Southern literature is internationally renowned, with authors from this region producing some of the best-loved works in history.
So what is it that makes Southern literature unique, and why have novels from the South managed to stand the test of time and appeal to such diverse audiences around the world?
Local stories, universal appeal
For whatever reason, popular classics set in the South have been able to focus on narratives that take place in a very specific area, with circumstances that are undeniably linked to the geography and politics of this part of the country, while still connecting with readers nationwide—for generation after generation.
To Kill A Mockingbird is perhaps the best example of this intriguing juxtaposition; it deals with race, prejudice and the judicial system in the South, but explores these issues from a child’s perspective and somehow makes them universally understandable and applicable. More recently, journalist and author Julia Heaberlin painted a vivid picture of a small, Southern town forever haunted by a long-unsolved mystery in We Are All the Same in the Dark. A local cop has conducted a search across Texas for years to find a young girl and her father, and Heaberlin uses the Texas culture and landscape to tell her tale just as Harper Lee did with Alabama.
Themes of family & community
While all literature is fundamentally interested in human relationships, what gives Southern authors the ability to stand out from the crowd is their innate interest in families in particular and the wider communities in which we live.
William Faulkner is perhaps the epitome of this trend, with his novel Sartoris establishing the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, which he used as the basis for community and family-driven tales that in turn stitched the tapestry of life in the South and the U.S. as a whole.
Dealing with decay
While the U.S. is still a comparatively young country, the literature of the South has also managed to delve into the gothic, with the fading fortunes of Southern states in the post-Civil War era creating ample opportunity to dwell on the decay that came with it.
Faulkner is again a key proponent of this, but he is far from the only one. More recently, this thematic trope has influenced young adult franchises including the “Caster Chronicles.”
The culture of the South is especially intertwined with religion, more so than other parts of the country, and this is evident in the way that it influences literature both from a thematic standpoint and as a backdrop against which stories play out.
Flannery O’Connor, whose novels were intimately influenced by her faith and the complex questions that arose as a result of it, demonstrates that Southern authors are not always reverential of religious issues, even if they cannot escape the temptation to talk about them in their works.
Ultimately, it is the personalities and talents of the writers churned out by the South that gives it this unusual edge and independent spirit in the world of literature, and readers continue to consume the region’s output ravenously, regardless of their backgrounds.