Voices of the South come through in storytelling

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comSeptember 7, 2013 

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    Nonfiction The Storied South: Voices of Artists and Writers William Ferris

    University of North Carolina Press, 274 pages

Bill Ferris understands the South and its stories in a way few others do, relying on both a native’s instincts and a scholar’s precision.

A former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and associate director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South, Ferris has heard the South’s tales up close from some of its most distinguished voices – including those of Eudora Welty, Alex Haley, Robert Penn Warren and Alice Walker.

In “The Storied South,” Ferris’ informed, measured voice introduces interviews with a range of such creative people, letting his choice of subjects illustrate the passion he feels for the region.

Any such volume gives rise to the question: Is there really such a thing as Southern writing, Southern painting, Southern scholarship, Southern music? Mississippi native Ferris doesn’t tell us directly, but introduces readers to great writers, painters, scholars and musicians who hail from or associate closely with the South.

“I sought out these individuals because their work helps me understand my life as a southerner,” he writes. “They come from diverse backgrounds, and they constitute a chorus of voices, all of which are deeply connected to the region.”

The subjects’ linking characteristic, and the theme of the book and accompanying CDs, is storytelling. The people Ferris has interviewed over more than 40 years have a variety of takes on why telling stories is endemic among Southerners, some dwelling on bloody tragedy, some on the more humdrum side of down home.

“Southerners probably have some of the same background as those Irish and Scots and the other people who have long memories in this part of the world,” Welty tells Ferris in one of the more memorable segments. “It has been said by people who know more about it than me that one of the reasons southerners have this to talk about is that they do not have much else to talk about.

“It is their source of entertainment, besides their source of knowledge.”

People reared in the South during the last century will feel twinges of recognition when they read the accounts in this volume.

“They would talk there on the front porch night after night about the family,” Haley says, describing the conversations that led to his monumental work, “Roots.” “They told it as it had been passed down. Their grandfather was a man named Chicken George. His mother was Miss Kizzy, and her father was an African.”

But what will younger people gain? People who haven’t grown up with the constant presence of the work of William Faulkner, the godfather of Southern culture, will get a notion of the overwhelming influence he had on these generations of creative people.

And they will get an intimate sense of the relatively small group of novelists, scholars, musicians, photographers and painters who captured the post-Civil War South, with its desolation and horrors, along with a rebirth of a Southern fine art based on the diversity of its people and the splendor of its land.

“The Storied South” can take on a retro flavor at times. Key interviews were done in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and of the seven writers interviewed, only Alice Walker and Ernest Gaines are still living. But at a time when Raleigh has lost its drawl, and newcomers by the dozen move to the Triangle every day, looking back on the storied South remains a worthwhile endeavor.

With Ferris as a guide, readers of “The Storied South” will get a revealing look at the region before air-conditioning and chain businesses, smartphones and corporate monoliths changed it forever.

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