Yesterday the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill hosted an all-day seminar called “The Classical Southern Novel,” during which participants discussed four acknowledged regional classics: Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With the Wind, Robert Penn Warren‘s All the King’s Men, and Eudora Welty‘s The Optimist’s Daughter. According to a News & Observer report on the event, the seminar concluded without much argument or incident, but the fact that no black writers were included in the discussion didn’t pass without comment:
Though the subject of race is omnipresent in most Southern classics, none of the works discussed Friday was written by blacks. There were few, if any, blacks in attendance at the event at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development.
Several participants seemed unsure whether “The Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s tale of an unnamed black man who considers himself invisible due to his race, qualifies as a “Southern” novel. Ellison, who was black, was a native of Oklahoma, and a portion of his novel is set in the South.
Jill McCorkle, a novelist and professor at N.C. State University, acknowledged that many consider the portrayal of black characters in the novel she lectured about, “Gone With the Wind,” offensive.
“You have to read it in the context of time and place; otherwise you’ll wince every couple pages,” she said.
Presumably some of the handwringing over the Southern-ness of Invisible Man is because it’s largely set in New York. It also probably has something to do the novel’s allegorical nature; as Charles Johnson pointed out in his recent appreciation of the novel on the National Book Foundation’s site, the novel is more about themes of alienation than place. “His central, famous trope of “invisibility” remains universally applicable for any group that is socially marginalized,” Johnson writes. Neither he nor the three other commenters talk at all about the novel’s physical settings; it’s simply not what we remember about about it, or think is most important.
At any rate, the discussion reminded me of Edward P. Jones‘ fine introduction to the 2007 edition of New Stories From the South, which he edited. His essay addresses the question of whether he, as a Washingtonian, feels qualified to discuss the South; his comments artfully make a case for positioning him, and I think Ralph Ellison too, in the Southern canon:
[S]o much is about the heart, wherein the soul dwells, and so maybe my heart, when all the standing in the corner is done, doesn’t care if Washington is north or south of the Mason-Dixon line…. The heart knows that just about every adult—starting with my mother—who had an important part in my life before I turned eighteen was born and raised in the South. They—the great majority of them black and the descendants of slaves—came to Washington with a culture unappreciated until you go out into the world and look back to see what went into making you a full human being….
Black people passed this culture on to me, but once I discovered Southern literature I learned that much of it was shared by whites, whether they wanted to admit it or not. I read Richard Wright and Truman Capote and Wendell Berry and Erskine Caldwell and a whole mess of other writers and came up on white people who, in their way, were just trying to make it to the next day. Dear Lord, reach down and gimme a hand here. Those fictional white people lived in a world that was not alien to me. As I read, I felt I knew far more about that world of people than I did about those people who lived in cities in the North, who lived, as I did in D.C., with concrete and noisy neighbors above and below and a sense that the horizon stopped at the top of the tallest building. It does not matter where Washington fits on the map; I was of the South because that was what I inherited.