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Landscapes of the Imagination: Writing the South

“The woods are full of regional writers and it is the horror of every serious Southern writer that he will become one.”

—Flannery O’Connor

Jack Kerouac told us, “Nobody’ll ever know America completely because nobody ever knew Gatsby, I guess.” But it was not while living at home in America that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that most American of novels, The Great Gatsby. Instead, he was wandering unrooted among the rich in Paris and the French Riviera (like some disenchanted hero of a trite tale told by Jay Gatsby himself). Had Fitzgerald not been obliged to rely on transatlantic cables to communicate with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, in New York about Gatsby, it’s possible he would have succeeded—he tried—in persuading Perkins once again to change the novel’s title, this time to Under the Red, White and Blue, a declaration that Gatsby does distill our national mythology. As for the Riviera, it became the setting for a novel that he finally managed to write nine years later, in Baltimore: Tender Is the Night.

The map of Fitzgerald’s compositions shows that he moves away, turns back, and looks: At St. Paul, at Princeton, at Long Island, at the Riviera. In the end, he had to stop at the edge of the West, in Hollywood, where there was nowhere else to go. And he said so in the almost finished Last Tycoon. Exile in Hollywood gave him that novel.

Landscape is an invaluable gift to a writer. But distance from that landscape can also open doors to roads otherwise never taken, and so make “all the difference.” Speaking of her forced departure from Chile, novelist Isabel Allende explained to an interviewer, “I started my first novel . . . because I was living in exile in Venezuela and my grandfather was dying in Chile. And I could not return to be with him, so I started a letter for him that turned into The House of the Spirits.” Would her novel have been different had Allende not left Chile? Or is she implying that perhaps it never would have been written?

I’ve always wanted to see that local habitation and a dwelling place in which a novelist created a work I love. In my travels to pay calls on fellow American writers, I’ve visited hundreds of sites as varied as the log cabin where Twain came up with “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” to The Mount in the Berkshires where Edith Wharton wrote in bed. Abroad, I’m always looking for writers’ homes, schools, bars, theaters, graves.

Sometimes writers live out their lives in the midst of the settings of the fictions they write. In an English village, Jane Austen wrote novels that take place right there in, as it were, her own drawing room, just outside her windows, and up the High Street in just such an English village as her imagined one.

Other writers are looking from a place far away, as Isak Dinesen moved out of Africa before she wrote Out of Africa. We can wonder, would James Joyce have described the Dublin streets of Ulysses differently had he been living in that city where the entirely Irish June 16 that we now know as Bloomsday took place? Might he instead, for example, have set Bloomsday in the present, at the start of the 1920s, and not in the past (1904)? Might he have taken us into other pubs, let us hear other voices? The Irish author certainly didn’t expect any other dwelling place through his long exile (Trieste, Zurich, and Paris) ever to provide a setting for his fiction: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

That “particular” changes, writer to writer; often for the same writer, book to book. Of a trilogy of mine called the Hillston novels, Uncivil Seasons was written in Connecticut, Time’s Witness in Philadelphia, and First Lady was begun in London and finished in a small Southern town very much like the one where all three novels take place.

Uncivil Seasons is narrated by Justin Savile V, very much an insider in his Southern community. He begins his tale:

Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow and we hardly ever murder one another. Suicide is more our style; we’re a quiet college town and our lives are sheltered by old trees.

The third book, First Lady, has the same narrator. It opens:

I go riding in the mornings on a horse named Manassas. I ride the old bridle path that runs behind the big summerhouses at Pine Hills Lake. The lake is just outside Hillston, North Carolina, where my family has always lived. My family’s circle is wide. My circle is this narrow red clay track around the lake.

Is there a discernible difference in how I hear Justin’s voice in the first book, when I sat in a cold winter’s room on a New England salt marsh, and how I hear his voice many years later in a summer’s London flat? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, if you ask me, would I have written any of those three novels had I not been “raised” in the South Piedmont? The answer would be no, absolutely not. The North Carolina Piedmont is my “particular.”

“Particular” can mean any of a number of different places, of different kinds of places. A place never seen (or seeable) except in the imagination (Jules Verne never traveled to Mars, or 20,000 leagues under the sea). Lawrence Thornton is a professor in California who wrote Imagining Argentina, without ever having personally experienced the Dirty War in 1970s Buenos Aires. But he imagined it with such extraordinary clarity that the book won the PEN/Hemingway Award (I served on that committee and I remember my surprise at first learning Thornton had done exactly what his title declares: He had imagined Argentina).

However, it is more probable that if a novel’s setting is not the writer’s current home, it will be a landscape once personally known, revisited in the writer’s imagination, often a place long left behind. Present life can be a pale imitation of those dreamed pasts of our childhoods and our youths, when our senses were more permeable and our spongy memories soaked in sharp ardent memories and kept them for us, unfaded. Willa Cather’s family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was nine years old, and she left that flat, dusty town at fifteen. But her fictional landscape remained, in novel after novel, those endlessly rolling waves of prairie, where “the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.”

Red Cloud is what Cather meant when she advised Eudora Welty that writers must let their fiction grow out of the land beneath their feet.

America is so big a country that all our writers can be called regional writers: New England poets. New York playwrights. The Southern novelist. But we’re a restless country, too. We won’t stay put. We’re always telling each other to go West, to fly to the moon, to “move on.” We tend not to die the same place we were born. We are likely to agree that everybody, as Sinclair Lewis pointed out, “needs a hometown to get away from.” (Some years ago, when I paid a visit to his hometown, Sauk Centre, Minnesota, a banner over Main Street declared that merchants were in the middle of their annual “Sinclair Lewis Days” celebration. The author of Babbitt would have gotten a kick out of their boosterism.)

But if there is any part of this country where writers do tend to stay put—both in how they define themselves as writers and in choosing the subject matters of their fiction—it’s the South. That’s why legend has it that after only a few weeks in Hollywood, William Faulkner asked the studio, “Mind if I work at home?” And when the studio said “Sure,” the legend goes, Faulkner packed up and returned to Mississippi. That’s the legend. Actually Faulkner hung around the studio Dream Factories for extended stays in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, drinking at the Garden of Allah, having an affair with a secretary, hunting with Howard Hawks, working on Mildred Pierce and The Big Sleep. The legend tells us that a Southern writer went home to Mississippi because a Southern writer needs to be in his Yoknapatawpha, his “little postage stamp of native soil.” As they say in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, between the fact and the legend, print the legend.

I am often introduced as a Southern writer, although I lived in the Northeast most of my adult life, and the majority of my novels were composed above the Mason-Dixon Line. But while I don’t like to see my novels separated by genre (Handling Sin in “Literature”; Time’s Witness in “Mystery”), I never mind finding myself on a shelf of “Southern Writers.” Why? Because I believe it means something real. Did you ever hear anybody introduced as “a Northern writer”? Is there something different about our native soil, that if we do leave, we carry it with us like the earth in a vampire’s coffin? I think so. Because to be Southern is to see from a slant, from a minority position, from the outside in. Ever hear anyone speak of a wonderful “male” poet or a great “white” actress? It doesn’t occur to the Insiders that they need to specify a distinction from some Other. They have been led to believe they are the All. Southerners know there’s something else, and that it’s useful as a contrast.

My first three novels were not set in the South, but they all had expatriate Southerners in them, slightly apart from the others, seeing things at that tilt, with a winked eye. I’m also reminded that I drew complete detailed maps for the two fictional towns I’d imagined as the settings of those novels: one for “Floren Park” in The Delectable Mountains, a version of Estes Park, Colorado, where I’d spent a summer in a stock company; one for “Dingley Falls” (influenced slightly by my single day’s visit to Washington Depot in the Litchfield Hills, Connecticut). The maps of those imaginary towns appear as the inside covers of the published novels. The critic Malcolm Cowley, who lived in western Connecticut, told me Dingley Falls was the most Southern town he’d ever seen move there. I never drew a map of any Southern town in my fiction. And maybe that’s because I didn’t need to.

For years I have told the story of how in my late teens I drove all the way from North Carolina to Jackson, Mississippi, to tell Eudora Welty how much I admired her work. She still lived in the house in which she’d grown up, and if you knew someone from Jackson, you could learn its address. But parked across the street from her, I lost my nerve in the end. I sat in the car for hours, then drove off to Oxford, Mississippi, to visit Faulkner’s grave. (There were wilted flowers and a bottle of whiskey leaning on his tombstone, gifts from admirers.)

A decade later, I met Ms. Welty at Yale. And more than another decade later, we talked in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel and I told her that story of my travel to Jackson long ago. She said, “Honey, was that you? I almost called the police on you!” It pleased her that I’d published three novels, but when I described them—Painting the Roses Red set in California and in Cambridge, Delectable Mountains in Colorado, Dingley Falls in Connecticut, her mouth twisted in that smile. “All those ‘C’s. You’re just sneaking up on Carolina.”

It is perhaps the most resonant remark ever made to me as a young (reasonably young) writer. I went home to that town by the New England salt marsh and imagined North Carolina. And I’ve kept doing that. In my fiction, I come back to that red clay Piedmont country that is the landscape of my imagination. Then, for reasons beyond my own work, my wife and I moved to that very region. (We came because she had accepted a position as the chair of Duke’s English Department. She’d never lived in the South, and found it both alien and fascinating: “I feel like I’m inside one of your novels. . . . There goes Cuddy Mangum in a police car. . . . I thought it was just you but everybody down here acts like you.”)

But at the same time that the South is somehow “outside,” after all, defeated by a stronger force, to say one is a Southern writer, is also to put oneself at a center of meaning, a place, a social self that is definable, relatable, historic and mythic both, where “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past,” so that you never need to question whether you can repeat the past or not. Of course you can!

You carry the Southern past with you, in your family, in the South’s history and in its storytelling fictions. The relation of the two narrators of the Hillston novels, Justin Savile and Cuddy Mangum, owes as much to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as to my years in the Piedmont.

Some years back, I moderated two separate panels at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. One of them gathered writers from the North living in the South; the other put together writers from the South living in the North. After the panels, the Northerners discussed their belief that there had been no real reason they should ever have been on such a panel. The Southerners took off together in a hired van for trips to the Parthenon and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

My generation of Southern writers saw themselves on a raft in a flotilla floating down the same river. We’d been warned to believe both that you can’t go home again (so Thomas Wolfe had advised, melancholy and relieved) and at the same time that you can never escape from home. Often Southerners don’t ever leave home at all. Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor never did. “Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it’s a good thing to be stuck with,” argued O’Connor, from that farmhouse Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she lived with her mother. Of some new group of artful writers, she quipped, “You know what’s the matter with them? They’re not frum anywhere.”

Of course many Southern writers do leave home and never come back. But mostly they take the South with them, as did Mark Twain, when he wrote his Southern books in Hartford, Connecticut, and Elmira, New York. A writer can’t get away from what lies at the heart of Southern fiction—it’s always “space and race,” as William Styron described the plot of our foundational text, Huckleberry Finn. In that novel, Huck and Jim keep trying to head north up the Mississippi, to get away from the South. But in the end they’re taken back home to St. Petersburg (Hannibal). Only the death of Mrs. Watson, the slave Jim’s owner, sets him free. Only Huck’s distaste for civilization (“Go West, Young Man!”) frees him from the shackles of the South: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before. the end. yours truly, huck finn.”

The South is of course not the only region of this country with a strong sense of local habitation. New England has its own. In Concord, Massachusetts, Sleepy Hollow cemetery is cozy with the writers who lie near one another on Author’s Ridge—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson. But there’s something particular in how contemporary Southerners are still collecting together in that old-fashioned Concord way, coming home. I live in Hillsborough, North Carolina. It’s not very large, but you can swing a dead possum and smack a dozen Southern writers in the face, many of us repatriated from “the North.” The truth is, it’s not that we can’t go home again; it’s that we can’t help it.

My mother, a Southerner, a public schoolteacher, a lover of books and of those who wrote them, told me, “You’re Southern, you’re Irish. Be a writer or you’ll end up in jail.” In my teens I wrote sonnets in purple ink, slipping them in the tasseled boot of a majorette. In graduate school, far from the South, I wrote a novel, inspired in part by my mother’s advice and by the mad recitations of an old English teacher from home who had floated through our cafeteria reciting Edgar Allan Poe to nobody in particular and whispering to us as she passed by, “I am looking for the next Thomas Wolfe. Is it you?” (Madness was no reason to fire her. She was a native of the town and from a good family. The South doesn’t mind insanity as long as it’s local.)

What it is to be a Southerner informs my fiction. Justin Savile wants to talk about his preference for the “Old South” over the New, even when he’s in London.

A hundred years ago, my ancestors trotted their horses and drove their pony carts along North Cove Road and tipped their straw hats to one another. At dawn that past is still present and peaceful at Pine Hills Lake. So usually I begin my ride just as the indigo Piedmont sky brightens to pink, while a mist still floats above the cove, curling in slow drifts towards shore, as if restless beneath the dark water the Lady of the Lake were waiting to rise through the mists with her sword. This early in the day, before the Southern sun makes everything too clear, even the Piedmont can be Camelot and that’s how I prefer it. . . . In the past a Hillston homicide came out of the Piedmont particularities of our town, its tobacco and textiles, its red clay farms and magnolia shaded university, its local people tied to land or town or college or family, it came out of something distinctive and therefore traceable. But that world is as distant as my grandparents’ straw hats and pony carts, and in the Hillston we live in today, there are no landmarks to guide us.

Cuddy Mangum wants to argue with him, even when they’re in Philadelphia.

Cuddy Mangum had his old suede loafers up on the cluttered desk of his corner office on the top floor of the huge Hillston municipal complex known now as the Cadmean Building. It was the biggest office in the place, bigger than the mayor’s office downstairs. Cuddy was my age but he’d gone further faster. He was eating Kentucky Fried Chicken from a cardboard bucket when I dropped my damp hat on the coffee table beside a painted wood chess set. I said, “We lost the South when we lost the past, and what we got in its place was junk food.”

Hillston’s youngest police chief winked a bright blue eye at me. “J.B. Savile the Five, it’s a small price to pay. Want some Extra-Crispy?”

I showed him my sushi take-out. “No thanks. But I could use a blanket.” His air conditioner was on so high that frost dripped down his windows. The morning mist in which I’d seen the beautiful woman at the lake had been burned to haze by the summer sun. About an hour ago, heavy clouds had let loose a thunderstorm that had torn down some tree branches without doing anything to cool the humid horrible heat. By noon drizzle steamed off the sidewalks and the temperature had climbed into the high nineties. In Cuddy’s office, the temperature was half that.

“Hail the new millennium. Everybody in America can eat the same trash now,” I grumbled.

Cuddy gave me an ironic snort. “I never knew a man so incensed by junk food.” He spun his hands in a tumbling circle. “I say roll out the polyester carpet for the new millennium. Let it roll, let it rock ‘n roll, right on over the past. The Old South’s got a lot worse to answer for than Colonel Sanders’ family-pack.”

Whenever I’m asked why I, a “literary novelist,” turn to the mystery, I rather grumpily reject the generic distinction. In fact, long ago Knopf pressed me not to publish Uncivil Seasons after having written a novel like Dingley Falls and, young and indignant at the time, I asked if they would shelve The Sound and the Fury in the literature section but put Intruder in the Dust among the “lower” mysteries? Where do they shelf the great Southern writer of To Kill a Mockingbird?

A murder mystery (all of Dickens’s novels could be so described) enlarges the canvas beyond the relational and domestic, beyond the intimate confines of much modern fiction. You bring in police and courts and prisons, juries and judges, different occupations, different classes. You move your story into a public realm where plots have moral and political and social dimensions, where private acts have consequences beyond the personal.

Now, all stories, like all lives, are mystery stories. Everyone listens to stories to meet strangers and learn their plots because humans are detectives searching for clues to our connections. So the heart of fiction is always to get at the secrets. That there should be such a strong Southern heritage to the mystery therefore makes perfect sense. To solve murders, detectives must unearth all the buried social and familial entanglements that led to the crimes. Here in the South, the roots of our lives are tangled together, deep in a shared rich and often painful past.

That South has changed enormously over the decades that I’ve been writing about it. In my youth, almost all the people in North Carolina were natives of the state, and the joke was that our license plate mottos should read, “Five Million People; Fifteen Last Names.” The population is now much more heterogeneous, and now the jokes are of this variety: that CARY stands for “Containment Area for Retired Yankees.” But we should note that both kinds of jokes reveal how the South continues to define itself mythically, as a place that can be defined. Past-haunted about our virtues and our sins, we create and sustain ourselves out of those fictions. That’s why so many of us are writers, and why all of us are storytellers.

On one of my writer’s pilgrimages through America, I went to Asheville, North Carolina, to see Thomas Wolfe’s grave. Next to his grave is that of his brother. On the gravestone the inscription says, “Luke of Look Homeward Angel.” It’s not true that you can’t go home again. You can’t help it.

My novels evolve from the characters who inhabit them. The minute I hear the voice of a narrator, from word one of page one, I am listening to that character’s voice. The narrator of Handling Sin is very different from that of The Last Noel (set here at my home in a fictional Hillsborough). But all the storytellers of my fiction, and all those who live their lives inside the covers of my books are, I trust, equally at home. Now they live in North Carolina, in the red clay landscape of my imagination. Here’s the first paragraph I wrote after I came home again, the opening of Four Corners of the Sky.

In small towns between the North Carolina Piedmont and the coast the best scenery is often in the sky. On flat sweeps of red clay and scrub pine the days move monotonously, safely, but above, in the blink of an eye, dangerous clouds can boil out of all four corners of the sky and do away with the sun so fast that, in the sudden quiet, birds fly shrieking to shelter. The flat slow land starts to shiver and anything can happen.