Oxford American on Southern Literature

faked by Monday, August 31st, 2009

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.

16 Responses to “Oxford American on Southern Literature”

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  2. rick says:

    colson whitehead is a born-and-bred new yorker who went to harvard. might as well include james baldwin while you’re at it.

  3. Rick, I think your diction there is telling. It’s not a list of southern authors—it’s a list of southern novels. So we wouldn’t be including or excluding James Baldwin—we’d be including or excluding a novel by James Baldwin. (Although I can’t think of any of his novels, offhand, that are about the South—stories and plays for sure, though. But then there are a lot of Baldwin novels I haven’t read. I think parts of Just Above My Head swing through the South.) As my comments about Ellison above indicate, I’m not interested in defining a novel as southern according to where its author was born or lived most of his/her life. I’m interested in defining it, very loosely, as a novel about the South. One could argue that born-and-bred southerners write about the region differently than those from outside the region, and okay, sure, it’s worth being attentive to the possibilities of those differences—but otherwise, so what?

  4. bulb says:

    Wrote a bit about this at Facebook. I think Penn Warren was too high. I’m not so sure about Invisible Man, given there are other ways to widen the South. My out there nomination is Tomer’s Cane (also a Harlem renaissance thing). I really wanted something aftyer the Civil Rights Act: you mention some good ones above (esp. the Nordan which know from directing an MA thesis on said author). Old school I might mention Cable’s The Grandissimes. New school what about urban South stuff let’s say a Ross McDonald pulper about Florida and crime or maybe Ford’s The Sporstwriter. Two other Applachian candidates: Rash’s Serena and McCrumb’s She Walks These Hills. The Sound and the Fury would be the Faulkner jettison from their list.

  5. Good point about the absence of Appalachian and urban texts, bulb—in addition to “When is [or was?] southern literature?”, we might also ask “Where?” (These questions are all over southern literary studies, it probably goes without saying.) Richard Gray puts in a plug for Grace Lumpkin’s novel of labor and protest in Appalachia, To Make My Bread, in the “underrated books section”—I’ve been meaning to read that for a while. Cane would have been a good choice as well—I wish I had thought of it. I have never quite gotten the allure of The Sportswriter or of Richard Ford in general, I have to say.

  6. rick says:

    i’m not sure what my diction supposedly told you because you didn’t spell it out, but i will concede that i didn’t read the entirety of your post and missed the bit about ellison.

    the baldwin i had in mind was “go tell it on the mountain,” which is as good a novel as any about the Black urban migration of the early 20th century.

    i’d add “the floating opera,” which is a great southern novel written by a pseudo-southerner, john barth, who was born in maryland.

  7. bulb says:

    Gonna have to get this OA issue and finally get a copy of the Butler novel. I learned all about the New New South from former colleague and Pocahantas hubbie Jon Smith.

  8. Here’s Michelle Richmond’s ballot; I could kick myself for forgetting The Known World, though I’d be hard pressed to say what I’d eliminate for it. And I’m surprised Beloved didn’t turn up in the final top 10 (though again the question of Morrison’s “southernness” may have been at issue for a lot of the judges).

  9. Jessica says:

    I was one of the 5 OA interns that worked on the issue—and I had a large part in this poll. Just wanted to say that is was your passionate blurb that inspired us all to search for copies of JUJITSU FOR CHRIST for our own collections.

    PS—Don’t forget to check the website in the next few days for a complete list of ranked books. Personally, I found 11-50+ to be the most interesting.

  10. gorjus says:

    That’s a great blurb. And Jessica, I’d also seek out Living In Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, which is arguable the more “modern” work—instead of J4C’s 1960’s Jackson, Miss. civil rights background, it’s a very 1990’s Arkansas. Troubling and possibly great.

    Prof., when you gonna start writing about that book?

  11. Thanks for the note, Jessica—you guys will not be disappointed. Very much looking forward to seeing the expanded list. And yeah, heed gorjus’s advice. Gorj, I dunno—I hope soon! I gotta write some more stuff about Nightshade first.

  12. Well, what an interesting post and conversation. I agree wholeheartedly with you Prof that one book per author per list is only fair. As I Lay Dying needs to go, please! Travesty that Welty isn’t listed. These are strange results indeed. I guess I don’t think that the specs for the list are really helpful. If you say Southern literature is about the south, you could have an author on the list from say, Vietnam—which would be ok, but isn’t really the point, is it? Or is it? If it is books about the south, where is Harriet Beecher Stowe. And if it is books about the south and doesn’t include Toni Morrison, isn’t really strange? What about Cormac? Where are the southern boundaries? And where is Richard Wright—maybe his best books are about the north? Oh, and I 100% agree with Fury on the Walker Percy selection. I hope your voice for Butler back in print makes it so. Also, do you think a case should be made for Lee Smith.

  13. Oh, and how about Black Thunder by Arna Bontemps and Quest for the Silver Fleece by W.E.B. DuBois (If you don’t have to be Southern to be a Southern writer)?

  14. Good questions and suggestions all, Betsy! But yeah, deciding what the point of “southern” is is part of the point, I think. For myself I would have no prob with a novelist from Vietnam writing a great novel about the South and that novel making the list. Richard Wright made the Top 5 Nonfiction list for Black Boy; his Native Son received votes and finished in the top 50, but I don’t really get that one since none of it takes place in the South. Again, I think sometimes people were voting for “southern writer” v. “southern novel,” and all kinds of questions of definition get caught up in that. Here are the expanded results, though, where many of the authors and texts you picked out are listed.

  15. gorjus says:

    I bought this stupid thang just ‘cuz you was up in it. NEXT TIME MORE PROF. FURY, REGIONAL PUBLICATION.

  16. Peyton says:

    More Professor indeed! I was glad to see you get blurbed in this particular OA ish when I finally picked it up this weekend. I just wanted to send you a major thanks for introducing me to Jujitsu a few years back, as it is a rare and unexpected treat to be sure. It deserves a 23-point pitch all its own.

    I finished The Moviegoer after moving to NOLA over the summer, and I’m definitely enjoying the Southern lit kick I’ve been on as of late. Would you say that The Last Gentleman is a good followup to Percy’s debut, or is there a better candidate before tackling your personal fave?

    And even more importantly: If you didn’t nominate Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby – who the heck did?

    Hoping you’ll get this comment on such an old post…

    – Peyton J.