At least a decade before the Civil War, serious scholars wondered and wrote about the American South. I doubt that anyone has cataloged every one of those efforts. In addition to the scholarly works, novelists, short story writers, poets and pundits of all sorts have written about or harangued about the South. We may live in one of the most written about parts of the universe.
All those words were written in a quest to understand what may surpass understanding. Yet you, the readers of this newspaper, were not reluctant to add your recommendations to a reading list for someone who wants to try.
There were so many responses that we cannot include all of them. Some of you listed titles and authors; others included comments about the recommendation. We hope some of these will prompt further reading and thought about this place we call The South.
Every southerner knows of our affinity for stories, whether true or tall tales. Perhaps Faulkner and O’Connor have made too many people associate gothic tales with writing about the South, but we are also fond of sentimental, off-beat, and just plain funny stories. Some of the recommendations were for fiction, but most were non-fiction. And not all the authors are southerners.
These titles received multiple recommendations:
“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt is non-fiction set in Savannah, Ga. A real-life murder mystery peopled with a wide range of Savannahians, including a southern belle, black debutantes, a redneck gigolo, and a voodoo priestess.
Beginning with “All Over but the Shoutin,’” Rick Bragg’s accounts of his family’s life on the margins in Northeast Alabama may not help you understand the South, but they definitely give you an authentic feel for southern story telling. His “The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table” might even help you get some idea of growing up with a real good cook as your mama.
James Lee Burke set his Dave Robicheaux novels in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. A sheriff’s deputy encounters a wide range of characters in literature disguised as detective fiction. Burke is a master of descriptive prose.
“The Mind of the South” by W. J. Cash was rooted in a series of magazine articles. Cash wrote for “American Mercury” in the early thirties. Cash’s book is sweeping in scope and loaded with history and sociology, yet it earned wide critical acclaim, importantly from northern and southern reviewers. It also met much negativity, primarily because the book is more explanatory than praising. Cash did not hide the warts, and at times he was openly critical.
“A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Gathering of Old Men” are novels by Ernest Gaines, who grew up near Baton Rouge and based his works upon his knowledge of the people and legends and facts of the area.
“Cold Sassy Tree” by Olive Ann Burns is a novel set in the early 1900s. An older man’s romance rocks a small Georgia town, and a boy's childhood melts into adolescence. How people lived and died in a small Southern town at the turn of the century.
“A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote is an autobiographical tale of a rural Alabama boyhood.
“An Hour Before Daylight” by Jimmy Carter is his account of a Great Depression-era boyhood on a Georgia farm before the civil rights movement.
“The Water is Wide” by Pat Conroy is an autobiographic tale of an eager young teacher at the height of the civil rights movement in a community still bound by the bitter effects of racism.
“The Potlikker Papers, A Food History of the Modern South “by John T. Edge. A narrative of the American south through poverty, the Civil Rights era, the rise of convenience food, and finally the New South. A Wonderful expiration of southern history captured through the lens of food.
Lists that did not name William Faulkner were in the minority, but only two of his titles received multiple recommendations: “As I lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom.”
In 1989, Pulitzer Prize in history winner David Hackett Fischer published “Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways” in America. Fisher contends that early America was settled primarily by people from four distinct and competing cultures and that their beliefs and customs have influenced American life and history. Of interest to those wanting to understand the South are the sections dealing with immigrants from the South of England, 1642–1675 and from the northern borderlands of England, the lowlands of Scotland, and Northern Ireland, 1717–1775. Hackett maintains those cultures still drive us today, including our politics.
“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café” by Fannie Flagg takes place in Whistle Stop, Alabama, in a little joint with good coffee and outstanding barbecue and a huge secret. Her “A Redbird Christmas” was also mentioned.
“Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier is a fictional description of life for non-combatants in the mountains of North Carolina during the Civil War while a wounded, disheartened soldier struggles toward home across the disintegrating South. He encounters slaves and marauders and bounty hunters. He finds help and danger.
“Dispatches from Pluto” by Richard Grant., A real-life account of a modern non-southerner’s attempts to meet Delta residents of all stripes and learn about local culture from rural Mississippians near Greenville.
“Praying for Sheetrock” by Melissa Fay Greene is a non-fictional tale set in 1970’s McIntosh County, Georgia, where the white sheriff controlled everything and everybody. Changes wrought by the civil rights movement had bypassed McIntosh. An uneducated, unemployed black man, Thurnell Alston, challenged the sheriff and his courthouse gang.
“A Painted House” by John Grisham was, inspired by Grisham’s childhood in rural Arkansas. The seven-year-old narrator lives in the cotton fields with his parents and grandparents in a little house that's never been painted. They farm eighty rented acres.
Lewis Grizzard wrote fiction and non-fiction set somewhere in or out of Lewis’ mind. If you can’t laugh-out-loud at life’s absurdities, skip Grizzard. But if you appreciate spot-on skewering of pretense of all sorts, you will find it exemplified in his “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution” columns. Grizzard’s take on not liking the New South is priceless.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston first appeared in 1938. Hurston’s novel features a strong-willed black woman recounting her life in central and southern Florida, including being charged with murder.
“Mudbound” by Hilary Jordan. Two WWII veterans, one black and one white, experience the turmoil of Jim Crow Mississippi.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” strong black women struggle with racism in South Carolina and find shelter and solace with beekeepers.
“Our Southern Highlanders” by Horace Kephart was one of the earliest realistic non-fiction portrayals of life in the rural Appalachian Mountains and one of the first serious analyses of Appalachian culture.
Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” needs no further comment. Alabama.
Neither does Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind.” Georgia.
Albert Murray was a literary and jazz critic, novelist, essayist, and biographer. In his memoir, “South to a Very Old Place,” about growing up in Alabama during the 1920s and 30s, Murray smoothly blends remembrances of his youth with snippets of conversation, African American folklore, and cultural criticism.
Born into the post-war planter class near Greenville, Mississippi, William Alexander Percy, died in 1942 after producing his remarkable memoir, “Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son.” He memorialized life in the Mississippi Delta of his youth and his coming to terms with the changing world.
Janisse Ray describes the life of a poor white girl growing up in a fundamentalist family in the middle of a junkyard. “Ecology of A Cracker Childhood addresses her love of and hope for the future of the longleaf pine forest in South Georgia.
“Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer” by Warren St. John, Non-Fic is about RV’ers who follow the Alabama Crimson Tide from game to game.
Ferrol Sams’ trilogy, “Run with the Horsemen,” “Whisper of the River,” and “When All the World Was Young” describes life in a small Georgia town through the Depression and after.
Celestine Sibley wrote chatty and folksy columns and tales set mostly in Georgia, in and around Atlanta. Her fans treasure her books.
Kathryn Stockett wrote about work as a black maid in a white household in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The 2011 movie, “The Help,” won multiple awards.
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn. What else there to say?
In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance vividly describes how people removed from their native culture became trapped in and dependent upon a new economic reality. After a generation, independent mountain people of West Virginia struggle with the collapse of coal mining.
“Yesterday in the Hills” by Floyd Watkins and Charles Hobert Watkins is non-fiction about the loves of old-time hill people of North Georgia from the 1890s until World War II.
NPR commentator and author Bailey White focuses on South Georgia eccentricities. “Mama Makes Up Her Mind” is humor about her life as a first-grade teacher who lives with her mother in a small Georgia town.
Mississippi is the place many non-southerners think of as emblematic of racial hostility. Perhaps despite, or because of its history, the state has produced an admirable number of writers of both races. Faulkner heads most lists, but it would be a serious mistake for anyone wanting to understand the south to overlook Richard Wright. “Black Boy,” is his 1945 telling of his childhood in Jim Crow Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee and his transition to life in Chicago.
Although no one mentioned it, this list needs one more title. Several years ago, the late great Fred Shaw, a transplanted Pennsylvanian, recommended James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Although I knew the book was a classic, unsparing account of life in the rural Depression-era South, I had never bothered to read it. At Fred’s urging, I filled a grievous gap in my reading list. Walker Evan’s photographs are haunting.