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Classic Southern Fiction Writers

by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

Nashville is changing. It’s changing A LOT. And so is our little town of Franklin, one of Nashville’s major suburbs. Since 1980, Franklin’s population has increased more than 500%, which you’ll have no trouble believing if you want to go anywhere during morning rush hour – or lunch hour – or evening rush hour – or a Saturday – you get the gist. Whereas we used to be the “#1 small town in Tennessee,” we are now ranked as the 7th largest city in the state!

While Franklin has maintained its classic southern charm, we’ve also welcomed a healthy number of transplants from all over the USA, and from other countries, as well. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to talk about classic Southern Fiction writers. These writers have played an important role in capturing, communicating, and preserving some of the cultural aspects of the South, from the hills of Appalachia to the bayous of Louisiana, and the states in between.

Whether you’re new to the southern states, or you’re a native southerner who wants to get more familiar with a writer who shares your family culture, I hope you’ll find an interesting, new-to-you author by the end of this post.

 (As with any society, the South is responsible for both positive and negative contributions to culture. Some of these authors may use racially insensitive language, or potentially upsetting plot points, but I won’t address specifics in this post. If you prefer to avoid literature of this nature, I encourage you to further research these authors and books before you start reading.)

Mark TwainThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876); Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1935 essay. William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature,” and Twain’s obituary acknowledged him as “the greatest humorist [America] has produced.” Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn deal with boys growing up and adventuring along the Mississippi River in the antebellum South. Twain was known for his use of satire, and both of these books carry with them heavy doses of social criticism.

Kate Chopin – “Désirée’s Baby” (1893); “The Story of an Hour” (1894); The Awakening (1899)
Living in late 19th century Louisiana, Kate Chopin denied being a feminist or a suffragist. But she viewed the culture around her with a probing eye. With a knack for clear, compassionate observation, and the boldness to write honestly – even if some subjects were deemed controversial, even immoral, at the time – Chopin nonetheless helped pave the way for 20th century feminist authors. The Awakening, about a young woman who determines to discover her identity beyond “wife” and “mother” despite societal conventions, is a staple in English literature classes. She also published several important short stories.

William FaulknerThe Sound and the Fury (1929); Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
Mississippi native William Faulkner created the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, placed it in his home state, and set most of his short stories and novels there. This allowed him to explore a variety of social groups within the same locale. He is known for including passages of “stream of consciousness” writing his stories, where he eschews proper grammar and punctuation in an attempt to convey the state of a character’s mind. Faulkner’s novels can be considered allegories for southern history. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.

Zora Neale HurstonTheir Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
In addition to her works of fiction, Zora Neale Hurston collected African-American folk tales, published anthropological studies on voodoo practices, and wrote plays, non-fiction, and poetry. Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most well-known novel. It explores themes of race, gender roles, and gender inequality. The heroine, Janie Crawford, comes to learn what it means to take ownership of her life, and what it means to be an independent woman in early 20th century Florida.

Carson McCullersThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
Of her craft, McCullers said, “Writing, for me, is a search for God.”  Born in Columbus, Georgia (225 miles from Nashville, as the crow flies), Carson McCullers was another author who keenly observed her culture, and translated with great empathy (and perhaps a touch of comedy) the pain and loneliness she saw. Her friend Tennessee Williams summed up “Carson’s major theme: the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love.”

Eudora WeltyA Curtain of Green (1941), The Optimist’s Daughter (1972)
Welty is a much-loved, much-awarded author who lived most of her life in Mississippi. Also a documentary photographer during the Depression era, she often found inspiration in the subjects of her own photographs. A woman ironing clothes behind a post office became the subject of one of her finest short stories, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Some southern authors have a reputation for world-weary cynicism. Welty instead managed to address difficult subjects – race relations, poverty, aging, loss – with a tender, artistic, even optimistic, voice.

Robert Penn WarrenAll the King’s Men (1946).
Warren was born just over the Tennessee line in Guthrie, Kentucky. Another staple of English literature classes, All the King’s Men won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and its 1949 film adaptation won an Oscar for Best Picture. For this dramatic story of a once-idealistic lawyer’s descent into brutality and corruption, Warren likely took inspiration from the real life of Huey Long, former governor of Louisiana and a US Senator, who was assassinated in 1935. The novel, known for its “dramatic tension[,]… fierce emotion, narrative pace[,] and poetic imagery,” offers important insight into one facet of southern politics in the 1930s.

Ralph EllisonInvisible Man (1952)
Born in Oklahoma, Ralph Waldo Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute (“the prestigious all-black university in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington”) in the 1930s. He was something of a renaissance man, at various times delving into football, trumpet, classic literature, sculpture, and photography. But his most enduring works are his essays, and his classic novel, Invisible Man. In it, he explores issues affecting not only African-Americans, but society as a whole. As his narrator summarizes, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
I can’t say anything about To Kill a Mockingbird that hasn’t already been said. If you haven’t read it, make it first on your list.

To find even more southern authors worth your time, check out the members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fellowship_of_Southern_Writers). Their charter members include several authors from this post. You will find modern, influential southern writers among them as well, including Wendell Berry, Kaye Gibbons, and Tony Earley, well worth exploring in addition to the classics listed above. Enjoy!

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It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird: Harper Lee 1926-2016

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

harper-lee_0Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89 last month. She was a literary giant and wrote one of the most famous and beloved novels of the twentieth century: To Kill a Mockingbird. It was only last year that her second book, a predecessor of To Kill a Mockingbird, was published. This book, Go Set a Watchman, was as divisive as her first book was beloved. Many thought that Go Set a Watchman was published without her say-so, and that Ms. Lee was taken advantage of. And the views on race relations and the language used shocked many readers.

The book is so beloved that, according to Variety, Aaron Sorkin will be writing the script for a new Broadway play, adapting To Kill a Mockingbird for the 2017-2018 season. There is precedent: In 1990, a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel debuted in Monroeville, where it’s performed each May by local actors. The performances take an almost reverential approach, with audiences taking part in order to ritually enact scenes of segregation and justice denied.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

So why do we love To Kill A Mockingbird so much? Firstly, it’s one of the few books that kids in high school actually like to read. Consider the reading lists, it is a relatively shorter and easier to read book. And even though it’s themes are overt and plentiful, it doesn’t feel like Harper Lee was beating you over the head with themes (I’m looking at you Mr Dickens and your paid by the word description of how the wine and the street represented the Revolution).  Also, it is one of the few books that made the transition to film well. We all picture Gregory Peck when we think of Atticus Finch, and he was the epitome of the thoughtful, kind father we all wished we had. And we all related to Scout, who was an adventuresome tomboy learning about the world at his knee. And finally, as we all now know, the neighbor Dill was based off of a young Truman Capote.

During the years immediately following the novel’s publication, Harper Lee enjoyed the attention its popularity garnered her, granting interviews, visiting schools, and attending events honoring the book. In 1961, her book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.   The popularity snowballed and she began to turn down interviews sometime in 1964; she said the questions were monotonous. She also thought the attention was bordering on invasive and would take away the impact of the book. She was also quite shy all her life. Several times Lee said, once in a phone interview with Oprah, that the character in the book she most identified with is Boo Radley.

Only one year after its publication To Kill a Mockingbird had been translated into ten languages. Through the years, it has been translated into more than 40 languages. The novel has never been out of print in hardcover or paperback. A 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated behind only the Bible in books that are “most often cited as making a difference”. It is considered by some to be the Great American Novel.48bbe6e4f83767fb9933a723e8f1196d

People celebrated across the United States in 2010 when To Kill a Mockingbird turned 50. A book was even published in honor of the 50th anniversary–Scout, Atticus, & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was full of famous readers writing to Harper Lee telling her how much they loved her book. The 2010 documentary film in the PBS American Masters series Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on the background of the book and the film as well as their impact on readers and viewers.

And to have the second book Go Set a Watchman published in 2015 was a final gift to all of her fans. It was also a surprise, since so many readers had idolized Atticus, to see racist words pop up and find out that Calpurnia had retired. Many book groups are still discussing Lee’s new book. It is a nice legacy for her to leave us. Thank you Harper Lee for your magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird and your surprising postscript novel Go Set a Watchman. The world was better for your presence and your writing gifts.

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Harper Lee’s publishing a new book: Go set a Watchman

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department harper-lee-main-lHarper Lee has published a new book, after over 50 years of saying she would never write another book!

There has been some discussion as to whether Go Set a Watchman was published without Ms. Lee’s consent. Her lawyer, for most of her adult life, was her older sister, who passed away a couple of years ago. She did a valiant job of protecting Harper Lee’s legacy. And now with failing sight and hearing, many were questioning whether or not someone was taking advantage of her ill health. The state of Alabama actually investigated claims of elder abuse and interviewed Ms. Lee, but found the claims unfounded. The last we’ve read and heard is that Ms. Lee has all her faculties and does indeed know what’s what and she did indeed authorize the release of her new book.

According to HarperCollins Publishers, which purchased the North American rights to publish Go Set A Watchman, Ms. Lee’s new book was written in the 1950s. “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.” It was found by Ms. Lee’s friend and lawyer Tonja Carter last fall, in what was described as a secure place. Reportedly, she found the new manuscript attached to an older edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. She thought it was Lee’s first novel; then realized the story was set later, and the characters were older as well.

Harper-LeeGo Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s, twenty years after To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus. She has to face both personal and political issues as she tries to understand her father better and her own feelings about Maycomb. The title comes from the Bible – Jeremiah 21:6 “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, “Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” “ Most critics have said that this quote alludes to Atticus who Scout sees as the watchman or caretaker of Maycomb.

The Wall Street Journal will publish the first chapter online on July 10, four days before the July 14th publication date. For those who’d rather listen than read, WSJ will also be publishing the first chapter of the audiobook, narrated by Reese Witherspoon, that day as well.

And yes, we will have copies of the book available for check out on July 14. You can put a hold on the book now. Read the rest of this entry

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