On the road with Richard, William, Flannery, Harry, Harper, Truman, John, Barry, Larry—and Miss Welty
This sweetly personal yet embracingly informative book is a result of the author’s focused travel through the American South, a trip she calls a “pilgrimage to the places that a group of Southern writers described in their fiction.” Before sharing rich details about her visits, Eby introduces the issues that she sees as intrinsic in attempting to isolate and define southern literature. From observing that a “certain flavor” exists in the literature of the American South—actually, there’s “a ferocity about it”—she then insists that the 10 writers she is impressed by and follows here are outstanding in their ability to convey to nonsoutherners the nature of the portion of the South with which they were (or are) personally familiar. Eby concludes that “what makes a Southern writer a Southern writer is not just the circumstances of his or her birth but a fierce attachment to a particular place, and a commitment to exploring its limits in his or her work.”
The 10 writers she features all have strong appeal to a wide range of readers of American literature. The place of honor—the first writer she discusses—is deservedly given to Eudora Welty, one of the most highly regarded fiction writers in the long, golden pageant of southern literature. Basic familiarity with Welty informs any reader that Jackson, Mississippi, was where she was deeply rooted and lay at the heart of her fiction, her reputation resting primarily on her incomparable short stories. Eby is obviously enchanted by Welty’s graceful yet sharp-edged prose, which “captured the local culture around her as with a butterfly net.”
A “certain flavor” exists in the literature of the American South—
actually, there’s “a ferocity about it.”
Richard Wright, author of Native Son, also grew up in Jackson, and Eby sensitively paints the difference between the white and black sides of Jackson life that generated each writer’s fiction. Of course, no “visit” to southern literature can be complete without a stop in Oxford, Mississippi, to survey the “little postage stamp of soil” that Faulkner tilled time and again for his very distinctive fiction, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, John Kennedy Toole, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown round out the list of distinctively southern writers Eby brings into her defining discussions, enticing us to enjoy their work either for the first time or once again.
This review first appeared in the June 1 & 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.