on loving southern gothic

I’m looking over my shoulder at the wall behind me, trying to figure out how to start this post. (Or I was, anyway, obviously I’ve turned round now to type.) Directly in my line of sight is a poster for my favorite (or close to; I have a hard time picking favorites) film—God Help the Girl; above that is a travel poster for Oxford. A snarky meme about literature surrounded by pictures of my family nestles between the two. Over the other shoulder is a different travel poster for Oxford, and on the adjacent wall is a London tube map. I spend a second glancing over my gigantic THIS IS ANFIELD poster (Liverpool Football Club is near and dear to my heart).

Personally I hate the term ‘anglophile’. I cringe at uppity American teenaged girls who assume that because they love Sherlock and tea that it’s appropriate to spell all their words with ‘u’s in them and force British slang into their vocabulary. It’s painful. Sometimes my friends fake British accents and I want to knock their blocks off. You live in America. You like being American. Knock it off; and let’s be real—how much do you actually know about England? Have you ever been there? Or is your entire picture of the country made up of what you’ve gleaned from TV shows and Buzzfeed quizzes? Is England just one big stereotype to you?

I get that this is a weird way to start a post about Southern Gothic literature. Bear with me.

Given all of these things, I feel slightly embarrassed of the state of my room, because I’m worried that people will see it and think I’m one of those people who desperately want to be a ‘Brit’ in a cringeworthy, tourist fashion. But I can’t deny my absolute love of the country, and while I admit that my experiences with it are all from my childhood and still have another five months before I see what England has in store for me as an adult (maybe I’ll hate it), I do feel like I understand it a lot better than most stereotypical ‘anglophiles’, and I hope very dearly that my genuine feeling for the place doesn’t come across as some sort of wish to be posh or Harry Potter or whatever.

England is so rich with history; it’s so old, it’s so weird—in an endearing way—and it’s the first place I can remember being me. It’s hard not to feel so comfortable and so much longing for a place that feels so formative to who you are as a person; my first memories are from Newmarket, Suffolk, and I want to get back as fast as I can. My British friends tell me I have a British soul—be proud! My American friends tell me I suck at being an American, to which I answer I love this country, but we don’t have much of a culture and it’s too far away from exciting places for me to stay here much longer.

The point I’m trying to make is while I love America and am proud of her in a normal way and think she has much to offer and am fully invested in her as a country and want to make her better—I don’t find her very interesting, sometimes not even appealing. America doesn’t have much culture, besides baseball and hotdogs and putting cheese on pretty much everything. I mean, there are Northern and Southern customs, and there are the Texans and the Californians and the New Englanders and those weirdos from Chicago and yes we have art and music and literature, but it’s all so isolated. I feel like America is impervious to outside influence in some ways; plus, we’re a baby country. Anything significant that happened here happened recently, and didn’t have any long standing tradition behind it.

Maybe that’s the word I’m looking for—tradition. Europe has this sense of tradition, this imposing weight of all history on its shoulders. I know I’m giving America an unfair rap if I say she’s just full of consumers; she is, but there’s more to her than that, and everywhere is full of consumers at this point. But if America does have a definitive culture, a certain way of doing things, I’m bored with it. I want to try new things and go back to where I feel like I came from and test the hypothesis that I have a British soul. I love old things, exciting things; history, tradition, academia, being somewhere where people who have influenced so much, especially in my field of choice (…English).

To recap: I don’t find American culture interesting. Add on to this how I feel about the South. Before I moved to England, I was tiny and I lived in Washington State. After I came back, I have lived exclusively in the South. Keep in mind that I am a city kid; I like bustle, noise, things within walking distance, culture, history, etc. Cities. I love big cities. The South has big cities—I live in one. But southern big cities sprawl; for a culture that loves their neighbors, Southerners love being far away from them. (Maybe that’s why they can love them so much.) Every stereotypically Southern thing is something that rings vaguely off to me; not wrong, just not me. Which is fine—I appreciate it for what it is, but once it’s up to me I don’t want to stay there.

So why, given my British soul and my dislike of Southern culture—why on earth am I passionately in love with Southern Gothic literature? It goes against everything my soul yearns for. It’s not old. I cannot fathom why all the books I love the most were written in 20th century America. What? What is this? If someone did a case study of my personality they’d swing me into the Romantic or Victorian Period and leave me there dangling. But I love American lit, I love it, and I don’t understand because it’s built on a cultural understanding so contrary to what I love in every other aspect of my life. Southern lit is not sophisticated—I mean, it is in a literary way, but it’s not about sophisticated things or people; it’s usually guilty of those horrible written out accents that I passionately loathed as a kid. (Just write normally and I’ll infer the accent, thanks.) It’s simple and down to earth, its characters are exaggerated, and in Southern Gothic, it’s usually horrifying and grotesque (see: Flannery O’Connor).

Now, Wikipedia says on the subject, “The Southern Gothic style is one that employs the use of macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American South. […] [It] uses the Gothic tools […] to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South.” (Wikipedia). Southern Gothic literature generally critiques Southern culture as a microcosm of society as a whole, so I suppose the argument could be made that because I dislike the South, of course I’ll champion a genre that points out everything that’s wrong with it. But that’s not it at all; I don’t think the South is awful, I just don’t want to live there. Personally it isn’t my cup of tea; Southerners are not my people. Besides, if I truly hated everything to do it, why would I struggle through hundreds of pages of Southern idiosyncrasies just for the moment at the end where I can have some sort of weird joy in how obviously stupid Southern people are as empirically proven by one book. Right. That’s not how lit is, really, and it’s more complicated than that. Besides, I’d be a total ass if that’s all I took from it, since the flaws found in Southern society in the genre are not exclusive to the South; nobody reads To Kill a Mockingbird and thinks, “I’m so glad I don’t live in Alabama, since they’re all racist. Clearly nobody is racist anywhere else.” (Plus, not everyone is racist in To Kill a Mockingbird.That’s part of the point.)

I genuinely love and enjoy what Southern lit does and I feel like it has a way of expressing things that other genres just can’t have, or at least can’t do as well. Maybe it’s because the South feels so foreign to me that I’m able to see social critique or things I’m familiar with and blind to in my own life because it’s placed somewhere I don’t associate with. Maybe it’s a phenomenon similar to those who fall in love with Christianity from reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because Jesus is boring and overdone to them, but presented through Aslan is something profound. It also makes me think about how tragedies and satire plays from the early 17th century in British Literature would be set in Italy as a sort of front for England herself; distancing the issues made them easier to see and find fault with, but also gave the audience the ability to choose to apply the critique to themselves.

Flannery O’Connor writes beautifully on the subject of Southern Gothic in Mystery and Manners, and what she has to say really resonates with me (even if it doesn’t fully explain why I love the genre, it definitely explains what I love about it):

“There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you. The great advantage of being a Southern writer is that we don’t have to go anywhere to look for manners; bad or good, we’ve got them in abundance. We in the South live in a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech” (103).

“In these grotesque works [by Southern writers], we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected” (40).

There is something so profoundly striking about Southern Gothic literature and while I can’t explain it, I’m going to continue to enjoy it. The contrast might be slightly ironic, but if it comes down to it I would have no hesitation to march off to Oxford, England to specialize in American literature—and I would love every minute of it.

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