“Life here was rich, original and real, but harsh, hard, mean as a damn snake. My parents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the poor, upland South, a million miles from the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt and the jasmine-scented verandas of what most people came to know as the Old South. My ancestors never saw a mint julep, but they sipped five-day-old likker out of ceramic jugs and Bell jars until they could not remember their Christian names.”
Who wouldn’t want to talk to this guy and hear what he has to say? Even if the stories themselves weren’t intriguing – which they can’t help but be anyway – it would be a pleasure just to listen.
Now compare that, if you would, to one of my Northern compatriots. From the first lines of Lake Wobegon Days:
“The town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota lies on the shore against Adams Hill, looking east across the blue-green water to the dark woods. From the south, the highway aims for the lake, bends hard left by the magnificent concrete Grecian grain silos, and eases over a leg of the hill past the SLOW CHILDREN sign, bringing the traveler in on Main Street toward the town’s one traffic light, which is almost always green.”
There is nothing provocative about this opening, nothing to ensnare the reader with tales of vice and redemption. There is no me, my, or I; the only self present is self-deprecation. There is nothing wrong with this narrative style – it’s the one I tend to favor myself – but I have to admit that it doesn’t quite have the same flair.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my earliest literary exposure was decidedly Yankee-centric. So Yankee, even, that much of it was focused on New England proper; the two authors I spent the most time with during junior high were Stephen King and John Irving. In high school, I branched out to my fellow Midwesterners, like Fitzgerald and Hemingway (and no, despite it being the southernmost point in the U.S., living in Key West does not Southernize Hemingway in the least; quite the opposite, really).
I never realized how Unionist my reading had been until I took a college course in Southern literature and was exposed to Faulkner, Welty, and McCullers for the first time. And, okay, I still don’t get Faulkner, but I certainly can appreciate how he depicted the wholly unique atmosphere of his time and place. Although, frankly, I think he sort of cheated. As have most Southern writers, in my opinion. After living here for eleven years, it has become clear to me that anyone who can’t write at least one novel based on their immediate environs is not paying any attention at all.
Being a natural peacemaker, I found literary balance in my life by focusing my studies on Mark Twain. The Missouri of Twain’s youth was a literal battleground between Southern and Northern ideas, and he brought a Southerner’s sense of story to the work he produced from his Yankee (again, the colonial version) home. I think a large part of why I’m drawn so strongly to Twain is the equal mix of Southern flash and Northern reserve woven through his work.
Despite spending a third of my life in Memphis, I still don’t feel I can lay claim to the title of Southern writer. My literary voice is low, subtle, and quiet, much like the one I dial up on the radio every week. I listen to Garrison Keillor to reconnect with my roots, and reading Keillor does just the same.
But when I’m absorbed in the words of my new home, the stories and voices of Southern writers both long dead and newly emerging, I remember exactly why I’m here.