Put those big books down. These short stories represent some of the best ever written about the South and offer the chance for escape without the commitment of an entire novel.
By Jacob Hobson
Every year at this time, booksellers across the nation fill their summer reading sections with beautiful hardbacks from Dickens to Hemingway and affordable paperbacks from Twain to Faulkner. Wrapped up in the romantic idea of delving into a classic novel on a hot summer night, we head home with three lengthy books only to find that in November we’ve yet to finish any of them. The classics are supposed to be big and packed with meaning and significance, conflict and vivid imagery; where else can one find all of these attributes?
The answer lies in the thousands of short stories and novellas written in and about the South. Although short fiction isn’t as popular as it used to be, it fares well for those literary minded individuals hoping to immerse themselves in a classic work before the end of summer. The satisfaction of finishing a story in one sitting allows time to reflect on the subtle things that make the classics so admirable. The setting, the symbolism and the artistry of the prose can often be overlooked in a novel in which the plot holds so much importance. If you find yourself without the time or energy to tackle the some odd thousand pages of “Gone with the Wind,’ consider these seven short reads of Southern fiction. Take your time, do a little research and get lost in some of the best stories the South has to offer.
Rick Bass may not be a household name, but many of his stories have become modern day classics in universities around the South. The History of Rodney, from his 1995 collection “In the Loyal Mountains,” tells of a newly married couple who buy a house in a Mississippi ghost town. This story is packed with romantic images, beautiful flowing prose, and enough symbolism to keep you reading Mr. Bass well into the winter months.
Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 short novel “Child Of God” is often overshadowed by his later achievements. This Southern Gothic story, set in East Tennessee, follows Lester Ballard who lives a life of wandering solitude in the Appalachian Mountains. To call this novel grotesque is an understatement, and it’s not recommended for the faint-hearted. Those who have read other works by McCarthy are in for a terrifying surprise.
Alice Walker, the author of “The Color Purple,” has been a lifelong activist since the 1960s and was an influential feminist in the 1980s. Her short story The Flowers is only 562 words but chock-full of meaning and symbolism. Read the story here as well as in the great short story collection “Reading and Writing about Short Fiction.”
Flannery O’Conner is the queen of Southern Gothic fiction – and the short story. “Flannery O’Conner: The Complete Stories” consists of 31 stories, every one of them a classic. A View from the Woods often gets overlooked because of the highly anthologized A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People, but this hidden gem contains what has to be one of the greatest endings in all of Southern literature.
If Flannery O’Conner is the queen of Southern gothic fiction, then William Faulkner is the king. His story Barn Burning is one of his most studied and praised as well as a prequel to his famous Snopes trilogy. This story serves as a great introduction to Faulkner. It’s very approachable and contains a great deal of accessible symbolism. The story also showcases Faulkner’s signature style of prose for which he is so well known. “Collected Stories of William Faulkner” is a highly recommended 42-story collection of the master’s greatest short works.
Eudora Welty’s list of awards and achievements is simply astonishing. With 12 books of short stories under her belt, it’s not a bad idea to spend the summer exploring her collections. Why I Live at the P.O. from her 1941 book of stories “A Curtain of Green” is a humorous break from the Gothic, with wonderfully original characters.
Mark Twain’s life and literary career are well known, and his novels rank as some of the most important in American literature. However, as popular as he was and remains to be, people sometimes overlook his shorter fiction. The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is a must-read for any Twain fan. The setting and dialect are superb, and the characters will have you on the ground in laughter. “Great Short Works of Mark Twain” is an excellent collection to further explore his short fiction.
More reading lists for summer:
Jacob Hobson recently graduated from the University of Tennessee as a literature major. He worked as editor and writer for the university’s newspaper The Daily Beacon and has had a poem published in the Phoenix Literary and Arts Magizine in Knoxville. He is originally from Alabama and has spent his entire life in the South.