As the Year Wanes: Colors of Change in the Literature of the American South

Fall arrives with a shift in the weather, a subtle tick down on the thermometer, a gentle breeze with a hint of icy breath at its edges. We reach for a light sweater, a knitted scarf. We watch the tree branches resist the air’s gathering attack, their leaves drying, browning…falling. There’s a catch of breath, an unacknowledged fear in the quickened blood in our veins. Life can be cruel in autumn. It is a presage of the chills to come, the pale winter, the threat of inevitable death.

Many writers have manipulated the change of seasons with their literary explorations, but few as recognizably and comfortably as the famous writers of the American south. William Faulkner’s words reek of decay and coming change. As I Lay Dying illuminates a process of culmination so decorated, so spiked with the flavors of the regional south that it is impossible not to be transported along with Addie’s coffin on its journey home, its path to the grave.

Flannery O’Connor’s stories explored the explosive changes affecting generations of white and black southerners during the Civil Rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s, a seemingly eternal tension that yet plagues the south as a microcosm of the entire country. Her rather Catholic intentions to demonstrate the glory of God’s grace working through the scenes in her stories and the actions of her characters exemplifies the golden color of waning autumn sunlight.

A contemporary of O’Connor’s, and another Georgian literary artist cut down in the prime of her life, Carson McCullers wrote novels of isolation and loneliness in the American south. Such human feeling also arrives poignantly as the summer shifts to fall, as the world turns darker and colder, heading for inexorable change.

One southern writer almost entirely ignored during her lifetime was Zora Neale Hurston, a chronicler of African American lives as survivors. She presented both male and female characters in strong roles, as individuals with the intelligence and will to overcome great odds.

But these traditions are not relegated to the celebrated writers of the past. The colorful, shifting themes and tempting bed-soft words of our southern authors continue today. Consider these contemporary American authors working in the milieu of the textured, autumnal world of the American south.

 

William Gay

William Gay

Gay lived in relative obscurity for much of his life, although he wrote consistently from the age of 15. His first stories were published in 1998, when he was 56 years old. Once published, he met with immediate acclaim, remaining a cult hero of the southern gothic tradition until his death in 2012. His first novel, The Long Home, brings to life the tense search for the truth behind the death of a lone boy’s father in rural Tennessee. Actor, director and writer James Franco is currently adapting the novel for the big screen.


Jim Grimsley

Jim Grimsley

Born in North Carolina and a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, Grimsley represents a slice of southern American writing that is little explored: the gay experience. His haunting novel Winter Birds tells the story of a boy breaking out from the restraints of an abused childhood, while Dream Boy explores similar desires to escape abuse through a desire for love. Grimsley has also written a series of well-regarded science fiction novels, the first of which, Kirith Kirin, features gay protagonists whose strong love provides the hope for a positive resolution.


Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price

Another author from rural North Carolina, Reynolds Price also has the distinction of being one of Bill Clinton’s favorite authors. His fiction explores the lives of southerners, most often from his own corner of that world. His novel Kate Vaiden is the story of a southern woman whose teenage pregnancy haunts the rest of her life. An astute reader may also note the overtures to homosexuality in his work.


Dorothy Allison

Dorothy Allison

Allison’s North Carolina roots inflect her work as a poet and fiction writer. The depth of her empathy and painterly prowess with words stem from her own childhood abuse. Themes in her work cover child sexual abuse and feminist power, as well as lesbian sexuality. Her novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, a semi-autobiographical work about surviving abuse, was made into a movie directed by Anjelica Huston. A hero of working class women, Allison has turned her own tragedies into an example not only for others who’ve been abused but for writers and artists who struggle with redemption through the power of creation.

 

 

Michael Barnett is a writer and editor with associative ties to Alibris as strong as heartstrings.

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