Southern Gothic has been my favourite mode of writing since I studied Flannery O’Connor at uni in 2009. She was one of those writers you experience in a way that is so rare – just WOAH. When the writing is so good you have not only an aesthetic and emotional experience but also a physical one. Reading (and writing) is usually a physical experience for me – I’m big on undoing the mind vs body opposition that underpins all of Western culture, but that’s another story – but the physicality of reading O’Connor was all about shock. The more I’ve read of Southern Gothic the more I’ve come to cherish the uniqueness of the physical experience it gives – hairs standing on end, disgust in the back of the throat, queasiness in the stomach, laughter foaming in the chest and the sound of it in the space you occupy, because I always laugh when reading and most Southern literature is just so damned funny.
What the heck is it? My lecturer who first introduced me to O’Connor preferred the alternative label Southern Grotesque, which gives a good idea of what it does. It’s all about clash, jarring, juxtaposition.
Politically, we have to think about the Deep South as a kind of awkward place. It does not occupy a mainstream place in American culture. Writers, especially, from the Deep South also have to contend with an environment of deep conservatism, reactionary attitudes, sexism, racism, classism, and the fact that they lost the Civil War and so were proven to occupy the wrong side of history. So Southern Gothic comes out of an outsider mentality – both from the mainstream secular liberalism that is the lens of American writing, coming from New York, New England and California especially, as well as from the conservative, often anti-intellectual, environment of the Deep South. It represents the South and Southern culture NEITHER in the way it often represents itself – think Southern belles, honesty, down-to-earth folks, Edenic landscapes, NOR as it is represented in mainstream American culture – rednecks, incest, Bible-bashing, greasy food, missing teeth.
As O’Connor said, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognise one.”
And why this outsider status?
“Because we lost the war.”
This was also her reason for there being so many good Southern writers.
Though a lot of classic Southern Gothic fiction was written in the 1950s and 1960s, the discomfort with the grotesquerie it presents is still obvious in critical reactions today. O’Connor’s hardcore Catholicism and her primary concern with shocking her readers into apprehending Grace is usually swept under the carpet by liberal critics. It is the elephant in the room. They laud her narrative structure, stark and utterly original style, dialogue, characterisation, but ignore precisely the purpose of her fiction – to shock the reader into recognising the Grace that for her utterly smashes mundane reality, a complacent sense of order. She spoke of her audience as “hostile” – this is pretty much unheard of in writers – and for this reason she knew that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Modern liberal readers who view religion as belonging to the realm of the conservative, the ignorant, the uncultured, are in O’Connor’s eyes these hard of hearing, almost-blind fools.
This goes to the heart of what Southern Grotesque does – make us uncomfortable. O’Connor would have laughed and written a scathing letter to one of her many correspondents (read The Habit of Being, her letters, for hours of laughter) if she could see many modern liberal responses to her work.
O’Connor was writing in the 50s. But the violence of her stories still hits us, even though we have been supposedly desensitised by violent TV and film. Why? Because of the way she constructs violence. There are no gory details, yet it’s utterly gory. She writes it in a way that is shocking and sudden. She is a master of narrative tension. Everything in her stories moves towards that moment of Grace, which is often also a moment of extreme and strange violence. So when it comes, it hits us, no matter how many Wolf Creeks or The Walking Deads we’ve seen.
At the end of “Greenleaf” Mrs May is impaled by a bull: “She stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip. She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed – the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky – and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”
O’Connor’s violence is narrative crisis without closure. It hits us because it’s a sudden rupture in the mundane world of characters like Mrs May who say things like “Mr Greenleaf…get that bull up this morning before you do anything else. You know he’ll ruin the breeding schedule.” The grotesque violence comes out of nowhere, shatters the mundane order these complacent characters inhabit, and forces them to recognise the truth of the mystery – for O’Connor, Christ’s redemption. It is without closure because it’s all about that mystery – something beyond the human world, something invisible to us but something we can sense. These complacent characters like Mrs May though require something a little more violent to perceive the mystery. For the most unfortunate of O’Connor’s characters, nothing short of death removes their blindness.
Southern Gothic has this strain of anti-realism. For O’Connor, it’s about the supernatural, or Christian mystery, for Faulkner it’s about narrative point of view – so dead bodies can narrate a story, or speak from the past. Unlike the Gothic genre, this lack of realism is more about representing Southern culture in a way that sets up a stark contrast with mainstream Northern US culture. The characters are usually misfits in the South as well, best seen in Carson McCullers’ writing. Her grotesque characters – giants, dwarfs, deaf-mutes, tomboys, cross-dressers, androgynous folks and all kinds of queer figures – don’t indicate a limited or negative view of humanity. They show us things only outsiders know. In the conservative, evangelical Christian South, this is radical.
Southern Gothic writers anticipate discourses of gender and queerness of much later. O’Connor’s women are never demure, sexually available Southern Belles. In “Good Country People” Joy, one of my favourite characters in literature, changes her name to Hulga, has an artificial leg, deliberately stumps around as loudly as possible, and won’t wear the cheerful expression others want her to. She does not make her body into the neat, quiet, compact body that is classified as “feminine.”
The mode of the grotesque foregrounds ideas of embodiment and gender and sexuality in a climate (including that of the cultured, politically correct North) that can only conceive of normative gender and normative sexuality. Quite simply, they give us a way of seeing possibilities outside normativity, in the very bodies they describe.
Frankie in McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding wears a gaudy dress that makes her look like a “human Christmas tree in August,” as the maid Berenice tells her. Berenice advises her to change into a dress that will make her less of a spectacle, in order to meet “the cutest little white boy in Winter Hill.” The grotesque is a way of rejecting all those discourses that define the purpose of women’s existence as being just pretty objects, not to stand out or express their individuality in any way, and all in order to attract a man. Southern Gothic plays with bodies and norms in a radical, transgressive way. Pretty cool thing to come out of the supposedly backwards and backwoods Deep South of the 50s and 60s.
And it’s still a shock to modern sensibilities.
Great Southern Gothic stories/books:
“A Good Man is Hard to Find”
“Good Country People”
“A View of the Woods”
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
The Member of the Wedding
“A Rose for Emily”
As I Lay Dying
Cormac McCarthy’s early novels