Why People Love Southern Gothic

From the 19th century to S-Town, it’s a compelling genre that’s as flawed as its most grotesque characters

Savannah, Georgia during the Civil War. The southern landscape is often a key element of southern gothic fiction. Library of Congress

“Don’t you see?” he cried. “Don't you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse?”

William Faulkner wrote those words in a story called “The Bear.” It’s included in Go Down, Moses, a collection of short stories by Faulkner that was published on this day in 1942. Moses was extremely popular, like a lot of other things Faulkner wrote, and although it doesn’t have the enduring fame of The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying, it remains an important part of Faulkner’s oeuvre.

Faulkner’s writing—like the writing of Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCorthy or the podcast S-Town—are often grouped together in a genre referred to as Southern gothic. Author Jamie Kornegay explained the origins of the genre for HuffPost:

Aristocratic Southern society, in its post-bellum heyday, erected a... façade of gentility and custom to hide the way people really lived. Southern writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams contrasted these customs with grotesque caricatures and shocking imagery to amplify the contradictions of Southern society.

Some examples that spring to mind are Faulkner’s rotting corpse in the frilly upstairs bed from “A Rose for Emily” or Flannery O’Connor’s low-class country people, running roughshod over civilized white dignity and vice versa. In his stage dramas, Tennessee Williams put fine Southerners on their worst behavior, and I especially love the Gothic sensibilities in Elia Kazan’s film “Baby Doll,” an adaptation of Williams’s one-act play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” in which two feuding cotton gin owners in the Mississippi Delta use a lusty, virginal teen as a bargaining chip.

Without the decaying social structures of the post-Civil War South, Kornegay isn’t convinced that Southern gothic is a term that can be applied to modern writing. But it is true that both writers and readers know how the genre feels, accounting for the success of books and films like To Kill a Mockingbird, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or True Detective.

But why is Southern gothic such an enduring literary genre? “Here’s my idea,” writes author M.O. Walsh. “The Southern gothic is like a bicycle.” Its handlebars are authenticity: its writers document places and people they know. Its basket “is full of vivid characters” who are often flawed or physically disfigured people. “In the hands of a southern writer, they are written with empathy and truth,” Walsh writes.

Walsh’s bicycle metaphor goes on: the streamers are language, the front wheel the landscape, the back wheel is violence, until finally he explains the chain.

“What holds this bike together and enables it to go is the tortured history of the American south. There is no way around it. From slavery and prejudice through the civil war and Jim Crow, the American south has a past full of inexcusable ugliness,” he writes. But that’s not the whole story.  

What really makes a Southern gothic story, and the reason so many people love the genre, Walsh writes, is that the characters are, almost without exception, underdogs. “Although it has been said that every person is the hero of their own life story, it is more accurate to say that every person is the underdog of their own life story,” he writes. “And though the Civil War is long gone, the American south still suffers from its past in almost every conceivable way, whether it be poverty rates or failing education systems.”

So characters in Southern gothic fiction are typically up against insurmountable odds, and that's something we can identify with.

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