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Literature of the Modern South

Literature of the modern south allows the whole story of southern writing— “in both literature and cultural studies—[to] [be] more discernible now than it has ever been” (Andrews 583). This is mainly because the twenty-first century ushered in the writings of a more diverse group of authors.

Alice Walker states that the turn of the century “segregated literature” by widening the literary cannon that generally “omitted not only nearly all black writers and many white women, but also any writer whose themes and philosophical approaches those themes were not coded or formulated, as ‘southern’ (Andrews 584).


Literature of the Modern South

  • Common themes of “Old Southern Literature”
    • A sense of tragedy and masculine diminishment from defeat in the Civil War
    • Obsession with the past
    • Devotion to agricultural life
    • Attachment to place and community
    • Strong religious sense
    • Feelings of deep racial guilt
    • (Andrew 584).

Literature of the Modern South

Literature of the Modern American South takes on a new definition whereby the past informs the literature. It can be argued that a writer’s connection to her southern roots may be key in defining her writing as Southern literature.

According to Brenda Osbey, “the past continues to be decoded—that is examined and translated—in the southern present through an understanding of its signs and symbols, its shifting images, and its language” (Andrew 586).

In other words, stories of the Modern American South highlight how the past and present engage each other within the literary tradition. In essence modern Southern literature is an experiment in evaluating and decoding the Southern past.


Literature of the Modern South

“What sets some contemporary Southern writers apart from some—not all—earlier writers is an insistence on decoding those signs and symbols of southern experience—on attempting to reveal how they work, psychologically and socially” (Andrew 586).


Literature of the Modern South

Southern African American writers attempt to make sense of the black experience in the south. To refer to Walker’s idea of wholeness, writers of African descent not only sought to reconcile their relationship to the south, but to America.

Southern black writers often write about reclaiming Southern soil, with many having the experience of living in the South, moving to the North and returning again to life in the South. Many of their writings reflect these transitions.


Literature of the Modern South

  • Subject Matter in Literature of the Modern South
  • Race
  • Violence
  • Women’s Issues
  • The Oral Tradition
  • Self Transformation

Literature of the Modern South


“Whether grounded in the historical burden of slavery, the civil rights movement, or contemporary life—or rendered in the genres of fiction, poetry, or drama—race is a subject that haunts southern literature of the twentieth century” (Andrews 590).

The subject matter of race of often explored, decoded, evaluated and less often reconciled in the literature of the modern South. Likewise, the disparaging treatment and violence against Native American is addressed in much of the literature from this era.

“In recent years, southern writers have turned from stories of extreme racist brutality to more indirect examinations of race within an integrated society” (Andrews 590).


Literature of the Modern South


Violence is a common theme in southern literature, most often connected to the Southern Gothic. In a sense Cormac McCarthy’s adage that, “there is no such thing as life without bloodshed” is a true one when it comes to southern literature.

Even contemporary southern women such as Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Allison and Alice Walker “have chosen [to use violence] in their works to confront and disassemble male violence” (591).


Literature of the Modern South

  • Women’s Writing
  • In the works of Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O’Connor, critics have found certain similarities:
  • A subversive manipulation or outright rejection of gender roles
  • A connection with a feminine pastoral
  • An interest in the private domestic sphere
  • A sense of time not linked to traditional markers of history such as wars or large social movements
  • (Andrews 591)

Literature of the Modern South

Oral Traditions

This tradition highlights the “rhythms, sounds, dialects, musical effects—as well as long tradition of tale telling” (Andrews 592). Specifically writings of southern blacks are sprinkled with folk tales stemming from African and the village griot to the story telling of African American slaves.

Different regions of the south possessed dialectical tendencies that distinctly marked the region. It can be argued that, “what links southern writers today is a continuing sense of colloquial voice” (Andrews 593).


Literature of the Modern South

Self Transformation and Reinvention

“The new must itself begin to fade before the traces of old strokes can be discerned” (Andrews 593). This begins the process of transformation illuminated in the literature of the modern south.

According to The Norton Anthology of the Literature of the American South, “there remains a complex vision of a past always emerging in relation to the present—a present that itself is always in the process of fading to reveal the contours of the past” (593).

Emerging from this idea is the body of writing we call southern literature. Like the south, the modern southern literature is self-transforming and always reinventing itself to encompass a distant past, an immediate present and ever expanding future.


Literature of the Modern South

Works Cited

"The Contemporary South." Introduction. The

Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology. Ed. William L. Andrews, Minrose C. Gwin, Trudier Harris, and Fred Hobson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 583-93. Print.