An Ode to the Southern Writer
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Way deep down in the far reaches of the US, where the states curve around to hug the Gulf of Mexico, the heat and stagnant summer days breed more than mosquitos.
You’ve heard names such as Faulkner, Penn Warren, Twain, Alice Walker, Hurston, and countless more thrown around in English classes like Mardi Gras beads. Southern writers have this inescapable way about them. I could point out that there’s a lot to write about given our deep, disturbing roots anchored to the very earth like three-hundred-year-old oak trees. Yeah, there’re plenty of discussions to be had there.
Growing up in the south – and I mean the real south, the kind of south that drips in Spanish moss and lazes next to the brown, muddy waters of that inescapable coast – you get to know a lot of obscure history about the soil we walk around on down here. There’s a secondary kind of history in this place that they don’t teach in schools. It’s the history of why the hell southern writers are so damn good at capturing the human experience, and it’s dripping in local colloquialisms that, frankly, I just don’t think you can learn as a city kid. That is unless you’re a New Orleans city kid. They’re a different breed altogether.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about someone who grew up in what I call the real, proper south: we grew up reading signs. I don’t mean the signs you get in Voodoo shops or through taro decks or premonitory dreams. I mean that we’re all kind of amateur meteorologists in our passive time. We can smell rain coming and it ain’t a fun party trick. We know to start heading north when the birds suddenly disappear in the middle of summer before we even turn on the news, though by then it’s usually too late and you don’t want to be caught in that traffic jam number. We know that fishing won’t be at its prime if it’s not slightly overcast out there. I’m convinced that last one is my dad’s own superstition, but he swears his lazy days by it anyway.
You see, southern writers, well, we grew up linking our days and our moods and our schedules to the whims of the signs. Capturing the soul of a thing through our very surroundings is second nature, a log of histories passed down without blinking. Most of it is simply how we experience our days.
My second thought is that our writers are good because our food is good. Hear me out on this one. Now, if you go around eating something like oatmeal for every meal, chances are your days are not added to by the fuel you’re ingesting. It’s simply a necessary procedure. Come down to the coast, though, and every meal is so good that it becomes a gathering. And, naturally, what is a gathering? A series of stories being told through comedy and a lot of drama. We’re being told stories two, maybe three times a day, every day, more on holidays. You learn a little something about pacing, voice, rhythm after a short while in a place like this.
The southern culture is, in a way, a study in paying passive attention. You might guess I've grown up here. You'd be correct. Aren't we all ultimately nostalgic about the places that built us?