By Janie Kronk
“You learn a lot about where you’re from by learning about someplace new.”
These words were spoken to me by my boss in Ohio, shortly before I transplanted myself south for graduate school. Taking this statement to heart, I’ve done my best to be a good pupil while living here, learning about “The South” and trying to piece together what it teaches me about the north.
There are many aspects of Southern living to hold up in comparison to what I knew back home: Southern Architecture, Southern Cuisine, Southern Literature. This last item on the list is of particular interest to me. While it is easy to see the influence of climate and history in the buildings along the coast, and hard to argue with the zeal for barbeque that permeates the region, I have a little more trouble recognizing what makes writing “Southern.” Is it literature that takes place in the South? Written by Southerners? Or is writing made Southern by the presence of certain thematic elements? If so, what are those elements?
The tradition of southern literature includes greats such as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Mark Twain and many others. There are anthologies published to highlight the work of contemporary Southern writers. I must admit, I have not witnessed quite the hype over a tradition of Midwestern literature, even though Ohio alone claims authors such as James Thurber, Sherwood Anderson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
For a time, I thought this may have something to do with my home region being part of “Middle America” – thus having no distinctive character of its own around which to form a literary culture. Still – and this may just be because it is “home” – I do find something unique about the blend of farm and factory, rivers, cities, and cornfields. But the sense of identity with the place is more subdued than what I have witnessed in The South.
So far, the thing that strikes me as being most unique about The South is not its food, its cities, or its literature. It’s not the manners, and it’s not the hot summers. It’s the sense of being Southern that Southerners seem to have.
This sense of uniqueness is there even though modern life has erased many of the boundaries that define one place from another – throughout the country we see the same strip malls and the same sprawl; we have the same food shipped to us in our grocery stores; we have access to the same information over the internet and in our libraries and bookstores. Despite everywhere becoming more and more the same, there still seems to be a consensus: something is different about The South.
This different-ness holds up as writers continue to fabricate stories. But what makes these stories different? Maybe Southern Literature in the 21st century is itself a fabrication – not in the sense of being false, but in the sense of being a built thing – an identity constructed again and again with each telling of a new tale while other distinctions vanish with the shift to a global culture.