American Passages: A Literary Survey
“My subject in fiction,” Flannery O’Connor tells us, “is the action of grace in the territory held largely by the devil.” One might do well to ask what, if not the devil, haunts the American South in this era between the wars. This program uncovers the revisioning of Southern myths during the modernist era by writers William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston.
For many people in the United States, the first half of the twentieth century was a period of tremendous change in almost every facet of life. Breakthroughs in science–including Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, as well as the increasing influence of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution–challenged conventional views of both the world we live in and our place within it. In the social sciences, the increasingly popular ideas of Sigmund Freud became conceptual tools used by many to question the sexual and social restraints of a tradition-bound culture they saw as highly repressed. Meanwhile, technological advances began to create the vast array of consumer goods we take for granted today, including movies, automobiles, airplanes, radios, and myriad other items–all produced on a massive scale previously unknown in human history. The industry needed to produce all these goods helped accelerate yet another great shift in American life as people migrated in ever greater numbers from their traditional, rural homes–where agriculture was the main focus of life–to the ever-expanding urban, industrial centers, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. However, much of this migration was from the South to the booming cities of the North–notably Chicago and New York–a trend that began around the time of the Civil War and continued into the mid-twentieth century. The period marked the first time in American history that fewer people lived in rural than urban areas, and as the focus of American life moved to the cities, the consumption of mass-produced goods became every bit as important as their production.
Historians sometimes refer to the massive social and cultural transformations of the early twentieth century as distinctively “modern.” For many–and especially for many writers during the period–such great change and social upheaval raised the question: What kind of life is the best to live? Is the “modern” world headed in the right direction, or are we going the wrong way? For writers in the South, such questions often involved a desire to protect tradition and myth from being destroyed by the influx of new ways of thinking and living.
Such questions found expression in attempts by social reformers to legislate the kind of society they wished to inhabit. One prominent result of such efforts was the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, from 1919 to 1933, banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicants throughout the nation. According to historian Michael Parrish, “The prohibition battle divided the nation along sharp geographic, religious, and ethnic boundaries that defined much of America’s political landscape” in the years following World War I. Specifically, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment “symbolized the political and cultural victory of the small towns over the big cities; of evangelical and pietistic Protestants over Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews; of old-stock Anglo-Saxons over newer immigrants; and finally, of rich over poor.” Like the Eighteenth Amendment, the countless “Jim Crow” laws that divided the South into black and white were also attempts to legislate a certain kind of society–in this case, one based on the racial divisions that had segregated U.S. society since the introduction of slavery nearly three centuries earlier. The Ku Klux Klan, which had virtually disappeared in the first decade of the twentieth century, was reborn in 1915 and remained a formidable force in U.S. politics and race relations–particularly in the South–for the next ten years.
Unit 13, “Southern Renaissance,” explores some of the ways writers who either lived in, wrote about, or were otherwise associated with the South between 1920 and 1950 responded to the many changes during the period. Not surprisingly, much of the writing in this unit features the struggle between those who embraced social change and those who were more skeptical or challenged social change outright. According to literary critic Richard H. King, “The writers and intellectuals of the South after the late 1920s were engaged in an attempt to come to terms not only with the inherited values of the southern tradition but also with a certain way of perceiving and dealing with the past, what Nietzsche called ‘monumental’ historical consciousness.” In the work of John Crowe Ransom, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Connor, the diverse wealth of voices in the early-twentieth-century South comes alive.
The video for Unit 13 explores some of the most influential texts from William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom situate their writing firmly within the South even as they question southern myths and traditions. Both Faulkner and Hurston are concerned with questions of historical time: How does the past shape the present and future? To what extent are our lives predetermined by our skin color, economic situation, or what our ancestors have or have not done? In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, for example, multiple narrators attempt to discover, understand, and cope with the legacy of Thomas Sutpen, a Virginian of low birth who created a grand plantation out of the Mississippi wilderness of the 1830s and 1840s. In contrast to the gothic and sometimes malevolent qualities of Faulkner’s novel, in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” Hurston takes a stand against letting her skin color or the legacy of slavery determine who she is or what her life will be. “I am not tragically colored,” Hurston asserts, going on to ask, “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
As the video explores the similarities and differences between these two influential writers, it introduces students to the complex relationship between writers and the place and time in and about which they write. How do Hurston and Faulkner depict “the South”? How do these texts engage the legacies of slavery as well as economic poverty? What innovative formal strategies did they use to bring their characters to life and to give their readers a rich sense of the South in the 1920s? What do Faulkner and Hurston seem to be saying about human possibility and about what America is or should be in the early twentieth century? Unit 13 helps answer these and related questions by situating Faulkner and Hurston within their literary and historical contexts, and by guiding students to connections between these writers and others in their era, as well as to writers within other units.
Through an exploration of the historical and literary contexts with which the Southern Renaissance was most concerned, the video, the archive, and the curriculum materials work together to give students a broad understanding of “the South” within the larger fabric of U.S. history in the early twentieth century. Those contexts include (1) the goals, values, and influence of the literary group known as the “Southern Agrarians”; (2) the extensive and complicated history of racial segregation in the South as maintained by “Jim Crow” laws and etiquette; (3) the rise of the motion picture as popular entertainment and the ways in which mass culture began to reshape American life; (4) the ways in which the increasing ubiquity of automobiles and an improved national highway system increased geographic mobility and encouraged the breakdown of local isolation; and (5) the system of tenancy farming, or sharecropping, under which many of the South’s poorest inhabitants–both black and white–labored in the early twentieth century.
The archive and curriculum materials also make connections with how writers of the Southern Renaissance relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How does the Southern Renaissance relate to the Harlem Renaissance and other regional literary movements? How do writers of the Southern Renaissance relate to literary modernism and the “Lost Generation” with which that movement is often associated? How did writers like Hurston and Wright break new ground for literature written by African Americans? How does the “Southern gothic” tradition relate to earlier examples of the American gothic? How did southern writers benefit from the WPA, and what is their relationship to the farm workers’ movement?
After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to
- discuss and understand both why and how historical time (in the sense of past, present, and future) became such a dominant preoccupation for writers of the Southern Renaissance;
- see and discuss the particular ways writers of the Southern Renaissance engaged various concepts around which southern society was organized, including gender, race, social and economic position, agrarian vs. urban ways of life, and tradition vs. innovation or “progress”;
- understand the thematic and stylistic innovations introduced and/or employed by writers of the Southern Renaissance and how these innovations relate to literary modernism and literary history more generally;
- recognize the attempts of Southern Renaissance writers to create “the South” (or at least small pieces of it) as both a place and a constellation of values and experiences.
Using the Video
William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston
Dorothy Allison, award-winning author; Don Doyle, professor of history (Vanderbilt University); Carla Kaplan, professor of literature, American studies, and gender studies, (University of Southern California); Ramon Saldivar, professor of American literature (Stanford University); Alice Walker, award-winning author and poet; Rafia Zafar, director of African and Afro-American studies (Washington University, St. Louis)
- After World War I, writers emerged in the segregated South to tell new stories. Continuing a tradition while challenging the past, writers such as William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston ushered in a renaissance of southern literature.
- Faulkner built upon the work of a group of writers known as the Southern Agrarians that emerged in the late 1920s. The Southern Agrarians defended the South’s rural way of life while the world was changing around them.
- Faulkner captured the complicated, often tangled layers of southern history in countless novels and short stories. Intricately weaving the importance of time and place into everything he wrote, Faulkner was also a modernist who rebelled against linear storytelling. As I Lay Dying, with its nearly ludicrous plot and modernist style, is a good example of this stylistic innovation, while Absalom, Absalom!–a soul-searching indictment of the South–shows how some poor nineteenth-century whites tried to elevate themselves through racism, as a reaction against their own oppression.
- While Faulkner explored myths about white southerners, Zora Neale Hurston turned to African American folk traditions to present a positive view of black southern life. Hurston was a flamboyant storyteller, an anthropologist, and a respected writer.
- In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” Hurston observes that race is created, not given. As a folklorist and author, she captured a vision of the South that was different from what was usually recorded. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a woman’s coming-of-age story and a critique of African American folk society.
- Hurston’s final work was the autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road, from which her publishers removed all anti-white references prior to publication. In the 1950s she slipped into obscurity; she died in poverty in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Hurston’s writing was “rediscovered” by Alice Walker in 1973. She’s now seen as the most important African American woman who wrote before World War II.
- Writers like Faulkner and Hurston joined their voices with those of other writers from the South to revise southern myths. At the same time, they broke through regional barriers to speak to the American experience and to the universal human condition.
- Preview the video: In the decades following World War I, the United States experienced massive social and cultural changes in response to economic, industrial, and technological upheavals. This was especially true in the South, which had never fully recovered–economically or socially–from the Civil War and the effects of Reconstruction. Within this environment, writers like William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston emerged to write about the South, both its mythical past and its often harsh contemporary realities–including deeply entrenched racism and the hardships of lives lived under crushing poverty. Joined by the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams, these writers participated in a reinvigoration of southern literature which has come to be known as the “Southern Renaissance.”
- What to think about while watching: What are the main social and cultural factors that influence these writers? How do these writers depict the South? Does “the South” seem to be the same place for both Faulkner and Hurston, or do they each see it differently? What assumptions or beliefs do these writers challenge? How and why do these writers convey the importance of time and place in their writing? What are the formal innovations these writers use to convey their characters’ experiences? What does the history of the critical reception of these authors tell us about American literature and the literary canon?
- Tying the video to the unit content: Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 13 builds upon the introductory nature of the video to provide students with a variety of ways to understand how writers in the South responded to certain changes in American life throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The curriculum materials offer additional background on both Hurston and Faulkner, as well as on some of their prominent contemporaries in the fields of fiction, poetry, and drama. The unit also explores in greater detail some of the important contexts of southern writing, including the history of racism as seen in Jim Crow laws; the share-cropping system on which much of the rural South depended at this time; and the Southern Agrarian movement, in which a group of southern writers sought to promote an alternative future for the South.
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.
Agrarianism – The belief that society and daily life should be structured around the cultivation of the soil. According to literary critic and historian M. Thomas Inge, Agrarians believe that the direct contact with nature that comes from farming will bring humans closer to God and encourage the values of “honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality.” Furthermore, Agrarians believe that urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy human dignity and independence while also encouraging vice and moral weakness. In the 1920s and 1930s a prominent group of southern writers–including John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren–loosely subscribed to the basic tenets of Agrarianism and therefore became known as the Southern Agrarians.
Fugitive Poets – Group of poets and critics centered at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920s. The group included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren and first gained a degree of prominence for The Fugitive, the magazine they published from 1922 to 1925 as an outlet for their writing. According to critic J. A. Bryant, the group’s goal was simply to “demonstrate that a group of southerners could produce important work in the medium, devoid of sentimentality and carefully crafted, with special attention to the logical coherence of substance and trope.”
New Criticism – School of criticism which emerged primarily in the South and which argued that critics had for too long paid too much attention to the biographical and historical contexts of a work of literature. New Critics advocated a focus on “the thing itself”–the language and the structural and formal qualities of the poem, novel, play, or story with which the critic was concerned. The foundation of New Criticism was, and remains, the exercise of “close reading,” which for poetry often means a word-by-word or line-by-line analysis of the poem, the goal of which is to discern the most coherent meaning within its language and form. Although the New Criticism had become the dominant critical practice by the mid-twentieth century, most contemporary critics merely use it as a starting point for various other critical approaches. Many southern writers are closely associated with New Criticism, including John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks.
Old South – Refers to the romantic and sentimental myth of what the South once was. The myth of the Old South generally referred to the “plantation legend” of antebellum (and much postbellum) popular fiction which portrayed white southerners as genteel aristocrats and slavery as a benevolent, paternal institution from which blacks and whites benefited equally. The first few chapters of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind capture the myth of the Old South. Opposed to the myth of the Old South were ideas of the New South, including the view that southerners should try to “modernize” and reshape their region on the industrial model of the North.
paternalism – From the Latin pater, meaning to act like a father. In the context of the American South, paternalism generally refers to the attitude of many white southerners toward African Americans in the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth. According to the paternalist defense of slavery, African Americans were childlike and unable to take proper care of themselves; therefore, they needed white “masters” to take care of them and guide them through life. After the Civil War, the paternalist argument continued to be used as a pretext for the exploitative working conditions of sharecropping, as well as for the strict code of laws and etiquette known as Jim Crow.
Reconstruction – Period immediately following the Civil War during which the federal government attempted to force the former Confederate states to govern themselves according to the laws and customs of the rest of the United States. During this time (also known as the period of “Radical Reconstruction”), federal troops helped enforce universal male suffrage, and former leaders of the Confederate Army were barred from serving in public office. For the first time, African Americans were elected to serve as legislators and governors in southern states. Despite the fact that no state was ever controlled by a majority of African Americans, white southerners bitterly resented being forced to treat African Americans as equals, and by 1876 the period of Radical Reconstruction had effectively ended.
regionalism – Writing that emphasizes the importance of a regional setting and tradition to individuals’ lives. While regional writing tends to focus on issues or experiences that are native to the place with which it is concerned, the best examples of regionalism have universal appeal as well.
revolt against the village – Theme in American literature in the 1920s and 1930s through which many writers (notably the members of the “Lost Generation”–see Unit 11) criticized their own society for its crudeness, materialism, and repression. Also refers more generally to early-twentieth-century changes in society–such as the rise of mass media and an increasingly mobile population–which appeared to threaten the cohesiveness and autonomy of the traditional community.
southern gothic – Style of writing marked by southern settings and characters which are somehow dark, mysterious, or grotesque, or which otherwise disturb or question the “normal” expectations of their readers. Writers associated with the southern gothic include William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. See also Unit 6.
stream of consciousness – Style of writing used by many modernists that attempts to portray the inner workings of a character’s mind by cataloging or describing the character’s thoughts and ideas in rapid succession and without any interpretation or explanation by an outside narrator. So-named by William James, who described human consciousness as a continuous stream of thoughts, impressions, emotions, and ideas. William Faulkner used this style in As I Lay Dying, which forces readers to assemble an overall narrative from the various thoughts, feelings, and observations of fifteen different characters. The stream-of-consciousness style challenged traditional narrative by abandoning the linear form in favor of the more confused and sometimes random jumps of the human mind.
Bibliography & Resources
Andrews, William (gen. ed.), Minrose C. Gwin, Trudier Harris, and Fred Hobson. The Literature of the American South. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Bryant, J. A., Jr. Twentieth-Century Southern Literature. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1997.
Doyle, Don. Faulkner’s County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001.
Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G. “On Katherine Anne Porter . . .” American Short Story, Vol. 2. Ed. Calvin Skaggs. New York: Dell, 1989. 296-300.
Hurston, Zora Neale. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive. Ed. Alice Walker. Intro. Mary Helen Washington. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1979.
Kaplan, Carla. The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
King, Richard H. A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.
Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.
Powell, William S. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996.
Sundquist, Eric. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.
Watt, Stephen, and Gary A. Richardson. American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Burden of Southern History. 3rd ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.
Wright, Richard. “How Bigger Was Born.” Native Son. Perennial Classics ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1998. 433-62.
Arnett, Paul, and William Arnett, eds. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Vols. 1 & 2. Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books [in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library], 2000.
A Streetcar Named Desire [1951: videorecording]. Charles K. Feldman Group Productions. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1985. Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden. Producer, Charles K. Feldman; screenplay, Tennessee Williams; director, Elia Kazan; music, Alex North.
The Big Sleep [1945/46: videorecording]. Warner Bros.: a Howard Hawks production; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2000. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone. Screen-play, William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman. Special features: the documentary The Big Sleep Comparisons 1945/1946 Versions; theatrical trailer. Side A: The 1946 theatrical release version. Side B: The 1945 pre-release version.
The Birth of a Nation [1915: videorecording]. Blackhawk Films. Film Preservation Associates; Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment [distributor], 1992. Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, et al. Director: D. W. Griffith. Includes a 24-minute film, The Making of The Birth of a Nation . . . , by film historians Russell Merritt and David Shepard and a reproduction of the original program from the world’s premiere of the film.
Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 03A Manning Hall, Campus Box 3355, Chapel Hill, NC 27599. Phone: (919) 962-5665; Fax: (919) 962-4433; Email: [email protected]. Includes Southern Cultures (a journal), Sounds of the South, and the Southern Oral History Project.
Conwill, Kinshasha, et al. Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African American South. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with Exhibitions International and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2001.
Crossroads, Southern Routes: Music of the American South; Wade in the Water, Vol. 3: African American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers; Been in the Storm So Long: Spirituals, Folk Tales and Children’s Games; Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Smithsonian Folkways Mail Order: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Dept. 0607, Washington, DC, 20073-0607.
Delehanty, Randolph. Art in the American South–Works from the Ogden Collection. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996.
Edge, John T. Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South. Pen and ink illustrations by folk artist Blair Hobbs. Hill Street Press, 2000.
Inherit the Wind [1960: videorecording]. United Artists; Lomitas Productions, Inc.; produced and directed by Herman Shumlin; presented by Stanley Kramer. Farmington Hills, MI: CBS/FOX Video, 1985. Film dramatization of Scopes evolution trial.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy [videorecording]. A Social Media Productions, Inc. production. Producers: Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman; writer and director: Barak Goodman; co-director: Daniel Anker. Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video, 2001.
Their Eyes Were Watching God: Mules and Men, by Zora Neale Hurston, Ruby Dee (Reader). Harper Audio; ISBN: 0694524026; unabridged edition (November 2000). Abridged version: Caedmon Audio Cassette; ISBN: 1559945001 (November 1991).
Unit 3 Utopian Promise
Instructor Overview, Bibliography & Resources, Glossary and Learning Objectives for this Unit.