Jeff Lambert wants you all to know that the McRib is back.
“Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
– Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1960)
I was first exposed to Southern Gothic in my AP Lit class in high school – after slogging our way through Madame Bovary and The Mayor of Casterbridge, we finally got to a body of work that a) I actually read and b) actually interested me. We read Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Caron McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café. We re-read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And finally, we read Flannery O’Connor’s short stories “Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
I was floored. The writing was sparse and bleak. Everybody – at least the protagonists – got killed or screwed over. There was an anger, an edge, to O’Connor’s voice that resonated with me. Throughout all of the Southern Gothic writers we covered, there was a pervasive sense of despair, nihilism and decay. It was like listening to punk, but in a book.
I was hooked.
The other thing that stood out to me as I read more of the genre – McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, O’Connor’s complete short stories – was that the “great voices” of Southern Gothic were predominantly female. McCullers, O’Connor, Lee, Welty – Faulkner, Williams and Caldwell find themselves outnumbered. As a result, there are a lot of feminist (or at least proto-feminist) ideas in these works. The characters are the weird, the without, the misfits. They don’t fit into the tiny boxes created for them by Southern Society. In a body of literature that holds the mirror up to the Grotesque in American Life (racism, sexism, hypocrisy, false religion) it takes these outcasts to show us our own ills.
But the stories of these misfits are so tragic. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’s Mick Kelly abandoning her dreams of studying music to work at a department store. Joy Hopewell, the educated and out-of-place weirdo of “Good Country People,” getting stranded in the barn by a seductive itinerant Bible salesman/acrotomophile. The giant Amelia getting jilted at the end of “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” Whereas Victorian lit has this trope of happy endings, where everyone gets married or adopted or god bless us everyone, Southern Gothic is rooted in realism. If Victorian lit is wearing rose-colored glasses, Southern Gothic dropped its lenses in shit.
But both high school me and grad school me appreciate Southern Gothic for more than its bleakness. The genre presents Southern life in a realistic light in a purposeful way. These stories were written to give voice to marginalized populations (women, uneducated crackers, Southern blacks) and to show the northern reader that this is real life. A challenge, in a way – you’ve read it, now what are you going to do about it?
And here is where that proto-feminism comes back again. Female southern writers came to the post-war literary world as severely marginalized individuals. Their experience, both as Southerners and as women, gave them an ability to write believably from the perspectives of marginalized peoples, and act almost as a national conscience. I think this is still true today: maybe not so of, say, the Shopaholic series or Twilight, but what can we learn about ourselves from queer and minority women? We can and should still look today to women writers to best speak for marginalized communities. Because, well, they are.