Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Special Kind of Southern Angst

I was reading book blogs, instead of doing the hundred or so other things I said I would do today, when I came upon a reading contest. For those of you who don't know, I am a voracious reader. I consume books. I read books like I swim: head down, hard as I can go, only coming up now and again for a large breath of air before plunging in again. I love the written word. My eyes are incapable of being still when in the presence of words. I'm the kind of person you will catch reading the back of the cereal box if there is nothing else to read. I understand completely why Jefferson wrote, "I cannot live without books."

Being the competitive person that I am, I also love a contest. I have already earned my book light from the Nashville Public Library Contest this summer and that only took about two weeks. All you had to do was read four books. But this new contest I found is a little different. Not only must you read three books, you must blog about them, too. How exciting! I can combine two of my passions: reading and writing. And better yet, it's not just any fiction. It has to be Southern fiction, because it is a Southern Reading Challenge. Be still my heart! If reading is my passion, reading Southern fiction is my reading heart's greatest joy.

I think my love of Southern fiction was probably born from angst over my Southern identity. I was born in Tampa, Florida and lived about thirty minutes from the city in Valrico. We lived at the end of a dirt road where the Bookmobile would come to visit. Our seven acres were surrounded by 250 acres of pasture and our backyard wandered off into the woods. My brother had a B.B. gun at age 7 and a pellet gun at age 9 or 10 by which time he was proficient hunting small woodland creatures.

My father was born in the mountains of Western, North Carolina. Although he moved to Florida at the age of 11, he remains to this day very much a Southern mountain man. My mother, a Florida native, spent her first years in the country in a little town called Seffner and spent her summers at her grandmother's house in Dothan, Alabama. Although the big city of Tampa was only a half an hour away, we were very much a small-town Southern family.

In 1979 at the age of six, we moved to a little town in East Tennessee called Sulphur Springs, where I was immediately cast as the outsider. One of the things I remember most was a few years after moving there a boy in my class commented on my accent and my home state and came to the conclusion that I was a Yankee. I may have been just young at the time, but I knew what a yankee was and I knew I wasn't one. I was from Florida -- not the North. (I realize that parts of Florida are now merely retirement communities for the Northeast, but not the part I was from in 1979.) I credit that one statement by some long-forgotten boy for the beginning of my Southern identity angst. My mother, who had been made fun of for her country accent when she moved into town as a child, had developed impeccable grammar. My brother and I were always corrected when we spoke with poor grammar in our home. So, here I was the kid with the 'funny' accent using correct grammar in a little school in East Tennessee being called a yankee. I knew it was untrue, but it cut me to the quick. Somehow I was not as Southern as the rest of them.

As I grew older and learned what "Southern" meant to the rest of the country, my angst grew. I lived in the foothills in East Tennessee, not the Delta in Mississippi. I developed a country twang for an accent, not a lovely drawl. I lived in a small house on an acre surrounded by cow fields, not down a long drive flanked with live oaks. I was much more likely to end up at a NASCAR race than at the Kentucky Derby, and the only thing being added to a Coke at my Souhtern Baptist house was ice cubes, not bourbon. I loved growing up in my beloved South, but I just never felt Southern enough.

Fast forward to 1994 at the University of Tennessee, where as a junior I was looking for a good literature class to satisfy my soul, as well as an elective requirement. My sorority sister Renee told me about a class she was taking called Contemporary Southern Fiction. It wasn't on the schedule; you had to have the professor's permission to take it. She recommended I show up and see if he would let me add it. When I walked into the small conference room that first day little did I know that an important part of my life would never be the same.

Dr. Jack Reese, who had served as chancellor of UT for more than 16 years, had stepped down a few years prior to return to the classroom. When you've been chancellor, you pretty much get to run your classroom any way you choose. Just thinking about this man and the fact that he no longer inhabits this earth, brings tears to my eyes. He was dear and lovely and funny and erudite and there will never be another one like him. *drying eyes now*

Needless to say I was honored when Dr. Reese allowed me to join his class. There were 10 or 12 of us who met around a conference table next door to his office. His syllabus was two inches thick and 15 years and several moves later it is sitting in my lap as I type this. We read 12 novels and many essays and short stories that semester, which were broken up into topics imporant in the South. And for every section we covered, we watched a relevant Southern movie. The topics covered were: Coming of Age in the Modern South, Social Classes: Redneck to Aristocrat; Race and Civil Rights; The Southern Woman; A Sense of Family; Politics and Politicians; Religion; King Football and Other Sports; Getting Older; and Southern Music: Country and Blues.

That semester Dr. Reese introduced me to Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor, Kaye Gibbons and Lee Smith, Robert Penn Warren and Harry Crews, Wilma Dykeman and Josephine Humphries, Clyde Edgerton and Earnest Gaines, Walker Percy and Bobbie Ann Mason. But more than that, he introduced me to the beauty that is Southern Literature. This is not to say that I had not read Southern authors before -- of course I had -- but my eyes had not been opened to the genre of Southern Literature and the importantance of "place" in fiction and from what angst Southern literature comes. I had not experienced the many different places in the South from which literature springs. Yes, the South is magnolias and mint juleps and live oaks and such, but it is also mountains and backroads and places that inhabit my childhood and places that I pray to God I, and my children, never have to see.

You want a short story about a Southern family that you will never forget? Read Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." You want a Southern gothic novel that will disturb you to the bone? Read Harry Crew's "Feast of Snakes." You want a strong mountain woman who will stir your soul? Read Lee Smith's "Fair and Tender Ladies." Would you like to understand the hold that football has over those of us in the South? Read H.G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and A Dream." You want to read about a Southern grandmother who reminds you of your own? Read Clyde Edgerton's "Walking Across Egypt." How about a modern-day mother whose plight might hit a little close to home? Read Josephine Humphries, "Dreams of Sleep."

In Jack Reese's Contemporary Southern Fiction class I developed a passion for Southern fiction and the Southern writer that I hope never wains. Oh, I read and re-read Jane Austen and other British authors on a regular basis, as well as bestselling authors and up and coming authors, and even forgettable "Chick Lit" at the beach, but I always come home, back to my South. And I'm always looking for new authors to add to his list. If Dr. Reese were alive and teaching today, I think Joshilyn Jackson would be on his syllabus. She is currently my favorite Southern author and has a voice you need to hear. In fact, I'll probably be blogging about one of her books here. You can expect to read posts about three diffenent Southern authors in the coming month. Hope you will enjoy. I know I will.


  1. Very nice. I'll definately have to look into the titles that you mentioned. I'm not that fast of a reader, but I tend to multitask quite a bit when I am reading (five books).

    They always say, write what you know. This has always bothered me. I felt that coming from this area there just wasn't that much to it, at least nothing to truly write about. I mean, really, who would want to read about the Appalachian Fair and my fourth place water color?

    However, and it was the mention of "Feast Of Snakes" that prompted this. This area has tons of character that's accessible for anyone who has lived here long enough. Part of that I think comes from those formative years in this area.

    And it's always nice to learn something new from an old friend. Which brings me to another oddity from finally signing on with Facebook. How much more religiously diverse could that street get?

    I didn't know that you were raised Southern Baptist (assumed it later on, but I don't think I knew it back then). So there's Baptist, our family was Church of Christ. I'm sure that there had to be at least one Methodist family on the street. And the part Jewish, part Baptist family.

    I don't think I've ever lived in any other neighborhood that religiously diverse.

  2. Loved reading this post, Lori. I'm certainly not as well read as you, but for a lighthearted Southern read I reach for Ann B. Ross. Her "Miss Julia" series tickles me to death!