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Southern Exposures With Little Light

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

WRITERS OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH

Their Literary Landscapes

Text by Hugh Howard

Photographs by Roger Straus III

Rizzoli. 286 pp. $35

Flannery O'Connor thought and wrote a lot about what it means -- or meant in her own day, at any rate -- to be a Southerner and a writer. Invariably, her observations were both smart and witty. For instance: "The great advantage of being a Southern writer is that we don't have to go anywhere to look for manners; bad or good, we've got them in abundance. We in the South live in a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech."

Hardly anybody mined these natural resources more profitably than O'Connor, who in her brief career -- she died in 1964, at 39, of lupus -- put together a body of work that is properly regarded as among the monuments of American literature. It is also among the most distinctively Southern, since for all the universality of its themes, it could be set in one place and one place only. Its characters, language and settings are as Southern as cheese grits and fried catfish. If one is surprised at times to find O'Connor's Southern rustics dealing with questions raised by her own devout Catholicism, she always manages to make plain the pertinence of each to the other.

Since O'Connor's death, and William Faulkner's two years earlier, Southern fiction has undergone a protracted period of uncertainty. To be sure, Eudora Welty lived on until 2001, carrying the banner of the Southern tradition even though she wrote relatively little from the mid-1960s until her death and even though her viewpoint is as much that of the outsider as of the native. But younger writers living in the South who have wanted to carry on the tradition have had to contend with the inescapable reality that the South isn't what it used to be. The Civil War is now only a dim memory, while what John Egerton has called "the Americanization of Dixie" has proceeded apace, depriving the region of much of its uniqueness and leaving writers to wonder what, precisely, it means in this day and age to be "Southern."

This confusion is evident in "Writers of the American South," a coffee-table book that resembles nothing so much as an oversized edition, between hard covers, of House & Garden or Southern Living. Of the nearly two dozen writers whose houses and landscapes are illustrated and described therein, only about half have written in the Southern tradition as described by O'Connor, and a number are not Southerners at all but people who have taken up residence in the South and emulated its manners, both social and literary.

Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that Hugh Howard, who wrote the text, and Roger Strauss II, who took the pictures, chose these writers less for their identity as Southerners than for the photogeneity and picturesqueness of their surroundings. Many of the studies and writing rooms depicted here seem to have been decorated by designers seeking the "literary look," with bulging bookcases, comfortable easy chairs and quaint writing implements: The late Shelby Foote's "writing utensil of choice is a dip pen, consisting of a wooden handle with metal tip or nib," and others express horror at the very thought of writing on a computer or even a typewriter.

Admittedly, many of these rooms and houses are entirely lovely. Carl Hiaasen's place in the Florida Keys looks terrific, with water views to die for, but one does have to wonder why Hiaasen was included in a book about Southern writers. If "Southern" is defined as living south of the Mason-Dixon Line, then Hiaasen is Southern all right, but the subject of his wonderful novels is Florida: the southernmost non-Southern state in the mainland Union.

Still, including Hiaasen is a no-brainer compared with including Ernest Hemingway. Yes, Papa did have a singularly photogenic house in Key West, and tourists still line up at his front door, but there wasn't a Southern bone in his body -- his own body or his body of fiction. Hemingway's writing is informed by the Midwest, by upper Michigan, by World War I, by Paris and Spain, by Cuba and by the sea, but in neither themes nor settings does it have anything at all to do with Dixie. One can only conclude that he was included solely -- and, in my view, cynically -- to boost sales.

In his introduction, Howard rather pretentiously proclaims: "This book presumes to visit the personal places where some Southern writers live or lived their literary lives. In images and words, we have sought to illuminate the interconnectedness between life and the fictional mise-en-scne readers encounter in the work of each of the writers included. By looking at the facts of their lives and examining the history and character of their places, we aim to offer an approach to their writings." But how a few photographs of Hemingway's house in Key West illuminate anything at all about his fiction is never really broached, perhaps for the obvious reason that in fact they don't. They are nice pictures and nothing more.

Faulkner's house in Mississippi, Rowan Oak, is another matter altogether. Faulkner bought the tumbledown antebellum house not far from downtown Oxford in 1930 and did much of his writing there. He loved the place, and there can be no question that having this tangible stake in the Southern past was important to him. Still, the aspects of the house and grounds that are depicted here are familiar to anyone who knows anything about Faulkner, Southern literature or even 20th-century American literature, as they have been photographed over and over again.

Similarly, Eudora Welty's house a couple of hundred miles down Interstate 55 in Jackson was an essential part of her life. Her parents bought the unpretentious, comfortable place at 1119 Pinehurst St. in 1925, when she was 16, and she lived in it for the rest of her life. Virtually all of her writing was done there, and she had a lively social life there, entertaining friends from Jackson and visitors from elsewhere, many of whom shared her literary interests. One gets only a limited sense of the house from the photographs herein, but if one absolutely insists on having a picture book about Southern writers' houses, this one belongs in it.

As one who likes picture books just about as much as the next person, I came to "Writers of the American South" with an open, even welcoming mind, but the book does not fulfill the expectations it raises. Instead, it inadvertently reminds us that the Southern literary tradition -- the strongest regional tradition in our literature -- is a thing of the past. It lives now only in the imitative work of writers who scarcely belong in the company of Faulkner and O'Connor, in literary "festivals" that draw tourists to quaint oases in Ol' Dixie, and in books such as this, which seek to turn it into a marketable commodity with which Martha Stewart or Laura Ashley would be entirely comfortable.

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