Monday, April 07, 2008

My Attraction to the Southern Gothic Tradition.

Sometimes it's hard to account for the direction of one's interests. For some reason I've been drawn to Southern Gothic literature for much of my reading career. Sure, it started out with William Faulkner. I started with his most difficult work- The Sound and the Fury. I didn't know what the hell I was doing with that book, but I plowed through despite myself. I understood it to be about the madness of one insular Southern clan and their relationship with their region's history. I didn't get much further than that. Yet I knew I had touched on something great, and resolved to continue my explorations of this seminal American author. I read his most accessible book next (The Reivers) , and realized that Faulkner was not just deliberately obtuse.

I continued my exploration with As I Lay Dying, and decided that the book was probably where I should have started with this author. It was straightforward, and yet encapsulated many of the elements and themes that Faulkner is celebrated for. I particularly enjoyed the multiple narrators. The more I consumed, the more I became addicted to tales his about fictional Yoknapatawpha County. I found Absalom, Absalom and Light in August, and figured out that these works would live inside me forever. My Faulkner phase came upon me so fast and hard that I quickly came close to exhausting his entire oeuvre. Wanting to extend my relationship with his extraordinary work, I chose to save his trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion) for a future date.

Having moved on to other things, I soon found myself pining for Southern literature in the tradition of the master. I heard about a contemporary author named Cormac McCarthy, who was said to be influenced by the man from Oxford, Mississippi. The first title I picked up was Suttree, and I was immediately hooked. Not only was it written in the same spirit, but it exhibited some of the stylistic mannerisms I had come to love. As with his progenitor, I quickly went through all of McCarthy's books. And as I read them over the years, McCarthy evolved into a master in his own right. While there is no denying the craftsmanship of his early works, one would be hard-pressed not to recognize The Road as a modern classic. If he never hits that level of excellence again, I will still feel that he met his full potential.

After Faulkner and McCarthy, I knew I was hopelessly addicted to stories set in the South. Someone recommended Harry Crews, and I found him to be a harder-edged, trashier writer who caricatured his gritty Southern locales and the inhabitants that populated them. Due to proximity, I also became fascinated with the enigmatic qualities of West Virginia. I encountered the posthumous stories of Breece D'J Pancake, the singular literary voice of the Mountain State. His short career (punctuated by his 1979 suicide) was a tantalizing glimpse into the dark ways of the backwoods hollers. His work moved me to begin my own personal explorations into the mysteries of the state. I became aware of the excellent documentary filmmaker Jacob Young, and his subject from Boone County- Jesco White.

It's hard to say just what compels me to sustain my travels through this shifty and evocative terrain. The culture and politics of its people are about as far from my own upbringing as possible. Maybe it's the fascination with the 'other' that keeps me returning to this region. Or perhaps its because it's the one part of America that seems to hold on to its authenticity. If there exists a place in the United States beyond the reach of the homogenized suburban development and the consumer hell of strip malls, then it is surely to be found somewhere on a Southern back-road.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I found your site by a Google search, using "West Virginia" and "Southern Gothic". I enjoyed your post, and would like to recommend another West Virginia author, Davis Grubb, author of "The Night of the Hunter", also made into a film by Charles Laughton which is considered on the the top 100 American films. If Southern Gothic is your thing, Davis Grubb is your guy. Best, Bobby Lee

1:51 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Bobby Lee

I've been on a Southern Gothic kick pretty much all year. I don't know if you've checked out any of my more recent posts, but I've written a lot about authors like William Gay and Tom Franklin- guys I have only recently discovered. I appreciate the recommendation, and will certainly check out Davis Grubb. I've actually got a bit of a West Virginia fetish, and have taken a few road trips throughout the state over the last several years. So that's a particularly appealing tip for me. Thanks for visiting and please stop back.

2:17 AM  

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