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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Faulkner
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Flannery O'Connor
- Katherine Anne Porter
- John Crowe Ransom
- Robert Penn Warren
- Eudora Welty
- Tennessee Williams
- Thomas Wolfe
- Richard Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Suggested Author Pairings

Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Flannery O'Connor
In the first half of the twentieth century, the increased mobility enabled by the spread of automobiles and good roads led to frequent collisions between the slow, trusting, tradition-bound way of life found in rural communities and the faster, more ruthless, and often more deceitful behavior found in the wider world. Such collisions form the basis of stories by Hurston, Wright, and O'Connor. In "The Gilded Six-Bits," the idyllic and childlike simplicity of Joe and Missie May's life together is nearly destroyed by the appearance of "Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places--Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on." Something similar happens in O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," although O'Connor is much less clear about the ultimate consequences of Tom T. Shiftlet's arrival and eventual departure from the Carter's house. Did the older Lucynell Carter secretly want to be rid of her disabled daughter? (She was, after all, "ravenous for a son-in-law.") The ultimate effects of the wider world are nearly as ambiguous in Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man." However, the fact that Dave first tries to get a gun through the Sears catalog marks the gun itself as something of an outsider, and it definitely destroys the life Dave has previously lived. As Dave hops the train "away to somewhere," we're left to wonder whether the end of his encounter with the wider world will be as unsuccessful as its beginning.

William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams
A great deal of writing by southern authors could be described as "gothic" in that many attempted in their writing to "unsettle" what they saw as prevailing trends in their society. However, these three writers each use gothic elements to special effect. Faulkner is generally considered a master of the southern gothic form and is often compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne for his dark and mysterious settings and for the way his writing explores the sin and guilt in the hearts of his characters and their world. While O'Connor's stories seem on the surface much less dark than Faulkner's, they are nearly always peopled with bizarre and even grotesque characters whose physical disabilities often symbolize their inner failings. With characters like Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, Williams's use of the gothic form falls somewhere between Faulkner and O'Connor, though toward the more deeply sinister end of the spectrum. But despite the different methods each author uses to explore the darker and more twisted sides of human nature and experience, each is concerned with how past mistakes develop into present imperfections and shape the possibilities for the future.

John Crowe Ransom, Tennessee Williams, and Katherine Anne Porter
The struggle between myth and reality plays a prominent role in the work of these writers. In his contribution to the Southern Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand, Ransom argued that myths, such as the romantic vision of the Old South, are necessary to hold a society together. Later, he argued for poetry as occupying the same role; by providing an alternative source of knowledge, poetry could challenge dominant beliefs and help society hold on to what it valued most. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche struggles to accept that the reality of her life does not match any of the myths she was taught to believe about how life should be. And in Porter's "Flowering Judas," Laura seems to occupy a mythical space somewhere between revolutionary and southern belle, even as she must learn to accept the fact that her ideal of the revolutionary ("a revolutionist should be lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract virtues") does not match the reality she finds in Braggioni. Many southern writers in this period address similar questions about the disillusionment produced by the conflict between their ideals and the reality in which they find themselves.

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