The good folks over at Oxford American, “the Southern magazine of good writing,” turned down a poem I submitted for their Southern sounds poetry contest, but they very generously sent me two free issues of their magazine, including their Southern music issue that includes two compilation CDs (H.’s favorite song by far is Big Maybelle’s “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”).
The other issue they sent includes a 2009 poll that Oxford American conducted of 134 scholars and writers, asking them to vote for the 10 best Southern novels of all time, the five best Southern nonfiction books of all time, and one Southern book that they consider to be vastly underrated. Editor Mark Smirnoff writes a lengthy piece explaining their use of the survey and its intention, which is not to “prove bestness” (impossible, anyway), but simply to start the discussion, to expand the experience of art and literature, and even how to define Southern lit. Smirnoff goes on,
You might be surprised at how some critics, who haven’t delved into the matter, and who are usually from outside the South, and who often live in cities that they think represent the height of American cultural activity, are quick to make grandiose generalizations about Southern lit. They will go on record as saying Southern lit is about rural violence since that’s what people like Larry Brown, William Gay, and Cormac McCarty often depict. The end. They will say that Southern lit is all about eccentric aunts sweltering in the sultry heat on quaint porch swings sipping mint julep tea because such superficial details have been found in Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty (and copied by their lessers). The end. They will say Southern lit is all about religious perversity because Flannery O’Connor…or mammies and corn liquor because…
… We may have to accept regionalism as a fact but we need not be limited by it. Faulkner and O’Connor accepted their regionalism; in fact, they loved their flawed homeland, but weren’t utterly limited by it either. … Old news: The South has problems. And used to have even more. It’s true. But to conflate those problems with the vast, amazing, overwhelming cultural riches is to grandly deny how those cultural riches have deepened not only the South, of course, and not only the American scene over and over and over, of course, but the whole wide world itself.
So–not to keep you waiting–the winner of the poll for best Southern novel of all time is William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. Richard King called it “the only serious rival to Melville’s Moby-Dick as the great American novel.” The others that made the top 10:
- All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
- Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Personally, I’m pleased with the unsurprising results of this particular poll. These books are all phenomenal, and I’ve read most of them (and I’ll be reading the other two right away, which is, after all, one of OA‘s purposes for doing this poll in the first place). I’m skipping the nonfiction list entirely for now, because I just don’t have the time to tackle those, but I’ll get to them by and by. The underrated Southern books list is much longer (so I won’t type it all out for you, but you can find it here), and I’ve read only one, so that’s a list I’ll have to be working through after the holidays.
Thanks, OA, for your generosity and for the reading list. And thanks, the South, for being yourself. I can’t wait to be back in your big-hearted embrace for Christmas.