At the end of a lackluster discussion of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a college English class last fall, one of my students raised her hand. “I know that Welty is supposed to be really good,” she said, “but I don’t get it.” She objected to the clichés, the cartoonishness.
But does Eudora feel cliché because she invented certain Southern clichés? She read the extremes of Southerners, of human behavior, and immortalized our foibles in words that would influence the next few generations of writers. As Tony Earley observed, “I have a theory—perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated—that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’”
I defended Welty’s greatness during that class—I even played them an excerpt of the author reading the story aloud, her mouth rolling fast around the syllables like gumballs—but over the course of the semester I couldn’t help marking a shift in how young Southerners, black and white, read the Southern giants: not in awe, but with a sense of exhaustion.
We moved through Mark Twain—hokey—and Flannery O’Connor—melodramatic—and William Faulkner—impenetrable. Southern whiteness doesn’t age well. But even Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, however electric their language, felt familiar to these students; yes, those old burdens again. What my students saw was a reflection not of the world they lived in, but the world they inherited. And though we Southerners are unendingly proud of our literary heritage, it bears the marks of a brutality we’re struggling to move past.
The Welty that felt most real to them was “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” In this 1963 story published less than a month after the assassination of Medgar Evers, Welty wormed her way into the addled brain of the white man who murdered him—a man who turned out in actuality to be Byron de la Beckwith, as supernaturally close as a man can get to an invented character. This wasn’t using racism as a setting, but as a problem. It was asking why in the same way my students were.To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain.
As the narrator waits for the civil rights leader to appear, he thinks, “Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his pictures, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn’t want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will.” This is not a passage that provides answers; my students know better than to expect answers. Welty instead reckons with the tragic unknowability of the South while showing us exactly how recognizable the ugliness is: it’s the man next door, the man within us.
For one class, my students read excerpts from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (often, reductively, called the black answer to Mitchell’s epic), and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which quite intentionally set fire to the myth of Tara; Randall even faced a lawsuit from the Mitchell heirs. As we moved through these pieces in discussion, the students became increasingly animated. Yes, Mitchell was breezy and readable, but ugh, the whiteness. They pointed out how often she referenced the color in the first chapter alone: “magnolia-white skin,” “small white hands,” “solid masses of white blossoms,” “dogwood dappling with white stars,” “the whitewashed brick plantation house,” “a pleasant land of white houses”; what are we to think when Mammy appears, “shining black, pure African”? The disgust of my students wasn’t appeased much by Jubilee, which, though free from the egregious racism of Gone with the Wind, is still stuck in the antebellum South, complete with dialect and black women under the thumb of white women. It was Alice Randall who lit them up, the tongue-in-cheekness of the plantation “Tata” and the character of Scarlett being renamed “Other,” she in all her shining whiteness finally being reduced to the nameless otherness that Mammy and her kin know all too well. Revenge is what they wanted, not realism.
Pulling my students through the 20th-century canon took some effort, but they came alive when handed Mary Miller’s “Big Bad Love,” Kiese Laymon’s “Hey Mama,” excerpts from Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. The rhythms of this language matched their own: personal, progressive, fluid, literate. These were Mississippians writing about a state not dripping with Spanish moss and punctuated by mockingbird song, but of surprising intersections, where violence within the self had become as important as violence across racial lines, where poverty was nuanced rather than made perverse, where families were built from intentional love rather than tied to tortured bloodlines. As Kiese wrote, and all my students still wonder, “How am I supposed to hug myself?”
I asked my students to create a piece of Southern art for their final project: a story or poem or painting or song that expressed their own Southern story, whatever that had come to mean for them. Even with this open-ended assignment, I initially faced resistance. A handful of students, born and raised in Mississippi, refused to identify as Southern. And why should they, when the “South” that had been painted by so many Pulitzer winners and Nobel laureates was mired in bigotry, religiosity, and perversity? A Bible salesman steals a spinster’s prosthetic leg. A half-black man nearly marries his slaveowning sister. A man and a boy raft down the Mississippi on the exaggerated current of dialect. (“I knowed jis’ ‘s well ‘at I ‘uz gwineter be rich ag’in as I’s a-stannin’ heah dis minute!”)
But as we laid bare all the disparate elements that make up Southern writing today, my students began to resituate themselves, to hesitantly accept the label. As one of them realized, “I didn’t need to write about tractors or sweet tea to meet the criteria.” Another student wrote a surreal and philosophical story with a narrator who, in one scene, sits in a tree and says to God, “I’m so tired of this particular self.” In an accompanying statement, she explained that the narrator “believes in transformation and overcoming certain aspects of defining character—a very Southern idea. . . . I fit into [a “southern identity”] because I try to ignore it. I fit into it because like many people, it’s only another thing that, for my own peace of mind, I have to manipulate into fantasy so I can tolerate it.”
To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain. Reading Eudora Welty and other Southern classics can strike a nerve for students who want that pain to be buried, who read those depictions of race and violence, of magnolias and uncles in kimonos, as stereotypes that non-Southerners use to keep us in boxes. But out of this early and artful recording of Southern messiness came the writers who spin us further still, who reckon with the realness of the 21st century. So should we still teach our giants, cliché as they may now seem? Of course: to love the buds, we must know the roots. But to honor the roots, teach also the buds.