Top Ten Southern Writers:
William Faulkner has to be at the top of every list. He is our Nobel Prize winner. “The Sound and the Fury,” “As I Lay Dying,” “Intruder in the Dust,” “Light in August,” the list goes on and on. Even the very late (1962) “The Reivers” has its charm and “The Bear” may be one of the best short stories ever put on paper.
Mark Twain. His father was a Virginian, his mother was from Kentucky and he worked on the Mississippi River. That’s close enough, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” may rank as the first or second best American novel of all time. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” isn’t bad either.
Tennessee Williams doesn’t seem to be staged much any more, but he would have to be considered a giant based on “A Streetcar Named Desire” alone. Remember with pride also “The Glass Menagerie” and, to a somewhat lesser extent, perhaps, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
James Agee. “A Death in the Family” is not just a great Southern novel. It’s one of the best novels ever written, period. And don’t forget his non-fiction “Now Let us Praise Famous Men,” and consider also his work on the screenplay “The African Queen.”
Truman Capote. I know. I know. But his early stuff was superb. Go back and read “Other Voices, Other Rooms” for a primer on how to start a literary career. “In Cold Blood” was the last decent thing he completed before becoming the blithering drunk we remember from his late-in-life television appearances.
Erskine Caldwell wrote those paperbacks kids of my generation passed around for the dirty parts: “Tobacco Road” and “God’s Little Acre.” But his entire body of work, including non-fiction, dates back to the mid-1930s, and it stacks up well against any of his peers.
Carson McCullers did her best work in the 1940s, but what a list: “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “The Member of the Wedding” all came from that great decade.
Flannery O’Connor. A devout Catholic who turned a skeptical but ultimately forgiving eye on the Christ-haunted Protestants around her, she left us with some of the most memorable tales ever written about the South. Her short stories may be superior to her novels. See: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Walker Percy, another Catholic lost among the Baptists, once slapped down his Protestant neighbors by saying he didn’t expect his religion to answer all of life’s questions. “I just want it to get me through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.” “The Moviegoer,” “The Last Gentleman” and “Love in the Ruins” will do just that.
Robert Penn Warren. A member of the Nashville Fugitive group centered at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, he wrote the outfit’s agrarian manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand.” Later, in addition to poetry, criticism and short stories, he gave us “All the King’s Men.”
After looking over my Top Ten, I realized that it reflects the literary prejudices of a middle-aged white male of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion. So, I’ll provide another list of authors and explain why I placed them in the Second Tier. The main reason is subjective: Do I “hear Southern” when I read them? I don’t mean did the author write in dialect or explore uniquely Southern subjects. I mean something deeper: Does their work cause that unspoken spiritual connection with the place we call the South to well up inside?
Edgar Allan Poe. He was born in Boston and did most of his work in Baltimore and Richmond. When I read him, I see castles and dungeons, not cotton fields and scrub pine.
H.L. Mencken. Baltimore again, and don’t forget “The Sahara of the Bozart,” a disqualifier for sure.
Lillian Smith. She became a heroine to progressives in 1942 with the publication of “Strange Fruit.” Courageous at the time? Damn right! But she never followed it up.
Sidney Lanier. Ever been to Jekyll Island? Then you drove right through “The Marshes of Glynn” when you took the causeway over from Brunswick. It is the greatest poem ever by a Georgian, but it is not enough to elevate him to the top echelon.
Alice Walker. OK, the line where “God gets pissed off if you see the color purple and don’t stop to look” has been a favorite of female Episcopal priests for decades, but it’s just not enough.
Eudora Welty. This is the one I had the most trouble with. She is a Southern literary icon, but honestly who can she knock out of the Top Ten?
Thomas Wolfe. I realize many of his novels were set in western North Carolina, but again I didn’t hear Southern when I tried to read them many years ago.
William Styron. It’s that Southern thing again. “Sophie’s Choice” overwhelms everything else he wrote, and it’s a New York book.
Katherine Anne Porter. She was born in Texas, but Ship of Fools, her most famous work, is set on a steamer sailing from Mexico to Germany.
James Dickey. Only a true Southerner could, or would, name a poetry collection “Buckdancer’s Choice,” and don’t forget “Deliverance.” But still, the Top Ten?