How History Changes – Southern History & Southern Literature The events that take place in our past create a lasting effect that can be seen in almost every aspect of our lives. When reviewing how these historical events cause great changes, it is best to look at the literature from the time period. Literature is important to its time frame because it represents how and what the people living in that era felt.
The literature of the Southern States of America, “Southern Literature”, has gone through two important events in history, The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, which have lead to great advancements in the further development of the type of literature. Along with these historical occurrences there were plenty of new authors and writers, but Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor where three authors that individually shaped their periods of Southern Literature.
To understand how history shaped Southern Literature into what it was then and what it is now, a reader has to know that Southern Literature is basically literature written by Southern writers about the issues and lifestyles of the South. The characteristics of Southern Literature include; common southern history, the importance of family, the importance of community, religion, race, land and the promise it brings, sense of social class, and the use of Southern dialect. Most of these characteristics are found in works of Southern Literature, but they do not limit them.
Southern/American Literature has been present since the Americas were inhibited by the first expeditions to Virginia. Most of the literature around that time was the same in the North and the South. It wasn’t until 1840 when the increasing divergence of economic, political, and social conditions started to create a specific “Southern Literature” that reflected the concerns and attitudes that would survive as continuing elements of Southern Literature. Most of these works reflected the lifestyle, too, of the people living in the South during that time frame.
The majority of the Southerners were farmers with the white plantation owners and their abundance of slaves, along with all the lower class “white trash”. This time period of Southern Literature is referred to as the “antebellum literature”. It was prevalent in the 17th century in the years before the Civil War. Much of these works, however, were destroyed in the Civil War, but as devastating as the Civil War was to the economy and the population of the United States, it actually benefited the literature.
One event that forever changed the United States of America was by far the Civil War, and even though people thought it would completely destroy the Southern State and their morale, it was actually beneficial to the overall development of the Literature of the South. The Civil war took place in America from the years 1861 to 1865. It was brought upon when the South seceded from the North because of many conflicting issues, one primarily being slavery. While history books teach us it “ruined” the South when they eventually lost the war, they don’t teach us of the good affects it had on the literature.
The war itself put Southerners in the position where they had room to expand their literature. Rubin’s The History of Southern Literature, points out two main contributions the war made: “First, the formation of the Confederacy and its national call to arms encouraged in Southerners and examination of their regional identity. Second, the war forced the South to rely more fully on its own literature rather than those of New England and the North. ” (Rubin 178). During the actual time span of the war, most of the literature production in the South had stopped.
It wasn’t until after the war, and the harsh Reconstruction time, that the literature started to finally take off. When the war eventually ended with the South’s defeat in 1865, the Southern States of America were faced with a difficult road in front of them. They were faced with the hardship of knowing what they were fighting for lost. Also, after the war, the Northerners put the Southerners through a “Reconstruction” in order to change their ways of life. The emergence of literature right after the war is called the “Lost Cause” years, referring to their recent defeat.
These works of literature that were produced were aimed at glorifying the “Old South”, before the war, and rebuilding the fallen morale of the beaten down Southerners. In the book, The Companion to Southern Literature, it states how important these writings were; “It was significant as a defeat, as “the lost cause”; it enforced the southerners’ love of place; and it, together with the circumstances that cause it well as the war’s aftermath, formed the core of the burden of the past that would lead to the poignant writing styles of authors to come. (Flora 155). Undoubtedly, the author who made the “Lost Cause” years significant is by far the “father of Southern Literature”, Mark Twain. His writings possessed all of the necessary characteristics that helped get the “Lost Cause” of the South into a full expansion of the literature. Mark Twain (1835 – 1910) was what people would call a “classic Southern humorist”. A humorist is someone who writes about lower white class that tend to be “uncivilized”.
When Twain continued to follow the “Old South” humorist writings after the War, he only glorified the “Southern lifestyle” even more. His short story, “The Story of the Good Little Boy”, is an excellent work to examine to put a reader into the “Lost Cause” period. Structurally, Twain used many basic characteristics of Southern Literature to glorify the South to his readers. The story’s main plot is about a young boy, Jacob Blivens, who tries to do his best at everything, but nothing ever seems to work out for him.
The setting of the story is one of a small, quiet Southern town. Southerners who glorified that part of the “Old South” loved this image of the small community lifestyle. “Humor”, which was a fundamental of earlier literature, is found in the overall morale of the story. Jacob, who tries his best to be the best boy he can, while all of the other boys have fun and do “bad” things like float down the river on Sunday, only gets injured and eventually killed because of the actions he does to be “good”. So the irony in his actions expresses that Southern humor.
The story has a big sense of religion, which at any time in Southern Literature, is very important. Jacob is taught in Sunday school to be a “good” boy, and his concept of that is very important to him. He tries to follow everything by the book, meaning the Bible. Even looking at the sentence structure, a reader can point out that the sentences are very simplistic and too the point. This was because the South was previously very uneducated before the Civil War, and new more advanced writing styles were just becoming part of Southern Literature.
These characteristics, however, only helped build the biggest theme that actually expresses how the South was feeling at that time. Twain’s story was published in 1870, just five years after the Civil War. Symbolically it shows how the South was starting to react to the changes it was undergoing. The “good little boy”, Jacob Blivens, is who the North wants the South to be. Follow all the rules and listen to every word they say. But the Southerners, instead, are the other boys in the neighborhood who are labeled the “bad boys”.
The downfall of Jacob Blivens, is what the Southerners viewed what would happen to them if they gave into the Reconstruction rules of the North. Symbolically, this story an excellent representation of what the Southerners were feeling at this time right after the Civil War. The “Lost Cause” years lasted for only a few years more until the South was starting to end their Reconstruction. Just as the Civil War sparked the “Lost Cause”, this period was only a stepping-stone that would later give birth to an even bigger time in Southern Literature.
During the first half of the twentieth century, a major reawakening of the South’s literature took place known as the “Southern Renaissance”. Joseph M. Flora writes; “The Southern Literary Renaissance involved a critical reexamination of southern history, a new awareness of the restrictions of traditional racial and gender roles, an interest in literary experimentation, an examination of the role of the southern artist in relation to the southern community, and an increasingly realistic presentation of social conditions in the South. (Flora 835). This time period basically reinvented the literature of the South, by reexamining their Southern past. During this time, it was far enough historically from the Civil War that the subject of the war and slavery were more objective in their writings about the South, allowing writers to expand to bigger topics. The South also started to reach out to other parts of America during this time to show their literary triumphs. One important novel that glorified Southern Literature was Gone With the Wind printed in the 1930s.
What makes this extravagant period even more interesting is the cause for the Renaissance had no clear beginning of why it happened. It was brought upon by the gradual revival of the fallen South and after the brief “Lost Cause” years, but the South was the last place anyone in America would expect a significant change in literature to occur. With all of the changes and advancements being made, the Southern Renaissance was crucial to keeping Southern Literature alive. William Faulkner was one of many authors who kept he literature alive, and he is considered on the most influential writers of his time. William Faulkner (1897-1962) was one of many Southern Literature writers who emerged from the Southern Renaissance and brought with them distinctive writing techniques and styles that made it a “renaissance”. He was born and raised in New Albany, Mississippi, which like other Southern writers is a common characteristic of growing up in the South. However, Faulkner loved to show more complexity in his stories that shows advancement on the humorist, short simple stories produces before the Renaissance.
Joseph Flora writes, “Faulkner was clearly the major figure of the Renaissance who produced innovative works of fiction based on rural and small-town locales. ” (Flora 836). In 1931, Faulkner created one of his most famous short stories, “A Rose for Emily”. Like Mark Twain’s story before, this story also showed many characteristics that related it to Southern Literature. The setting of the story takes place in the South during the time of the Reconstruction. Even though the Reconstruction phase of the South was over, many stories liked to touch on the recent events of the South. The plot revolves around the main character, Ms.
Emily. She is the daughter of a wealthy man in the community, but over the years she becomes a secretive, secluded lady that the rest of the town gossips about. In her earlier years, she was rumored to have been involved with a Northerner, Homer Barron, but one day he just disappeared. It wasn’t until the end of the story, the reader finds out that Ms. Emily in fact murdered Mr. Barron because he wanted to leave her. Faulkner’s techniques of a complex plot and first-person plural point of view show the advancements made to the writing processes and how the Renaissance became more innovative.
However, just like Twain’s story had a symbolic meaning of the South, Faulkner’s story also expressed how the Southerners felt. This short story is an allegory to what the relationship between the South and North after the Civil War was. Ms. Emily is the South, and Homer Barron is the North. When Homer suddenly wants to leave, Emily is torn apart by his actions. To stop him from leaving, she does the only thing she can think of, and that is to kill him. Emily, the South, is mentally affected by Homer’s actions, just like the Civil War tore apart the Southerners.
The ultimate concept, thought, that shows how the Southerners felt in 1931 when the story was written was the economic stress the South was struggling with. During this time the South, who was already poor and beaten down, was being exploited by the already stable North. The Renaissance made a great impact on Southern Literature, but most importantly it provided the groundwork for future writers to come and expand it. So like the Civil War brought many changes, another event was soon to take place that would also impact the South – The Civil Rights Movement.
In the years 1954 to 1965 sociological changes in the South were occurring in the South regarding the treatment of the African Americans. The Civil War had won their freedom, but racism and out casting treatment threw them into a sort of “social slavery”. The literature of this time was very important to this overall cause of Civil Rights. An important piece, just like Gone With the Wind boasted the Renaissance, was Harper Lee’s How To Kill a Mockingbird, where the story addressed the South’s racial problems. This “new Southern Literature” was bringing many changes to the already great Literature that the Renaissance produced.
The emergence of African American and Women Southern Literature writers was scene here also. One important author that stands above the rest in the transition to a new period in Southern Literature is Flannery O’Conner. Flannery O’Conner (1925-1965) lived and produced works of Literature during the Civil Rights Movement. She was also born and raised in the South, like so many other important Southern writers. She is important to the advancement of Southern Literature because she broke many barriers that many authors had never dreamed of facing.
One of these being how she was not afraid to write about racism during the Civil Rights period. A great explanation of the characteristics O’Conner made famous through her writings is best described in The Companion to Southern Literature as: “For southern writers, O’Conner has cast a long shadow primarily in three areas: her use of “southern gothic”, connection to applications of seemly gratuitous violence to make her moral points; her powerful religious thought, and finally, her rich comic cense, often portrayed through the dialogue of regular “folks”. (Flora 600). Her short stories like “The Artificial Nigger” and “Judgment Day” are some of the ones that created racial controversy during the Civil Rights Movement. Her other short stories also made impacts as well, like her story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. O’Conner’s defining characteristics can be seen in her short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. Her use of violence to convey her theme and humor of the “regular folks” is combined with the idea of the changing and modernizing South. The story’s plot is of a young family who lives in the South.
The contents of this family include the husband, wife, a son, a daughter, and the husband’s mother. The grandmother is constantly trying to show her pride in the “traditional” ways of the South, and she wants her family to follow them. The main example in the story is when the grandmother wants to vacation to the hills of Kentucky, but the young family wants to go to Disney World instead. Towards the end of the story, the grandmother persuades the family to take a gravel road to see an old plantation house, but things don’t work out as expected.
They come across an escaped serial killer, who winds up killing the grandmother. O’Conner shows her humor in the dialogue that accompanies the story. The conversations between the characters really bring the overall image of the character to life. Also her use of violence is shown by the grandmother’s death by a killer to show the theme. Just like the other two stories, symbolically the story has a more important meaning of the theme. Here we see a dramatic turn in the theme of the story. Unlike the previous two stories, we can see how the South has changed by the way the people feel.
The grandmother in this story symbolizes the “Old South”. She is constantly trying to force her ways on the “New South”, which is the family. The grandmother gets shot-down, literally, for trying to stick to her old ways. O’Conner, along with Twain and Faulkner, created the pathways into the further expanding of Southern Literature. This story, along with her numerous other short stories led the transition of the Renaissance Literature to what is now the “New” Southern Literature. History is a fascinating subject to study.
Not just because of its historical content, but because it influences so many other subjects like literature. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement were not only important to history, but even more to the Literature of the South. It wasn’t just those two events, though, that influenced it. Changes brought by the changing economy and lifestyles also played a part on how the Southerners viewed their land and their identity. In the early times of the literature most of the South was illiterate and rural, farm based, but now it has modernized itself so there is more industry in today’s world.
Twain, Faulkner, and O’Conner knew those changes were happening, so they still maintained their “Southern” quality combined with the changes of the life they were living in. Without the writers of these periods grasping these changes, Southern Literature would have forever been lost. Major events do cause change, like the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, but instead of ending a literature, the writers used them to develop the overall success and quality of Southern Literature. Works Cited Castille, Phillip, and William Osborne. Southern Literature in Transition: Heritage and Promise.
Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1983. Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily”. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Comp. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005. Pg. 90-97. Flora, Joseph M. , and Lucinda H. Mackethan. The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, Places, People, Movements, and Motifs. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University, 2002. Humphries, Jefferson. Southern Literature and Literary Theory. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1990. O’Conner, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. The Bedford Introduction to Literature.
Comp. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005. Pg. 430-440. Rubin Jr. , Louis D. The History of Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1985. Smith, Lee. “On Southern Change and Permanence”. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Comp. Micheal Meyer. Boston:Bedford/St. Martins, 2005. “Southern Literature”. 26 Feb 2007. Wikipedia. 13 May 2007. http://ed. wikipedia. org/wiki/Southern_Literature. Twain, Mark. “The Story of the Good Little Boy”. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Comp. Micheal Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005.