When I say that signs of the South are as obvious as words in a word-search puzzle, that even seeing the landscape in passing makes details fall into place in the way that, when glancing over the nonsense of a letter grid, some words will stand out, I understand that I am seeing mostly what I expect to see. I’ve been wondering about the aestheticization of the South, the previously encountered images that guided my expectations, because I traveled there for part of fall break to conduct research for my junior independent work, with the support of the English department. The expectations in question are the particular construction of a northerner with a reading list, and I noticed on this trip that below the Mason-Dixon Line, my experiences registered in two keys.
On the one hand, American literary history has numerous examples of a romanticizing of the pre-war period that today we know as antebellum. Antebellum: to me, as much an image as a historical era, with its details enumerated in the first several parts of Gone with the Wind, written by Margaret Mitchell and published in 1936. It articulated, popularized, and perpetuated the memory of green-flowered muslin dresses on seventeen-inch waists, white columns, belles and beaux. Those are the images that stuck, that I somehow absorbed, with very little exposure to their source.
Obviously, Mitchell’s is a plantation aesthetic, and the interplay between the romance of the text and the horror that is its subtext exist, for me, in the same romantic visual field. Kate Chopin’s story from 1893, “Désirée’s Baby,” comes to mind. The French accents, the romance— “That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot”—are Mitchell’s heritage. Yet where Gone with the Wind mourns the loss of that world, Chopin complicates not just Southern history but the concept of heritage itself, as she plays out a clandestine racial history within a family. In my understanding of the literary canon concerned with the antebellum period, then, what underlie the Southern-belle images are the unspeakable deeds that enabled white women to live on plantations in the first place. As Chopin demonstrates, the belle and the system that allows her to fall in love exist simultaneously, in the same story. Our contemporary understanding of that history follows Chopin, turning Mitchell’s sweetness saccharine, her woozy love into hazy fiction.
To the romance of the south: there was one expectation, and one that I think I would have had from a young age if I had traveled through South Carolina and Georgia for fun. It was what I saw in the city of Savannah during the day, for example, warm in very late October, astonishingly green, sun through the gray Spanish moss that hangs from the trees like mosquito nets. The city is built around 22 historic squares with signs explaining their history, often of the civil war, with fountains, slow-walking people, shops surrounding that close very early on Sunday. Or, on a smaller scale, a book I saw in a grocery store in South Carolina: brown, leather bound, with lovely etchings in the corners, that read “One-Minute Devotions.” Intended to charm, I thought, without pretensions.
Yet I was there in pursuit of the second, and in some ways opposite, visual field, that of the increasingly popular “Southern gothic.” I know it originally through William Faulkner. He may not have been the first, but I think he countered Mitchell’s romance most effectively, even as her contemporary. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that he subverted it. Where he did romanticize, the romance was so caught up with gruesomeness, so intimately tied to death, that it stopped being viable: After forcing open a door in “A Rose for Emily,” from 1930, the narrators stand for a long time “looking down at the profound and fleshless grin”—the remains of a lover who could not be let go and so had perished and been left to decay. This gruesomeness, the grotesque, as it is often called, is a fundamental component of modern Southern fiction, and it is growing more popular, I heard several times as I was traveling. I think the grotesque, as it so stubbornly characterizes the South, is related to the increasing popularity of Southern gothic fiction: It includes what we as modern readers find troubling in the history of the region, often in the bodies of the characters, and almost always with a violence that lives explicitly outside the realm of rationality. As Flannery O’Connor writes in “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” grotesque characters “carry an invisible burden; their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity.”
It is in her hands that, in my opinion, Faulkner’s legacy with regard to the grotesque was most heroically perpetuated. O’Connor was the reason I was in the South in the first place. I wanted to see what she saw because she was a writer incredibly informed by her circumstance. “When we talk about the writer’s country,” she writes in “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” “we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him. Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through the other. To know oneself is to know one’s region.” To know her and to know her work, it seemed to follow, one would have to know the region as well. And her region was without a doubt the South in general and Georgia in particular, where she lived for all but five of her 39 years.
That was the other lens through which I saw what was around me. A billboard in the rain, in lurid yellow with red block letters spelling “FORGIVE MY SINS JESUS SAVE MY SOUL.” Unnerving not because of the message but because of the way the letters sprawled across the sign, as if they had been swung up there in desperation. It reminded me of one of Caroline Gordon’s critiques of O’Connor’s first novel. She wrote in a letter: “Her story is too bare, too stripped, I think, of all but the essential core of action.” The essential core of action, a focus, an unwavering gaze at unutterable strangeness. The stakes for O’Connor, always, are either comically petty, or, more often, a matter of life and death. From probably her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.”
My stakes were not so high. O’Connor did write that, though “all novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real,” “in these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day.” Yet even simple difference that I encountered, however innocuous, reinforced my conception of the South as related to the narrative worlds O’Connor built. Like a cargo ship I saw on the Savannah River, massive, gliding, crates in green, blue, and red, stacked in pillars, the spaces between echoing back with perfect precision the trumpeter on the boardwalk. Or like the morning I woke up before sunrise on the ground floor of a house, and the door from outside was open wide enough for someone to have slipped through, though no one was there. It was the wind, maybe, although the door is heavy and sticks. And I wondered what or who—a simple puzzle, a stakeless one, but one that, in context, made my expectation of strangeness a mystery lived.