So—the new Oxford American special issue on southern literature is out, and, like most all issues of OA, it’s well worth your time. In addition to some smart and insightful essays, the new ish includes their top-ten “Best Southern Novels of All Time” list.
I was one of the judges for the list, and I thought it might be interesting to see how my ballot lines up with the final results. You can see their list and read some comments from judges at the OA website, but for the sake of convenience, here’s their top ten:
1. Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
2. Warren, All the King’s Men
3. Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
4. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
5. Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
6. Percy, The Moviegoer
7. Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
8. Ellison, Invisible Man
9. O’Connor, Wise Blood
10. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
On the one hand, it’s hard to complain about any single one of those selections. And it’s tough to begrudge Faulkner his three spots on the list, though it does make me wish the magazine had enforced a one-book-per-writer policy—if only because such a result was completely predictable and tends to make southern lit look narrower and more traditional, as though most southern writers are just scribbling in Faulkner’s margins, which already contain his handwritten annotations, so there’s even less room than you think. Also worth pointing out: Take Twain away, and all of those books were published between 1929 and 1961. Perhaps we should revise the frequently asked question from “What is southern literature?” to “When is southern literature?” Because this list makes it seem like it flowered briefly in the early-to-mid twentieth century and then went away. No plantation novels, no slave narratives, no excessive postmodern head trips. (Well, unless you read Absalom, Absalom! that way, which I do.) My own list is twentieth- and twenty-first-century heavy, so I can’t complain much about the absence of early work, although I did include Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl on my ballot for the nonfiction list—it didn’t make it.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Ellison’s Invisible Man on the list—the one work included that works to broaden the definition of “southern literature” toward something like “literature about the South” and dispenses with a lot of the familiar anxiety about regional exceptionalism and southern-fried bona fides.
So, my ballot. These are unranked—judges were given an option to single out a book as the #1 pick, but I decided against it:
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples
Lewis Nordan, Wolf Whistle
Jack Butler, Jujitsu for Christ
Randall Kenan, A Visitation of Spirits
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada
Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman
Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days
Some overlap there with Faulkner, Hurston, and Warren, and I picked out what I think is the superior Percy novel, but no one ever agrees with me on that. Of course my list features Welty, who is woefully absent from the final OA list; I suspect this is more because there was no consensus Welty pick from voters (though I thought Golden Apples would come closest, though I guess its status as “novel” is debatable). Welty did make the nonfiction list with One Writer’s Beginnings, a work which I actually think is among her weakest but which people seem to enjoy—I suspect partly because it seems to confirm the sweet-old-lady image of Welty that a lot of readers cherish, and which the great essay in this issue by Michael Griffith works to dispel. My list is, obviously, heavy on more contemporary works—which I have more space for since I limited Faulkner and Welty to one book apiece. No sense in letting Faulkner talk all the air out of the room and he will if you let him.
I suppose it goes without saying that there are10, 20, 30 other works that I could just have easily have chosen; I chose somewhat strategically, in hopes that my picks would nudge the canon slightly toward the current moment, but alas.
Judges were also given the option to cite one book that they felt was the most underrated work of southern literature. It will surprise no one that I chose our fellow contributor Jack Butler’s novel Jujitsu for Christ. The magazine ran a few sentences of the comments that accompanied my ballot, but they had to slice and dice it a bit*, so here they are in full verbosity:
Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ (1986) isn’t underrated in the sense that the people who read it don’t get it; rather, it’s that not enough people are reading it in the first place. This is because the novel is bizarrely, criminally, out of print. It would be irresponsible to speculate that it is being kept that way by a shadowy cabal of writers—not just southerners, either, but American writers generally and a few Swedes as well—who know that their work would seem dim and anemic compared to Butler’s, so I won’t do that. But I will say that the novel is funny, sexy, disturbing, heartbreaking, and completely unlike any of the books that you might think it would be like based on its title, cover illustration, or jacket description. There is something to delight or horrify on every page, but if you need to scan a few pages to be convinced, look no further than the section labeled “Summertime”: an accurate, hilarious, and devastating description of the uniquely hallucinogenic properties of a Mississippi summer. You’d be cheating yourself to stop there, though. The novel does not so much forge connections between apparently disparate topics such as civil rights, martial arts, science fiction, and Southern Baptists as it reveals how inextricably connected all those things, and dozens of others, already are in the first place. And maybe that’s the novel’s signal achievement: How it challenges assumptions about what can be said and what should be discussed about the South; how it reveals Mississippi to be a bigger, stranger, and more mysterious place than most people ever allow themselves to recognize.
Anyway, it was fun to participate; I’ll be interested to see if the list inspires friendly debate, hair-pulling anger, sage nods, grave silence, or what.
*Just like when I wrote that impeccably argued 1500-word letter to West Coast Avengers editor Mark Gruenwald detailing the twenty-three reasons that Hank Pym should lead the WCA instead of that showboat Hawkeye, and then he only printed the first eighteen. It violated the delicately crystalline logical-rhetorical structure of the whole list! Item 12 doesn’t even make sense until it is retroactively refracted through item 22! I was so embarrassed.