A Brief History of Southern Literature in the United States

A Brief History of Southern Literature in the United States

Southern Literature includes all writing about the American Southeast, namely the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas. Southern Literature began in the colonial era and persists to this day.  

Unlike other regions of the United States, the South has its own literary style. Though New York City is the most popular setting for American novels, books based in New York City are rarely referred to as “Northern literature.” Likewise, novels that take place in California, the second most popular American book setting, are not called “Western Literature.” (The one exception is the Western movie, which was very popular for nearly a century. These films primarily focused on the same era and the same romanticized elements of the Wild West.) So, despite the presence of regional works of all kinds, why has only Southern Literature gained this unique status?  

Themes of Southern Literature 

At Evening Post Books, we believe Southern Literature is the most iconic regional literature because of its strong, pervasive themes. These themes include: 

  • Family and community are two emblematic themes of Southern Literature, often expressed as a sense of belonging.  
  • Religion, especially Christianity, often features heavily. Many Southern writers have examined both the positive and negative impacts of regional religious homogeneity.  
  • A strong sense of place and local dialects are found in nearly all Southern writing.  
  • Racism and racial tension have been a huge part of Southern Literature since before the Civil War.  

Early Southern Literature 

The first known pieces of Southern Literature came from Virginia in the early 1600s by way of the explorer John Smith’s letters sent to England detailing “Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate As Hath Happened in Virginia.” Though, it wasn’t until the antebellum period (1815-1861) that Southern Literature really began to take shape. The widespread exploitation of slave labor led to explosive growth for Southern plantations, distinguishing the emerging Southern culture from the Northern states. During the antebellum period, Charleston, South Carolina became a huge literary center for Southern writing, rivalling even the literary community of Virginia. (This is one of the reasons that we, Evening Post Books, are located in Charleston.) 

Countless prominent authors emerged during this time to capture the essence of the South, though perhaps few portrayed it with an objective, empathetic eye. Authors like Walter Scott, whom Edgar Allan Poe called the best novelist America had ever produced, wrote pro-slavery stories that idealized Southern life.  

This period also spawned first-person written accounts of enslavement. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative recounts his experience with black slavery in the South and is arguably one of the most famous works on slavery ever written. Harriet Jacobs gave her own account of slavery in North Carolina with her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. William Wells Brown wrote Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, which many consider to be the first novel ever published by an African American.  

Reconstruction Literature 

After the South lost the Civil War and slavery was outlawed, most white Southern Literature adopted a tone of nostalgia. Writers and Southerners missed the lifestyles they’d enjoyed before the war. Nonfiction and novels from this period looked back fondly on the culture of the antebellum South. However, some African American writers like Charles Chesnutt rejected the nostalgia by writing about the racism and exploitation of blacks that continued in the South.  

This period also featured two of the most important American authors and novels in all of American literature: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Though both novels greatly influenced American Literature, they have also faced immense backlash and controversy at different times in history.  

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884 and depicts the life of a young and rebellious Southern boy as he travels along the Mississippi River. It is one of the first major novels in American Literature written almost entirely in local Southern vernacular. Though the book is set in the Southern antebellum period, it does not express the same nostalgia as other books from the Reconstruction era. On the contrary, the novel is a satire of the deeply settled ideas around racism and slavery that prevailed throughout the South. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn received criticism when it was banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1885 due to its racist and coarse language. Even though most critics consider the novel an anti-racist work, it still finds itself entrenched in controversy today because of its use of racial slurs and stereotypes.  

The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899, takes place in New Orleans late in the 19th century, and focuses on the life of Edna Pontellier. She struggles with the disparity between prevailing ideals about femininity and her own personal changing beliefs about womanhood and motherhood. The character, unhappy in her marriage, explores female sexuality and liberation like no book ever before. The novel is one of the most important works of early feminism.  

Southern Renaissance  

The Southern Renaissance began in the 1920s when a slew of new authors appeared. Most of these writers were further removed from the Civil War, so their writing about the South was more objective, and few idealized slavery and the antebellum culture like their predecessors.  

One of the most iconic authors from this period was William Faulkner. Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897. Many consider him the greatest Southern writer of all time. He wrote several novels set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi. In 1949, he became the first — and only — Mississippi-born Nobel laureate for his contributions to the modern American novel.  

Faulkner’s writing was most well-known for its close attention to accurate regional diction, for the strange cadence of the prose, and for the heavy usage of stream of consciousness. Faulkner’s novels explored the complex relationships between Southern White and Black Americans in the era between the Civil War and desegregation.  

There were many other famous Southern authors in this time period as well, including Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, and Tennessee Williams. This period also produced one of the most famous novels in American history, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. It was, of course, later adapted into a movie that won the Best Picture award.  

Post WWII  

After the Second World War, Southern Literature underwent a thematic and cultural metamorphosis. The Civil Rights Movement promoted integration and acceptance in a way the South had never seen before, so more female and African -American writers rose to the top. Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes were Watching God), Eudora Welty (The Optimist’s Daughter), and Flannery O’Connor (A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories) all made massive waves in the literary canon of the time.  

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was arguably the most famous Southern novel from this period, and its story reflected the struggles of and barriers to desegregation that persisted in the 1960s. This period is also when Southern poetry began to flourish, as poetic themes moved away from the previously dominant white, agrarian past. There were many influential poets, so it’s difficult to give them all credit, but the efforts of Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey should not go unnoticed.  

Contemporary 

The American South is still undergoing constant cultural and social change. Immigration, climate change, and rapid deindustrialization have all greatly impacted culture in different regions of the South. The definition of Southern Literature is more fluid than ever before. Instead of one all-encompassing South, literature now focuses on specific “Souths,” especially ones related to identity and activism.  

There are books like Harlan Greene’s The Real Rainbow Row, which details the queer South. There are environmental Southern books, like Turning the Tide by Sally Murphy and The Santee Delta: Waters and Voices by Bob Raynor, that focus on very specific regions and the importance of preserving the peoples, cultures, or the wildlife of those places. And still, of course, exist the books on ethnicity and race that have forever made up the backbone of Southern Literature. Books like Ukweli: Searching for Healing Truth by Horace Mungin and Herb Frazier.  

Whatever the future of Southern Literature holds, we at Evening Post Books in Charleston, South Carolina, hope to be a part of it. We stay true to our motto, “Our Accent is Southern,” by featuring the many new and diverse voices of Southern Literature.  

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