Garner: Opinion

Column: Reading the writers of the South

Johnny Whitfield, columntst The Eastern Wake News and the Garner-Cleveland Record.
Johnny Whitfield, columntst The Eastern Wake News and the Garner-Cleveland Record.

Saw an interesting comment in my Twitter feed the other day: The North makes Vineyard Vines, Brooks Brothers and Polo. The South makes Vineyard Vines, Brooks Brothers and Polo look good.

OK, so there’s still some regional factionalism around. Among the many great southern contributions to American culture, sweet tea and magnolias stand out. So, too, do many of its writers.

The rise to prominence of southern writers began in the 1920s at a great liberal institution of the south. The University of North Carolina? Nope. Try Vanderbilt. In Tennessee for God’s sake.

Those writers and many more defined a new genre of literature, weaving stories not unlike those we might find in our own families.

So, in keeping with another tradition of southern writers, we offer you a list. This list, of the best southern writers – all of whom you should read if you’re from the south or want to know about the south – is sure to start another great southern tradition: an argument.

No list of great southern writers is complete without Faulkner’s name. In fact, one could argue no list of great southern writers would be complete without Faulkner’s name at the top. A believer in the stream of consciousness style of writing, Faulkner’s prose sometimes has to be read twice just to keep up with the plot. But that’s OK, because reading something twice invariably opens up a new perspective for the reader.

Faulkner was also willing to look at the south for what it was: a region with problems and societal ills that needed fixing from time to time.

Second on our list of great southern writers is another familiar name: Thomas Wolfe. He wrote a thinly disguised story about his hometown of Asheville and the people in it in a novel called “Look Homeward, Angel.” That novel put him on the outs with some of his peeps in the North Carolina mountains but its soaring style leaves readers hopeful for greater things.

Like a giant bookend, Wolfe’s other great novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again” is largely autobiographical too. It keeps to that stream of consciousness style that makes the reader feel as if most every sentence is a nugget of wisdom waiting to be discovered.

Number three on our list is our first woman and unlike Faulkner and Wolfe, she did not come from the Agrarian style of writing. Kaye Gibbons hails originally from Rocky Mount and she writes starkly about living in the not-so-well-to-do South.

In the fourth slot on our list, we consider Mark Twain. Twain was from Missouri, a slave state in the years leading up the Late Unpleasantness and he knew that institution well. But his most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, give us a sense of disdain for the institution and set black and white characters on more or less equal footing.

Finally we return to modern-day writers to round out our top 5. Tim McLaurin was a native of Fayetteville who lived an adventurous, though short, life. He packed a lot into his 48 years and he regurgitated much of that in his autobiographical novel “Keeper of the Moon.” Like Gibbons, his writing is spare and stark and it gives us a glimpse into the otherwise seemly world of the not-so-well-to-do. It also confirms a suspicion many southerners have long held that we should live our lives to their fullest at every turn.

So there you have it. A Top 5 list. Let the arguments begin.