently spent a lovely weekend in Dahlonega, Georgia. For the uninformed, Dahlonega is a small town just over an hour north of Atlanta in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Dahlonega is best known for the gold rush that started there in 1828, when rich veins of the stuff were discovered in the area. It was the second significant gold find in the young United States, and within three years, Dahlonega’s population soared to some 10,000, almost all of whom were seeking their fortunes in the rocks and caves and streams of the region.
I say “almost all” because, according to local folks, some of the town’s then-more-colorful citizens pursued other, ahem, “professions.” For example, at one restaurant on the town square, the wait staff, with great enthusiasm and even pride, explained that the place had been a bordello during the gold rush. A couple of waiters went on to say that the ghost of one of the, uh, “employees” even now walks the halls and stairwells of the place. The story is that her “john” left without paying, and apparently, she was — still is — serious about getting paid for services rendered.
There are a couple of former gold mines in Dahlonega that offer interesting tours of the mining caves (not recommended for the claustrophobic). Indeed, you can still pan for gold in a couple of streams and gold sluices at those places. Good luck!
Today, Dahlonega is a pretty small town with a wonderful town square full of funky shops, restaurants, and such. The weekend we were there, the town hosted a literary festival, and it was there where the missus and I spent much of our time.
The session we enjoyed most was called “Set in the South.” It featured eight fiction writers talking about their craft, with the theme, of course, being, “What puts the ‘Southern’ in Southern writing?” It’s a good question: just what is Southern fiction?
A caveat: all of the panelists, and most of the audience, were white. Naturally, their answers and the discussion were from that perspective. I think it’s important to make that distinction, because there’s a vast chasm between Southern (in fact, any) white experience and that of our black sisters and brothers. Indeed, the question, “What is black Southern literature?” is just as relevant, if not more so, than just plain “What is (implicitly ‘white’) Southern literature?” I hope that some of the black — and others of different ethnicities–writers for likethedew might add some perspective; the narrative is far from complete without it.
But back to the panel discussion. One of the writers put it simply: “If one of your characters is named ‘Wormy,’ you can pretty much bet it’s Southern literature.” Can’t argue with that. Ditto “Bubba.”
I think you have to throw in a heaping helping of “place” when talking about Southern fiction. In my admittedly biased opinion, no other region of the country is as unique as the South… for good and bad. “Home” and “the land” course through the veins of Southern fictional characters as strongly as blood. The folks who populate those pages rarely stray far from their home, their land. If they do, they always come back because of some bizarre family situation (more on that in a moment). And if nothing else, the God-awful heat and humidity of the South makes the people in such books do some pretty strange things.
Family, too, is an important component of Southern writing. And many times, not in a good way. The narrator or main character is often the only “normal” one. Other kin are ornery, peculiar, bitter, angry, stubborn, jealous, or they — and this is one of my favorite Southern expressions — “just ain’t right.” And those characteristics are the better ones. Other family members — the ones who stir up the big trouble that usually drives the tale — are mean, vengeful, ignorant, and violent. And as mentioned above, almost all of them have stayed close to home. That can be a good thing, but in Southern literature, it usually isn’t.
Religion — specifically, ultra-conservative, Bible-thumping Christianity — is another area involved in much of Southern literature. “That old-time religion” is woven into the fabric of such stories, usually by characters either taking the Bible way out of context or taking it too literally or twisting it to fit their contorted, psychotic, dangerous behavior. And don’t be surprised to find yourself in an old, country, clapboard church with folks fanning themselves with hand fans with a picture of (white) Jesus on one side and a funeral home advertisement on the other. Dinner-on-the-grounds after the service to kick off the weeklong revival. Watch out; something bad’s fixin’ to happen soon. (Speaking of “fixin’ to,” if that expression is used in a book, chances are it’s Southern literature.)
Someone once said that a sense of melancholy or a sense of loss permeates Southern literature. And there do seem to be elements of sadness and damage or defeat in those pages. I can’t quite define or articulate these aspects, but they are usually there. Maybe the feelings of unhappiness and loss are left over from the South’s defeat in the Civil War. I sure hope not. Because if that’s the case, it damn sure ain’t right.
There are probably more, and I invite the reader to comment. Right now, though, I have to go pick up Wormy in my truck; we’re fixin’ to set up the folding tables outside the church.