What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?

 

- By Margaret Renkl for the New York Times

Ms. Renkl covers flora, fauna, politics, and culture in the American South.

  • July 9, 2018
 The typewriter used by Eudora Welty in her final years sits on the desk in the bedroom of her home in Jackson, Miss.  Credit Associated Press

The typewriter used by Eudora Welty in her final years sits on the desk in the bedroom of her home in Jackson, Miss. Credit Associated Press

 

NASHVILLE — From time to time, a debate resurfaces in Southern literary circles about whether there can still be a recognizable literature of the South in an age of mass media and Walmart. The 21st-century South would be unrecognizable to the Agrarian poets, whose 1930 manifesto, “I’ll Take My Stand,” set out many of the principles that still cling like ticks to the term “Southern writer.” Far more urban, far more ethnically and culturally and politically diverse, the South is no longer a place defined by sweet tea and slamming screen doors, and its literature is changing, too. “It is damn hard to put a pipe-smoking granny or a pet possum into a novel these days and get away with it,” the novelist Lee Smith once said.

I’m the editor of a website about Tennessee literature. Even so, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the defining characteristic of the Southern writer because there is surely no single quality that defines Southern writing anyway. But reading “People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley,” a new book from Vanderbilt University Press, has got me to thinking about the question.

Most readers of The New York Times have probably never heard of Jim Ridley, but he was a hero in this town. A local boy who grew up in nearby Murfreesboro, he started contributing book reviews to The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, while he was in middle school. (In his take on Mary Stewart’s Arthurian trilogy, he notes that Stewart’s Merlin “speaks like a combination of the worst elements of John Cheever, a used-car salesman, and Abigail Van Buren.” He had just turned 14 when he wrote that review.)

 Jim Ridley,  Credit Nancy Floyd

Jim Ridley, Credit Nancy Floyd

Mr. Ridley studied journalism and literature at Middle Tennessee State University, his hometown college. After he graduated in 1989, he started writing for the Nashville Scene, our local alt-weekly newspaper. When he died in 2016, he was the paper’s editor. He had never lived anywhere other than Middle Tennessee.

There wasn’t a single aspect of cultural life in this town that Jim Ridley didn’t chronicle with originality and wit and some of the most graceful sentences ever committed to print. During the nearly 20 years I knew him, I never ceased to marvel that my unrelentingly humble friend was the same linguistic powerhouse who kept goading this city into becoming more than the sleepy backwater of country music and Bible publishing it believed itself to be. The editor of “People Only Die of Love in Movies,” Steve Haruch, writes in its introduction, “Long before Nashville ever appeared on the national hip-city radar, Jim saw and highlighted the city’s strengths while also holding the city and the people in it to the highest standards.”

This is what the truly great writers — the great journalists, novelists, poets, playwrights — always do: They know their communities from the inside out, as full members, and they tell the truth about what they know. Physician, heal thyself.

Great writers everywhere do the same thing, but the South’s legacy of slavery and its overt and enduring racism make the truth a Southern writer speaks especially urgent — never more so than now, when our president and his enablers stoke the lie of white supremacy, in their words and deeds, nearly every day.

Looking at the pile of forthcoming books on my desk, I was startled to realize that “People Only Die of Love in Movies” isn’t the only posthumous work of literary art coming out this month by a Tennessee writer who found his own hometown both vexing and endlessly fascinating: There’s also “The Lost Country,” a new novel by William Gay, who lived almost his entire life in Hohenwald, just southwest of Nashville. “Mr. Gay wrote about rustic Tennessee with an inside observer’s eye for local color and a hyperbolist’s delight in regional idiosyncrasies,” a 2012 obituary in this newspaper noted.

Among the living Tennessee homebodies with new releases, there’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham, whose nonfiction book “The Soul of America” was released in May. There’s the novelist Kevin Wilson, who grew up and still lives on the Cumberland Plateau: His new story collection, “Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine,” will be published next month. There’s the novelist Ann Patchett, whose new nonfiction book about Nashville, a joint project with the photographer Heidi Ross, is coming out in November. Ms. Patchett lives two blocks from where she grew up.

People can hardly help loving the hands that rocked their cradles or the landscapes that shaped their souls, but I doubt there’s a single writer in the South for whom life here isn’t a source of deep ambivalence. And yet all the writers I’ve mentioned had opportunities to leave — many actually did leave for a time before returning to stay.

It has all made me wonder: What if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural tropes or lyrical prose or a lush landscape or humid heat so thick it’s hard to breathe? What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave? Of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee?

I honestly don’t know if I’m right about this. For one thing, Southerners don’t hold the copyright on a close connection to home, and there are many exceptions to the rule anyway. Historically, African-American writers tended to leave the South as fast as they could, and for obvious reasons.

Still. Think about William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, the great pillars of what we think of as Southern literature. Among the living, think about the novelist Jesmyn Ward in Mississippi. Think about the novelists Josephine Humphreys and George Singleton in South Carolina. Think about Wendell Berry and Silas House and Bobbie Ann Mason and Frank X. Walker in Kentucky. Think about the playwright Katori Hall in Memphis, and the poets T. J. Jarrett and Caroline Randall Williams here in Nashville. They’re all living and writing in the very places where they were born.

I think of my old friend Jim Ridley — I think of all these writers, old and young, living and dead — and here’s what crosses my mind: Maybe being a Southern writer has always been more than stereotypes of ceiling fans and panting dogs in dirt yards. Maybe being a Southern writer is only a matter of loving a damaged and damaging place, of loving its flawed and beautiful people, so much that you have to stay there, observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.