Quickie with Dorothea Benton Frank
on Southern Literature
(June 11, 2001)
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Plantation, which will be released next month. Quite a wonderful character-based book, it reminded me of how southern writers throughout the years have very nearly mythologized the South. Years ago an acquantance of mind talked of Eudora Welty with such reverence that I quickly jumped on that bandwagon. More recent books by Pat Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Rebecca Wells (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) are filled with altogether larger-than-life characters from whom their birthplace contains not only tragedy, but also healing and rebirth. What is it about the South that inspires such writing? In a response as expansive and leisurely as the fiction we’ve come to expect from southern writers, here’s what the author had to say:
For as long as I can remember, I have feasted on a smorgasbord of southern literature and film, without ever realizing it was southern – Truman Capote’s movies made with Hitchcock or the plays of Tennessee Williams, the homespun wisdom of Mark Twain to name a few. And then there were those with whom we related such as Eudora Welty and her ability to describe life so that you could smell it or propriety to a point that you flushed with embarrassment over your own manners, or Margaret Mitchell’s demonstration of the strength of women to survive and rebuild or the unnerving talents of Flannery O’Connor to terrorize a young mind with the morbid dangers of being peculiar. All of these writers – and others – Faulkner, Harper Lee – the list is long – have given us words which supercede the world in which they were spoken. Without question they are recognized as universally thematic and taught this way in academic environs across the country. And the south continues to produce native writers whose work represents family struggle and changing dynamics, contemporary issues such as poverty, race, gender bias and so on – such as Pat Conroy, Lee Smith, Josephine Humprheys, Kaye Gibbons, Pagett Powell, etc. Then there are the Yankee imports – those who reside for a while and try to encapsulate that which they perceive as southern authenticity or ethnicity – like Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full or Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout, the latter being the more successful effort for my two cents.However, all literary blather put aside, it is truly the mysticism and larger-than-life aspects which hold and fascinate and set southern writers apart from the swelling writing population. For fun, let’s look at the Larger than Life stuff first.
A writer from outside the south would say:
“He’s dead,” Edith said, without a trace of emotion in her voice. She was obviously in shock. “Better call someone.”She spoke these words to an empty bedroom, scanning her surroundings for her handbag which held her cell phone and Xanax. Yes, she thought, they can’t trace my cell phone. She knew she would make the call and slip out the door, leaving Harold wearing only a face of surprise and delight that comes with the Rockefeller au revoir, that is, the one where one “goes in the saddle.” Better yet, she would make the call from the street. Then, at home she would take a long bath and watch the news. She needed a cigarette, even though she hadn’t smoked in years. A glass of wine. Maybe two. Her hands shook as she turned the door knob and she used the end of her Pashmina to wipe away any trace of her presence. Later, she confided the incident to her sister on the phone.
“It wasn’t my fault,” she said. “I told him not to have the other rack of lamb.”
“You did the right thing,” her sister said.
A southern writer would say:
“Well, he’s dead, all right,” Edith Ann said, to her sister with a sigh of resolution, whom she had called not knowing quite what to do in this situation, “and what else should he be? Last night I sat up with him on the porch while he drank enough whiskey to kill a mule and ate them barbecued pork rinds and sour cream dip till he liked to burst. I told mama he wasn’t coming to a good end. You cain’t be stuffing yourself like a daggum pig like that and live too long. I guess I best be putting on my clothes and trying to find his wife. Shoot. This is the last time I am ever fooling with a married man no matter what! Can you come or Kenny over? Should I call the Po-lice?”“Didn’t Erline go off to that Mary Kay convention in Birmingham? Try the Marriott at the airport.”
Edith Ann’s sister, Bobby Jo didn’t have a whole lot of patience for her baby sister’s catting around and she wasn’t about to tell Kenny to turn off the football game. Gottallmighty! Clemson was playing Auburn and he had twenty dollars riding on it! Well, twenty that she knew of for sure, anyhow. Was Edith Ann crazy as a June Bug or what? Well, she decided, she had better tell her something because God knows, Edith Ann didn’t have the brains God gave a garden pea. “Call the Fire Department and call me back. They’ll know what to do. I gotta turn the chicken before I burn the house down.”
That’s how southern characters differ – a combination of internal sassy dialogue and extra information laced with metaphor, criticism and an industrial size, self effacing dose of unpretension. Edith Ann and Bobby Jo know that life goes on, despite all our foolishness. Edith and her sister know it too – they just have the discretion not to give it all the color of a Mardi Gras parade. The setting of the un-southern version of the story indicates contemporary urban environment and a certain level of sophistication. The southern version makes me want to giggle and could have happened anytime from 1975 forward. Or, obviously, if the southern version had been written by someone like Welty, it would include the “mortification” aspect of Edith Ann’s soul.
Then on the mysterious and mythological issues.
Well, let’s see. What the south has that other American locales don’t, is the Creole culture of the Gullah people, those descended from slavery. Combine seventeenth and eighteenth century African religious and cultural models with weather so hot you could die from it and you’ve got the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. Spanish moss sweeping in sheers on dark country roads, historic landmarks every 100 feet, a strong tradition of oral revisionist history of a conquered people which is passed from one generation to the next – all these conspire to the “other world” nature of the south. That along with “time on their hands.” It was always important for southerners to believe in the justice of “the bad guys will get theirs” and that the war never should have happened in the first place. In addition, the south values ancestry over meritocracy. You may be poor as a church mouse, but was your great grandfather related to Robert E Lee? So you made a million dollars in the eighties before you were twenty? That’s nice, but who are your people? Do you understand our “shared pain?” In the estimation of many southerners, what the Yankees did during the “WAR” was to attempt to commit cultural genocide to southern lifestyle. True southerners want to live a genteel life, one of manners, traditions and the granduer (however limited their assets are) associated with an elegant mindset. They do not apologize for an appreciation of beauty. They enjoy isolation and do not wish to be globalized. Indeed, you have to drive many miles to get your hands on a New York Times, interest in international news is somewhat minimal and they are perfectly happy to remember the past in the way they want. Commercialism is a necessary evil and they are resigned to tourism. Great example is the Spoleto Festival. Local residents have their routines turned upside down during Spoleto but none the less, they open their homes, give tours of their private gardens and serve sweet tea, proud of what they have perserved.
Southern living has to be experienced to be understood – much like Peter Mayle had to spend a year in Provence. It is not so much mythological as it is mysterious and like any woman who values intimate experience, she will not reveal herself to you all at once. The south wants you to understand her heart and soul first. That is a tall order. Maybe the south is more desirable these days because she plays hard to get? Now, there’s a concept! Has this country become so homogenized that the south has evolved to a rare pocket of idealized living fiction? It’s own sort of Passion Play carried out daily in drawing rooms over polite conversation? In barnyards between red necks? In the mountain areas among bigots? I would submit as an unauthorized opinionate, that in reading the work of southern writers lies the answer, as each brings their own ideal, obsession and nightmare to paper.
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