Sunday, March 18, 2012

From the Archives

Several readers told me they have tried to find this essay, which was published a few years ago in Birmingham Arts Journal, but the archives were so confusing that they gave up.  I'm posting it here.  (And thanks for your interest, dear readers!)

The Southern Way
 Brenda Wilson Wooley
(Reprinted from Birmingham Arts Journal)

Many of my favorite writers are Southerners: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Lee Smith, Anne Tyler.  The list goes on.
Don't get me wrong; I enjoy other writers' work. But you just can’t beat deep, dark stories like Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury;” Tennessee Williams' “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie.” Shocking ones, like Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” sad, tragic ones, like Lee Smith’s “Black Mountain Breakdown.”  And the quirky ones, like Fanny Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.” 

One of the reasons I enjoy Southern writers’ work is because I identify with them. And although I'm small potatoes compared to the literary giants, we do have some things in common. 

First and foremost, we are Southerners.  We think of ourselves as being from somewhere, as belonging to some place.  Regardless of how far we roam or how long we've lived away, most of us eventually come home. And we are welcomed back with open arms. 

But not without validation.  

When I returned to Kentucky after many years in Illinois, I was met with a little suspicion and a lot of curiosity.  Until they figured out who I was:  "Oh, you're Tommy and Evelyn's oldest girl." "You're Miss Muriel's granddaughter, aren't you?" "I should’ve known you were a Wilson; y'all all look alike!" 

Another tradition of Southerners is storytelling. Our ancestors told stories they never would have been able to write, and I think it was their way of handing over the legacy. 

Like most Southerners, I grew up in a family of storytellers. I loved sitting on the front porch on summer nights listening to my relatives tell one story after another:  a great-grandfather, who walked everywhere he went and had a song written about him (“Walk, Tom Wilson”); a corncob-pipe-smoking great-great grandmother who took off running and hopped on her horse from the rear; neighbor Anna Lee, who baked cakes when she was depressed. Many cakes. All night long.  A distant cousin who strolled into the local truck stop, perched himself on a stool at the counter and leisurely sipped a cup of coffee. (Did I mention he was clad in nothing but a towel?) 

And that is just a drop in the bucket. 

It took the storytellers a long time to get to the point; they were always adding to the story. Or jumping in and telling another story about the person in the story. Which reminds me of writer Barry Hannah's version of the light bulb joke: “How many Southern writers does it take to change a light bulb? to unscrew it and the other to talk about what a good old light bulb it was!” 

A powerful thread that runs through Southern writers' work is religion. And it's no wonder. We were threatened with hellfire and damnation at every turn. During revival time, the evangelists' screaming sermons echoed in my ears long after souls had been saved from the fiery pits of hell and baptized in Tyler's pond. Even now, when I hear the relentless chant of Katydids on stifling summer nights, frogs croaking, bugs thumping against the window screens, my mind conjures up images of that volcanic lake of fire where one lost soul begged for a drop of water for his parched tongue. 

I was relieved when we left the church after those scary sermons, but a sense of impending loss surrounded me as we drove away. And I still feel that sense of impending loss when I return. My childhood fears coming in on me? Mourning the past? I don't know. All I know is I am unable to leave it all behind, and I am driven to write about it. As Faulkner once said, “The past is not dead. Actually, it isn't even past!” 

Like the fog that hung in the swamps, secrecy shrouded the South in which I grew up. There were things I couldn't quite put my finger on, unspoken things that simmered just beneath the surface. And then there were things everyone knew. But acted as if they didn't.  (As Pat Conroy wrote in “The Prince of Tides,” “That’s the Southern way!”) Things like Anna Lee's nerve problems, Mr. Leonard's “spells,” or Imogene, who "had something to do" with any man who showed an interest.

The adults spoke in low voices when they discussed such things, so I skulked here and there, gathering information. I was fascinated. And a little fearful. But I was thirsty for more, regardless of how horrible it might turn out to be. 

My siblings were also curious, though not as curious as I. We were unable to get any answers, so we were soon joining in. "Guess Mr. Leonard’s having a spell tonight," one of us would say as we drove by his three-story house late at night and saw it all lit up, cars parked haphazardly in his yard. (Neighbors always sped right on over as soon as they got word. His wife needed help; it took several men to hold him down.) 

So how do Southerners deal with such things? We write about the Anna Lees, the Mr. Leonards, the Imogenes. I've written Anna Lee's and Imogene's stories.  And I'm in the process of writing Mr. Leonard's.  Believe it or not, I still don't know what caused his spells. And I don't think anyone else does, either. 

Nevertheless, that metaphor was my identity and love, where my family and community were. It nurtured my imagination as I lolled in the front-yard swing on hot summer days, the scent of fresh-cut hay drifting through the air as the big trucks rumbled past our house; on frosty nights, sitting close to the warm-morning stove, reading. And listening, always listening. To me, there wasn't a better place on earth to grow up. Everything I am is in that land. That place. Those people. 

Southerners seldom lose their sense of humor, even during their darkest hours. I learned at a very young age that even within the most dreadful situations, people continued to say and do peculiar things. My siblings and I were quick to pick up on it, and we sat trembling and stone-faced, stifling our giggles, at every somber occasion.

Just being kids? Maybe. But it might have been our way of dealing with that burden of a religious philosophy that insists that things of this world are evil. And we were evil because we were laughing when we should have been crying. Or, at the very least, acting serious. (I can't say my siblings felt that way. But I know I did. To me, it was not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.) 

There is not much porch talk anymore; most people have no porches. Air conditioning takes us inside during the hot summer nights; television has replaced the storytelling, often portraying Southerners as ignorant, toothless hillbillies who do nothing but feud and swig moonshine. Movies, like “Deliverance” perpetuate that image. 

I resent that classification. I know better. And I guess that is one of the reasons I write about them. Granted, there are odd people in the South, but there are odd people everywhere. It's just that Southern writers feel compelled to write about them. As Flannery O'Connor said, “When I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it's because we are still able to recognize one.” 

Although I prefer the word "eccentric" to "freak," I know what O'Connor means. And I agree with Eudora Welty, who said, “In a way, I think Southerners care about each other, about human beings in a more accessible way than some other people.” 

We do care about all of our people, including the eccentrics.  We celebrate their lives by writing their stories. 

That’s the Southern way.

No comments:

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley