Photo: Films for the Humanities and Sciences
When you cross the sweeping drama of romance with the macabre isolation of small town life—and then throw in a touch of Southern whimsy—you've cooked up a collection of American literature absolutely unique in time, place and sentiment. Southern gothic.
Southern gothic writers leverage the details of the American South—the lonely plantations, aging Southern belles, dusty downtowns, dilapidated slave quarters, Spanish moss and Southern charm—to bring life to their slice of history. Steeped in folklore, oral history, suspense and local color, southern gothic is first popularized by 19th-Century short story masters Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce. In the 1920s and 30s, William Faulkner makes the genre popular again with his heartbreaking views of life in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, depicted with stunning detail in books like The Sound and the Fury, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!
Faulkner's towns burst with the rage of Civil War defeat and slave revolt. His characters cry the tears of a misbegotten people struggling to make sense of a world that has moved on without them. Family and personal traditions are replaced by strife and confusion. It all makes for powerful literature. After the depression, Faulkner is joined by a host of other talented writers, among them Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers.
Characters of Southern Gothic
One of the defining features of southern gothic is the cast of off-kilter characters, many of whom are "not right in the head." The genre is riddled with many broken bodies, and even more broken souls. When southern gothic authors examine the human condition, they see the potential to do harm. Morality is in question for many characters. A major theme for southern gothic writers hinges on innocence, and the innocent's place in the world—where they are often asked to act as redeemer. Faulkner's innocent is the mentally handicapped Benji from The Sound and the Fury; Carson McCullers the deaf-mute John Singer. But this is still a genre of love and loss. In the end, purity of heart rarely overpowers desperation. If society hangs in the balance of an idiot's mind or on the words of a deaf-mute, we are all in trouble.
The Ladies Have Their Say
Southern gothic did not discriminate, nurturing some of the most talented female writers of this century. Flannery O'Connor's stories, especially "A Good Man is Hard to Find," provide an unfettered look at moral ambiguity. Eudora Welty brings to life women powered by their desires on one hand, their obligations on the other in novels like The Optimist's Daughter and Delta Wedding. Carson McCullers, one of the most popular writers to ever bless the genre, tells the real story of people on the outside of society, and ultimately the longing to find connection in this world.
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