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Topic for Final Week of the Pat Conroy Contest: Place in Southern Writing

Posted: Sep 30, 2009

In William Faulkner's masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!, Canadian Shreve McCannon who is Quentin Compson's roommate at Harvard says to Quentin, "Tell about the South. What do they do there? Why do they live there?..."

In this last week of the Pat Conroy contest, we would like to explore the  importance of sense of place in Southern literature. Consider these questions. What makes a novel southern? Why is place so important? What do you consider to be the quintessential southern novel and why?

Sense of place is perhaps one of the most outstanding characteristics of Southern literature. "My wound is geography,” Tom Wingo says at the beginning of The Prince of Tides. “It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” (see Cissy Hartley's essay on Writers of the South Facebook page in Week 2 of the contest). What does this statement mean to you?

Southern literature is marked by seven predominant characteristics: 1) a powerful sense of place that shapes and controls experience and the literature that emanates from it; 2) a strong sense of history--the dependence of the present upon the past-- as well as roots and tradition; 3) a tragic sense of life that is derived from both the loss of the War Between the States and the influence of an agrarian culture, an economy dependent upon the land and the whims of nature; 4) the omnipresence of religion (predominately Protestant and often fundamental); 5) vivid and colorful language, highly evocative, prone to exaggeration, and rich with idiom and dialect; 6) a pervasive sense of community---of belonging both to the place and to the people who inhabit it; and, last but by far not least, 7) the inescapable influence of class and caste. Place and race may be two of the defining aspects of southern literature.

In his Roots of Southern Writing, C. Hugh Holman wrote of the "powerful myth of a way of life" that emerged after 1865. Holman said "I shall merely assert some of these qualities that outlived in the mind the institutions with which they were associated; I shall not attempt to demonstrate them. Among them are the persistence of pessimism and the sense of evil and imperfection which are the most distinctive heritages of the Calvinism which shaped the thought of the region . . . a sense of place and the soil, which is associated with every agrarian literature and culture which the world has known; a profound but seldom articulated awareness of the interpenetration of the past and the present, so that history becomes a record of inestimable value; a reverence for the family as the basic social unit; a deep sense of the individual dignity of man and a comparatively small regard for his group relations; a tendency to examine the particular rather than to generalize; the ability to live at ease with an unresolved paradox; and a reverence for gracious living and good manners."

In my essay "Southern Literature: Roots and Branches,"  I discuss the evolution of literature in the South from its early formal roots through the Southern Renaissance, and into the 21st Century. In my post last week,  I mentioned both Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren, as well as Pat Conroy, regarding the significance "home" and "place" in Southern writing. This week I would like you to expand upon this topic.

I invite you to post approximately 100 words on the Writers of the South Facebook page about sense of place in Southern literature. Those who write the two winning essays will each receive a copy of Pat Conroy's South of Broad.  Books will also be awarded to those who participate actively in the contest.

Topic for Week Four of Pat Conroy Contest: Sense of PLACE in the Writing of the South
Please post approximately 100 words about the significance of place-- land, geography, locale, and the people who are shaped by it-- in the literature of the south on the Writers of the South Facebook wall. You need not confine yourself to the work of Pat Conroy. Talk about your favorite Southern novel and why you consider it to be "southern." What does place have to do with being southern?

You may review the rules for the contest here. Eight books will be awarded at the end of next week for winning essays (two per week), and seven books will be awarded to those who contribute most often to the discussion. I encourage you to discuss previous posts as well as to post your own short essay. Let's take this contest out with a bang! Thank you for you interest and for your stimulating contributions.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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PenneElk says...

Thanks for posting both here and on Facebook. I love your observations. I hope each of you wins a copy of "South of Broad." Winners will be announced later this week. YEA!!! Please continue to visit Swampland and to post comments on RiverVue. :-)

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As a "born and bred" southerner the value of land was never questioned. It was our existence, wealth, and future. Ferrol Sams again enters my thoughts in "Run With The Horsemen" in the opening page quoting, " The father owned the land. He plowed it, harvested it, timbered it, and hunted over it. It was his. Before that it had been the land of his father and his father's father." This is the south where I grew up and still have my fondest memories tattooed on my heart. It was hardscrabble and farms. It was growing your own food and canning it as a family function. It was where the hickory switches of punishment grew and where most of the lessons of life were learned. It was home. Bill Cochran..Pat Conroy week 4.....billypanic@yahoo.com

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Charlotte Speer--Place Eudora Welty’s Natchez Trace, Mississippi, in “A Worn Path” illustrates the importance of place in the literature of the South as significantly and powerfully as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem, Massachusetts, does in “Young Goodman Brown.” Not only must Phoenix Jackson overcome the physical and mental demands of the journey through the woods, but she also encounters a white hunter who interrogates her and insists: “Now you go on home, Granny!” The gun pointed in her face signifies the same evil for Phoenix Jackson, an elderly black woman, as recognizing his wife, Faith, at the fiery alter does for Goodman Brown.

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