Southern Fiction

Much like literature written during a certain time period is representative of history, literature set in or written by authors of a certain locale represents the place. Consider how setting, including the time period, affects a character's actions and shapes their core belief systems. Much of American literature serves to characterize the nation as a whole, but Southern fiction is characteristic of the American South. Although a difficult and nuanced genre to pigeonhole, Southern fiction is a genre celebrated for the unique traits and history that differentiate it from other types of American literature.

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Table of contents

    Definition of Southern Fiction

    Southern fiction is typically defined as novels and stories set in the Southern United States or written by authors from that area. They are often about the culture, society, beliefs, or actual geographic location. Southern literature is unique because it carries the influences of both white Southerners and African-Americans.

    Southern writers are writers who are from or write about the American South, which is generally defined as the southeastern region of the United States. Southern literature is often characterized by its focus on the unique social and cultural traditions of the region, including the legacy of slavery and segregation, the role of religion and family, and the influence of the natural environment.

    As slavery grew in importance to the Southern economy, so did the influence of African-American culture and experience. While white Southerners were often characterized as lazy, simple, and misguided in pieces of work such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), there became an increase in the need for Southerners of all races to see a more authentic depiction of the South, together with its beauty and horrors.

    Because of the expanding need for the South and Southern writers to express their unique sense of place in the world and storied past, several subgenres emerged from Southern writers. A few subgenres of Southern fiction surfaced along with crucial non-fiction pieces like the Slave Narrative.

    • Plantation Fiction
    • The Anti-Tom Novel
    • Neo-Slave Narrative
    • Civil Rights Epic
    • Pastoral Literature
    • Local Color
    • Southern Agrarianism
    • Southern Modernism
    • Southern Problem
    • Southern Gothic

    Southern Fiction's History

    The history of Southern fiction dates back to the late eighteenth century. Because the South was not settled by Puritans like the North, it encompassed a larger variety of individuals looking to find a new life, freedom, and beauty in the warmth of the weather and fertile green landscape. These settlers differed in ideals from the Puritanical beliefs of the Northern settlers. While the majority of the northern settlers saw themselves and the land as inherently evil and corrupted, the settlers in the South saw potential in the land and felt it to be a new beginning, a New Eden.

    Southern fiction stemmed from a need for the South to find a unifying experience and express their individual ideals separate from the rest of the vastly different landscape of the United States. Frontier writing was commonplace, and the region's history is portrayed as a revolving process more than a linear one.

    Plantations expanded in the South in the early 19th century. The plantation was a common setting, and depending on the perspective of the writer, slavery was presented as either a positive relationship between two divided races or a source of contention. Although the detrimental effects of slavery are evident, the institution has influenced the writings, culture, and worldview present in Southern fiction. The pre-and post-Civil war time periods are both crucial in how Southern fiction is written and understood.

    Southern Fiction, Plantation House, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This is a traditional antebellum Southern plantation home with pillars.

    After the South lost the Civil War, society entered Reconstruction. Literature became somewhat nostalgic. The antebellum South was presented in an idealized and romanticized light, with a yearning for the pre-war Southern culture. Other writing turned a critical eye to the institution of slavery and condemned it while still celebrating the beauty of the Southern landscape, unique Southern dialects, and the Southern heritage.

    Novelist, essayist, lecturer, and humorist Mark Twain ( 1835-1910) introduced The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which criticized slavery and its damaging effects to all races and society, while simultaneously offering an authentic representation and celebration of the different and unique traits of the South. Kate Chopin (1851-1904) provided an authentic portrayal of Southern culture in much of her work and shocked audiences with the release of The Awakening (1899), which looked at the role of women and questioned societal traditions.

    The 1920s and 1930s introduced writers with a more objective perspective of the South and its history. Rather than criticizing the past, these writers focused on growth, and development, and used new literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness to connect with the expanding audience. After World War II, Southern fiction revealed an embracing of a changing society. Arising from the Civil Rights Movement, more female and African-American writers began to have a place in Southern fiction. The voice of the South in Southern fiction grew immensely post-World War II, and has since morphed to reveal a more nuanced perspective of the South, unique in its characters, experiences, history, and setting.

    Characteristics of Southern Fiction

    Despite the varied past of the Southern region of America and the various subgenres, there are often some pervading traits found in many pieces representative of Southern fiction. Fiction from the South is about the culture and belief systems of the geographic location. Typical characteristics of Southern fiction are:

    • a strong sense of past
    • a solid establishment of place
    • vivid visual imagery
    • symbolism
    • themes of family and community
    • religious influences
    • racism
    • social class

    Imagery is a description that appeals to the five senses. Visual imagery is a description that appeals to the sense of sight.

    Symbolism is a literary technique where one object is the literal representation of itself but is also a figurative representation of something. A tangible item typically represents a more abstract emotion or idea.

    Authors of Southern Fiction

    Southern fiction has many sub-genres and includes both contemporary and classic American authors. They often use vivid details, symbols, and colloquial language to help add to their writing. Some examples of traditionally considered Southern writers are William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Lilian Smith, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor and Mark Twain.

    William Faulkner

    No list of Southern writers is complete without William Faulkner (1897-1962). In total, Faulkner wrote 26 books of poetry and fiction during his 40-plus year writing career. In his writing, he reflects a variety of themes, ideas, and beliefs that are grounded in and often criticize the Southern region of Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he spent the majority of his years. In an extraordinary example of the importance of place or setting in Southern fiction, Faulkner created a fictive county, Yoknapatawpha, based on Lafayette. The county-seat of Yoknapatawpha, Jefferson, is where much of Faulkner's fiction is set. Through his creative invention of place, Faulkner also emphasized time or period as a crucial element of place.

    It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left ... Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town"

    Excerpt from "A Rose for Emily"

    This excerpt from Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" expresses how Faulkner can effortlessly establish a setting through the description. He simultaneously shows how his titular character, Miss Emily, is a symbol of the past and has become a sort of tradition in the town. Although the town's architecture has changed to match the changing times, her own home and Miss Emily remain unchanged, and a sort of obligation passed down from one generation to the next.

    Richard Wright

    Richard Wright (1908-1960) grew up during a time of intense racial segregation and discrimination in the American South. He was born to sharecropping parents, but his father abandoned the family when Wright was only five years old. The family moved around and settled in Jackson, Mississippi. Wright stopped attending school when he was seven to work and help support the family. His many varied jobs taught him much about life and supplied him with endless material that would later inform his writing. Arguably one of Wright's most influential pieces, Native Son (1940), paints a dark, realistic, and unflinching portrait of oppression, hypocrisy, and racial discrimination and subjugation.

    Southern Fiction, photo of Richard Wright, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The writer Richard Wright used his own experience growing up impoverished in the South to critique American race relations.

    Disillusioned with American society and the lack of social progress, Wright moved his family to Paris in 1947. He lived there the rest of his life.

    Lillian Smith

    Lillian E. Smith (1897-1966) is best known for her novel Strange Fruit (1944). Highly controversial at the time it was published, the book was initially banned in Detroit and Boston. Strange Fruit explores the controversial theme of interracial relationships. Smith explored the perspectives of African-American characters in her novel with maturity and honesty that had not been broached by other writers of her time. The authentic portrayal of these characters made the conclusion of her novel notable and cruel.

    Lillian Smith was an educator and loved music. She spent time in China teaching music in 1922. When her parents became ill, she returned home and ran the Laurel Falls Girls Camp family camp.

    Eudora Welty

    Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was an American short story writer and novelist. Using her upbringing in the American South to inform her pieces, Welty explored the damaging effects of racism and celebrated the determination of the African-American community.

    In characters like Phoenix Jackson from her short story "A Worn Path" (1941), Welty portrays a woman who can love selflessly and give unconditionally after experiencing the cruelties of slavery. Phoenix Jackson's resilience is admirable as she traverses hard routes to retrieve medicine for her ailing grandson. Representative of a community that rises from the ashes, Phoenix Jackson is steadfast when faced with racism, discrimination, and physical exhaustion. Like other Southern fiction writers, Welty often used imagery in her writing to add depth and meaning. The main character in "A Worn Path" is named after the mythological creature, the Phoenix, that dies in a burst of flames and rises again from its own ashes.

    Ralph Ellison

    Ralph Waldo Ellison (1913-1994) was an American writer, critic, and scholar often categorized as a Southern writer. He is best known for his novel Invisible Man (1952). Narrated in the first-person point of view from the perspective of an unnamed African-American man, the novel explores the difference between the Northern and Southern forms of racism and how the effects of such discrimination and segregation can be isolating.

    The opening of Invisible Man shows young African-American boys being forced to brutally fight one another in order to entertain white men. From the onset it reveals the dehumanizing effects of racism. The self-aware narrator realizes his role and value in society are not dictated by how others view him but by his own standards and definition.

    Ellison's father was an avid reader and named Ellison after Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).

    Harper Lee

    Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) was an American novelist. Her best-known work, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Told from the perspective of an innocent girl, Scout, the novel explores the South's perspective of race, class, and community in the 1930s. Using the real-life 1936 Scottsboro case as inspiration, Lee showed the damaging effects of racial stereotypes and discrimination. She also showed how intellectual thought, reasoning, and education were a way to break down racial barriers. Using her attorney father as inspiration for the character Atticus Finch and her childhood friend Truman Capote (1924-1984) as inspiration for the character Dill, Lee was able to infuse much of her childhood experiences and long-held ideals into her acclaimed novel.

    Like her protagonist, Scout, Harper Lee was a tomboy as a child and loved playing golf and fishing as an adult.

    Flannery O'Connor

    Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) was an American short story writer, essayist, and novelist. Commonly associated with the subgenre Southern Gothic, her writing is commonly set in the South and infused with elements of grotesque creatures or characters, extreme violence, and religious undertones and symbols. She wrote two novels and over thirty short stories during her writing career.

    One of her most famous short stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1953), is set in the country roads of the South. Using references to old plantation homes and religion, O'Connor shows the conflict between old Southern values and the younger generation. While the grandmother character is interested in how others perceive her, the Misfit, the piece's antagonist, searches for purpose and only finds pleasure in committing heinous crimes. O'Connor shocks the reader with violence to help her characters and readers achieve insight.

    Did you know? Flannery O'Connor loved the condiment mayonnaise. She wrote to her mother daily when she was away at college in Iowa. One of her requests was for her mother to send her mayonnaise.

    She pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.

    Excerpt from "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

    In this excerpt, O'Connor uses vivid visual imagery to describe the setting and passing landscape of the South. The description is reminiscent of a colorful painting and shows an authentic appreciation for the surrounding area and foliage found in the South.

    Mark Twain

    Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whose pen name was Mark Twain (1835-1910), was an American essayist, orator, humorist, and novelist. Using his upbringing in Hannibal, Missouri, and his experience on ships to inform his pieces, Twain wrote about the damages of slavery from a uniquely Southern perspective. He used his innate ability to observe human nature and express the hypocrisy within society. Often through innocent characters, such as his hero Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Twain examines institutionalized racism and still shows the beauty of the Southern culture and the variety of dialects.

    Fun fact: Mark Twain also fancied himself an inventor. Although he initially intended it to be used on men's vests, Mark Twain invented the clasp used on women's bras.

    The Importance of Southern Fiction

    Southern fiction is important because it represents a unique region in America with defining characteristics and social, political, and societal influences that are exclusive to the area. The American South is at once rural and cosmopolitan, urban and elegant, brutal and romantic. The South is a region of cultural growth and flowering but holds true to traditions and is unmoved and unchanged. The South lives in dichotomy and finds truth in those dichotomies. The region is different from the rest of the nation because of its intimate experience with slavery. However, the region is diverse, singular, large, varied, and can serve as a microcosm for the nation it is a part of.

    Southern Fiction - Key takeaways

    • Southern fiction is typically defined as novels and stories set in the Southern United States or written by authors from that area.
    • Common traits of Southern fiction include a strong sense of past, a solid establishment of place, vivid visual imagery, and themes of family and community. Southern fiction is often also heavily influenced by religion.
    • Some important Southern fiction writers include Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.
    • Southern literature is important because it represents a unique region in American with different defining characteristics and social, political, and societal influences that are exclusive to the area.
    • Southern literature is unique because it carries the influences of both white Southerners and African-Americans.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Southern Fiction

    Is Southern Fiction a genre?

    Southern Fiction is a genre of literature that is typically defined as made-up or fictive books and stories set in the Southern United States or written by authors from that area. They are often about the culture, society, beliefs, or the actual geographic location. Southern literature is unique because it carries the influences of both white Southerners and African-Americans. 

    What are some examples of Southern Fiction?

    Some examples of Southern Fiction include novels like Elison's Invisible Man, Smith's Strange Fruit, and short stories like Welty's "A Worn Path" and Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." 

    What are the characteristics of Southern Fiction?

    The characteristics of Southern Fiction are a strong sense of past, a solid establishment of place, the use of vivid visual imagery and symbolism, themes of family and community, religious influences, and the effects of racism, slavery, and social injustice.

    How important is Southern Fiction?

    Southern Fiction is important because it represents a unique region in America with defining characteristics and social, political, and societal influences that are exclusive to the area. 

    When did Southern Fiction start?

    Southern Fiction can be traced back to as early as the 1600s with Frontier Literature, but gained momentum at the start of the nineteenth century. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Characteristics of Southern Fiction include all of the following EXCEPT:

    Sub-genres of Southern Fiction include all of the following EXCEPT:

    Examples of Southern Fiction writers include all of the following EXCEPT:


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