Archive for the ‘Southern Literature’ Category

In Lee Smith’s tribute to Flannery O’Connor, she wrote of the transformation she experienced as a college student when she read O’Connor’s fiction for the first time. I thought of those words of Smith’s—and of the words of O’Connor’s that inspired them—when I received a gift from a woman who was a student of mine more than a decade ago. Last Saturday I was working at my desk when the mail carrier dropped the package on the porch. What I found inside was a picture of O’Connor in a gold-colored peacock frame, the bird wreathing O’Connor as her own pet peacocks had circled the writer on her farm, Andalusia, where she lived the last years of her short life.

Along with the framed picture, the student enclosed a note with these words: “I think of you often. Thanks for changing my entire academic life by introducing me to the amazing Southern women writers!”

Those writers included Smith, whose whole notion of the short story was upended when she read O’Connor for the first time. In Smith’s words:

[S]omehow I had got the idea that a short story should follow a kind of recipe, like a Lady Baltimore cake. Conflict, suspense, resolution; a clear theme; an ending that tied it all up in a neat little bow. Yet when I read that famous last line of  “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I realized that nothing was wrapped up here—instead, a whole world opened out before my astonished eyes, a world as wild and scary as life, itself. (19)

A world opened before my eyes, too, when I first read O’Connor and Smith. And for me as a teacher, there is no greater honor than the opportunity to witness whole worlds open before my students’ eyes as they read those writers for the first time.

And Aine, what can I write of your expression of thanks? That it’s as exhilarating and astonishing as the words of those writers. Thank you!

Smith, Lee. “Revelation.” Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, edited by Sarah Gordon, Hill Street, 2000. 19-20.

While I was writing my previous post about Zadie Smith, a t-shirt that I’d ordered arrived in my mailbox. Though I don’t often wear graphic tees, this one wooed me just as the Southern women writers whose names it bears captivated me when I first encountered their writing. Zora & Eudora & Harper & Flannery.

In her essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God, Zadie Smith writes:

This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston’s skill. She makes “culture”–that slow and particular and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance–seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called “the romance of oneself,” a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes “black woman-ness” appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions. . .

Almost–but not quite. That is to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like “She is my sister and I love her.”

Watchman and Mockingbird with a draft of this blog post

“Watchman” and “Mockingbird” with a draft of this blog post.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Nathan Radley discovers that his brother, Arthur “Boo” Radley, has been leaving gifts for Jem and Scout in the knot-hole of a live oak tree, he fills the hole with cement. Some readers would like to entomb Go Set a Watchman in a similar fashion, troubled as they are by the timing of the novel’s publication—suspicious of the motives of Harper Lee’s estate trustee, Tonja Carter—and angered by the revelation of Atticus Finch’s bigotry.

When readers of Watchman learn along with Scout that Atticus not only opposes desegregation but was also once a member of the Klan, it’s more than we and the twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise can take. She says to her father, “You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible” (252), and we agree, wondering if Lee was cheated as well. Whatever the motives for its publication, the novel is here for us now, its appearance stopping us the way the knot-hole stops Scout and Jem. Rather than deeming Watchman’s arrival unwelcome, it serves us to examine the book with care, in particular the scene at the courthouse where Jean Louise secretly watches her father at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizen’s Council. As Scout looks down at Atticus from the balcony, she remembers a very different scene twenty years earlier, one of her father “accomplish[ing] what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge” (109).

Reading that brief flashback, Harper Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, realized what was only a five-paragraph summary could become the moral and structural center of the novel. Though he isn’t acquitted in Mockingbird, the unnamed defendant gains a name, Tom Robinson, an arm—in Watchman it was “chopped off in a sawmill accident” (109)—and, most importantly, his essential human dignity. After more than two years of revision, Harper Lee gave us the re-imagined Tom, and Maudie Atkinson, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and added to them Boo, who along with the rest of the Radley family is absent from Watchman. We know those characters and empathize with them because Lee, with the coaxing of a watchful editor, returned to them again and again, giving us people we can consider from their own points of view, whose skin we “walk around in” (32), as Atticus teaches young Scout to do.

Near the end of Mockingbird, Scout reflects on Boo’s gifts to her and Jem: “two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad” (253).

The least we can give Go Set a Watchman is our attention. It isn’t Harper Lee’s greatest gift to us, but it’s something more important in a way: it’s the apprentice work that gave life to the classic we love.

Works Cited

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

—. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.

Or Faulkner Photo-Bombed?

Side Effects (1980) and Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), with a draft of this blog post

Blame it on Stanley Fish. The idea for rewriting “A Rose for Emily” with an Eskimo came to me while reading his essay “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” In it, Fish takes issue with Norman Holland’s argument about an Eskimo reading of “A Rose for Emily”: “We are right to rule out at least some readings” (qtd. in Fish 346). Fish agrees with Holland’s notion that such a seemingly random reading would not be accepted by the literary community, but he disagrees with Holland’s claim that the story cannot accommodate that reading. For Fish, reading the tableau of Emily and her father as an Eskimo could be a legitimate reading of William Faulkner’s story if an interpretive strategy were in place to provide for it.

As I read Fish’s essay, I took little interest in his theory and Holland’s, but I kept picturing an Eskimo inexplicably entering the story and turning it upside down. Because I couldn’t shake that image from my mind, I wrote it down, making “A Rose for Emily,” “another story altogether,” as I subtitled it. Though my adaptation, like Faulkner’s original, consists of five numbered sections, and employs the same first-person plural point of view of the townspeople, Emily finds herself no longer in conflict with her father, with herself, and with societal constraints, but instead with an Eskimo who follows her relentlessly.

In retrospect, I realize that “The Kugelmass Episode” influenced my story as well. Perhaps the first metafiction I ever read, Woody Allen’s story introduced me to the idea of trespassing on a classic work of literature and altering its plot. Though I didn’t draft the story with Allen’s in mind—not consciously, anyway—the Eskimo’s disruption of “A Rose for Emily” echoes the unsettling intrusion of Kugelmass’ in Madame Bovary.

Work Cited

Fish, Stanley. “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 338-55. Print.

 From An Eskimo for Emily, or Another Story Altogether


When the Eskimo appeared at the Grierson’s house, we all stood by and watched, waiting for Mr. Grierson to chase her away. We knew that he would banish anyone he deemed an intruder, but the Eskimo was another story altogether, which of course is how the trouble began.

At first we suspected that Emily, herself, in the ultimate act of defiance, had willed the appearance of the Eskimo in the tableau. After all, what else could explain the hooded shape that stood in the doorway between Emily and her father?

Thinking that the trespasser was yet another suitor, Mr. Grierson whacked the Eskimo on the head with his horsewhip and stumbled off to fetch some bourbon from the sideboard.

“Who are you?” Emily demanded of the wounded intruder.

Still smarting from the blow, the Eskimo eyed Emily critically and said, “as if you didn’t know.”

Emily didn’t betray her ignorance, as we suspected she wouldn’t. She just tilted her head back and glared at the Eskimo for a while, until she decided to play along, pretending she knew the Eskimo’s kinfolk.


Serena (2008)

As I finished reading Serena last week, my thoughts turned to teaching it. A Southern Gothic novel with the feel, and some of the form, of Elizabethan drama, it’s well-suited for courses in world literature as well as Southern and Appalachian fiction.  It’s a regional novel that’s universal, as all the best “regional” writing is.

In an interview in the journal Grist, Serena’s author, Ron Rash, said: “To me, one of the most interesting aspects of literature is how the most intensely ‘regional’ literature is often the most universal. There’s no better example of this than James Joyce’s Ulysses. The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep enough and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Faulkner’s Mississippi, Munro’s Ontario, and Marquez’s Columbia are exotic, and they are also familiar” (5-6).

Rash “consciously evoked MacBeth,” he said in his Grist interview but “see[s] the book more in the tradition of Marlowe’s plays, which are always about the will to power” (8).

September brings the release of the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Will it evoke Tamburlaine or a mash-up of  MacBeth and Silver Linings Playbook?

The interview with Rash published in the premier issue of Grist is reprinted in Ecco’s paperback edition of the novel.

Graves, Jesse and Randall Wilhelm. “An Interview with Ron Rash.” Serena by Ron Rash. 2008. New York: Ecco, 2009.

Frankly, My Dear (2009)

Molly Haskell grew up here in Richmond, and it’s here that she fell in love with movies. One of her most vivid childhood memories finds her standing before a magazine rack in the Broad Street station waiting for the train to Florida, and persuading her father to buy her a magazine devoted to the child star Margaret O’Brien.* The pleasure Molly Haskell took in reading that movie magazine is one she would later pass on to the readers of her own film reviews and books.” Those are some of the words that I spoke about Haskell Friday night when I introduced her as keynote speaker at the third annual VCU Southern Film Festival at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In her keynote address, Haskell discussed her most recent book, Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited (2009), which expolores Gone With the Wind as the product of three strong personalities: author Margaret Mitchell, film producer David O. Selznick, and actress Vivien Leigh. Published on the seventieth anniversary of the film’s release, Haskell’s book looks back more than eighty years to Mitchell’s drafting of the novel in the 1920s, while also considering the book and film in multiple cultural contexts and reflecting on its enduring presence in our collective memory and imagination.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (2011)

Haskell‘s speech led into the screening of the recent documentaryMargaret Mitchell: American Rebel (2011), which features Haskell as well as John Wiley, Jr., who co-authored–along with Ellen F. BrownMargaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood (2011). Both Wiley, of Midlothian, and Brown, of Richmond, were in the audience Friday night as well, and after the film they joined Haskell on stage for a panel discussion moderated by me.

At the outset of the panel, I noted that the publication of Brown and Wiley‘s book marked an important contribution to Mitchell scholarship as well as studies of book publishing and copyright. Though I was prepared to offer more talking points  about their work and Haskell‘s, I didn’t need to. Their own observations about Mitchell, her novel, and the film prompted a nearly hour-long conversation with the audience, cut short only by the announcement that the museum would close at 9 p.m.

When one man sitting near the front of the auditorium expressed his ambivalence about calling himself a fan, I was reminded of the “Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind” that Haskell outlines in Frankly My Dear:

“For those of us who fell under its spell, the range of emotions attached to the film fluctuate over time with the predictable volatility of a love affair and its aftermath, in my own case what we might clinically designate as the Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind: Love, Identification, Dependency, Resentment, Embarrassment, Indifference, and then something like Half-Love again, a more grown-up affection informed by a film-lover’s appreciation of the small miracle by which a mere ‘woman’s film’ with a heroine who never quite outgrows adolescence was tansfigured into something much larger, something profoundly American, a canvas that contains, if not Walt Whitman’s multitudes, at least multiple perspectives” (xiii).

Along with those words of Haskell‘s about the Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind, I would’ve liked to address how fans of the novel and the film have formed online communities, particularly on Facebook. That’s something that Ellen Brown mentioned back stage when the four of us–Brown, Wiley, Haskell, and I–were clipping on our wireless microphones.

In their introduction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Brown and Wiley write: “We do not claim to have rewritten Gone With the Wind, but we have refocused the lens” (3). Similarly, Haskell‘s Frankly My Dear refocuses the lens, and the insights of the three authors inspired Friday’s night’s audience to see the book and film anew.

*The childhood memory of Haskell‘s that I mentioned in my introduction is one that she recounts in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974, Second Edition 1987).

FTP’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, September 15 – October 8, 2011

The Firehouse Theatre’s September 19 staged reading of The Night of the Iguana and its current production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–both part of Richmond’s Centennial Celebration of Tennessee Williams–sent me back to the pages of Williams’ plays, which I’ve been rereading in the Library of America edition: Plays 1937-1955.

Williams’ Plays 1937 -1955 (2000)

I keep thinking of these words of Big Mama’s: “Time goes by so fast. Nothin’ can outrun it. Death commences too early–almost before you’re half-acquainted with life–you meet the other. . . .” In a recent Fresh Air interview, actress Margo Martindale told Terry Gross how saying those lines as a student differed from saying them decades later:

“I played Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was 20 years old at the University of Michigan. And then I played Big Mama on Broadway in 2004. The speech at the end of that play — ‘Time goes by so quickly …’ — boy did that have different weight from when I was 20 years old to when I was 50-something-odd years old. It’s all about what you’ve experienced. You can’t teach that to a younger actor. You have to have lived that.” In the current Firehouse production,
Jacqueline Jones
speaks Big Mama’s lines from experience as well, delivering one of the cast’s strongest performances.

In his introduction to Camino Real, Williams writes of the all-consuming nature of play writing: “It is amazing and frightening how completely one’s whole being becomes absorbed in the making of a play. It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world that you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses.”

Today when I was completing an application for a grant, I thought of how it would enable my whole being to become absorbed–at least briefly–in the writing process in a way that it can’t when I’m teaching. Grants buy us time, which “goes by so fast. Nothin’ can outrun it.”