Note: A Songbird’s Nest: 1929 as a turning point in Southern literature

Part of my job in the world is to read manuscripts, mostly from new authors. I go through hundreds every week. Boston produces better writing than the Wild West. Los Angeles leads the country in quantity; Kansas and Oklahoma produce leading poets; they tremble at the edge of literature. Chicago leads them all in ideas, originality and vigour; it is the great birthplace of American letters. But the South? The South is an almost complete void. I don’t see a single printable manuscript from there per week. And in my more than three years of regular reading, the two Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee haven’t offered six together.

– HL Mencken “Le Sahara du Bozart” New York Evening Mail November 13, 1917

HL Mencken was almost a southerner too. The Maryland native penned this scathing op-ed about the South and its “post-war nothingness.” His theory was that the South had become devoid of integrity or artistic production. Read as an acid Jonathan Swift-ian satire or not, it was an honest opinion from his point of view. Now, a hundred years later, while we’re unsure what Kansas poets have produced (in deference to the state and not to be Mencken-esque, we’ll guess and recommend Eugene Fitch Ware a/k/a Ironquil, Willard Wattles (“Sunflowers” 1914), and Edgar Lee Masters (“Spoon River Anthology” 1915)), Mississippi and the South quickly propelled their product to the top of the class.

As we mentioned last week, Vanderbilt’s “fugitive poets” laid the groundwork for a Southern Renaissance. Despite retiring to the tired and backward old ways later as “agrarians”, they laid the groundwork that Southern poets were in fact educated in the works of antiquity and still very capable of providing perspective to both about what was right and wrong. with the so-called New South.

A key aspect of the prominence of Southern writers in the 1920s was actually the Harlem Renaissance (as discussed here in February) as former Southerners like Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston were finally able to make their voices heard in the cultural revolution surrounding the first great migration to the North. One of the first truly African-American works to expand the purpose of life in the American South was former schoolteacher Jean Toomer’s 1923 meditative work, “Cane.” Toomer’s realism and a mixture of styles and voices will provide literature in general with a new experimental structure for the novel.

In Oxford, William Faulkner returns from the First World War to become a poet. Nicknamed “Count von No Count” by friends and neighbors, the early years in pursuit of this goal were arduous. After publishing a pair of poems, Faulkner turned to writing prose. On his fourth novel and facing even more rejection, 1929 was the year that finally brought his talent to light with “The Sound And The Fury”. His time shifts and varied viewpoints were completely new to literature. Its success prompted Faulkner to write his next classic “As I Lay Dying.”

In neighboring Alabama, a pair of tumultuous childhoods received the emotional earthquakes that would lead to future success and the advancement of the genre. In 1929, 13-year-old Walker Percy’s father committed suicide, the second of three members of his immediate family. The following year, Percy would live in Greenville, where he and his new friend Shelby Foote would begin to follow their shared interest in writing. In Monroeville, AL, after years of surviving his parents’ divorce and its aftermath, Truman Capote would finally find a home with his beloved Aunt Sook – a continuing influence in his most autobiographical writings.

Women began to make great strides in Southern Lit in 1929. Virginian Ellen Glasgow, best known for her “escapist” novels, would be among the first to chart a path to female independence in print with her novel “The Sheltered Life”. Born in Kentucky and married to fugitive poet Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon moved to Tennessee, where she began writing her first novel and a distinct career hosting some of the South’s greatest writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald and even TSEliot) and developing new talent like Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. Also in 1929, Eudora Welty left her home in Jackson to study to become a secretary in New York. Her master plan: secretary by day, news writer by night.

Finally, the groundbreaking 1929 work was the first novel by Thomas Wolfe of North Carolina. Released just eleven days before the Black Monday stock market crash, “Look Homeward, Angel” blended autobiography and fiction. Wolfe told all the stories of his childhood through family, friends and boarders at the Dixieland boarding house in Altamont. After a playwriting essay, Wolfe began serious work on this novel in 1926. Bringing it to publisher Scribner, he initially clocked it in at 1,100 pages. Unlike many other works of his time, Wolfe honestly discussed alcoholism, racism, family rifts, mental health, and even loneliness. A huge hit, the correctness of “Look Homeward, Angel” was questioned by his hometown of Asheville. Although most of the forty chapters deal with Wolfe’s father and mother, he remained away from his childhood home until the late thirties. Wolfe’s work was championed by none other than William Faulkner, who called him “one of the ablest writers of the generation”.

The Young Fugitive Poets openly challenged Mencken. Those who followed in their wake did their best to refute his theory. Ironically, by the early 1930s, Mencken no longer cared about the South. Like Southerners do, the South just tipped its hat and didn’t care about it either.

“Culture is the study of perfection and the constant striving to achieve it.”

—Allen Tate

Mik Davis is the Record Store Manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.


New this week

TYLER CHILDERS – Can I take my dogs to heaven? [3LP/3CD](Hickman Holler/RCA)

In his most ambitious statement yet, Tyler Childers and his band The Food Stamps have recorded their first Gospel album which is split into three albums each containing different versions of the same songs. “Angel Band” in its Jubilee version sounds like a snippet of “The Last Waltz” with everyone reaching as high as possible and Childers submitting a new verse. The Hallelujah version is Childers and The Food Stamps recorded live to tape with no real overdubs. Yet to come is another version of the “Joyful Noise” incarnation.

FREDDIE GIBBS – $oul $old $separately [CD](Warning)

Pushing twenty years into hip-hop, Gibbs shows no wear and tear on his latest where he shoots verses to an almost fast-paced clip. Grammy-nominated and longtime rhymer with no real commercial respect (his 2014 collaboration with Madlib on “Pinata” remains one of the best Hip-Hop albums of the 21st century), Gibbs rolls deep with Big Sean, Hit-Boy, Schoolboy Q and a single with Moneybagg Yo that samples DeBarge’s “All This Love” over synth bounces and rhymes that put all that mumble rapping to shame. Limited copies of “$oul $old $eparately” come with an autographed CD cover.

SLIPKNOT – The End, So Far [LP/CD](Roadrunner/Elektra)

Self-described as a heavier version of 2004’s “Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses”, Slipknot mourns the loss of original drummer Joey Jordison (“The Dying Song (Time To Sing)”) and tracks that sound like “We Are Not Your Kind.” “Yen” has the kind of chorus that makes Active Rock station salivate thanks to its guitar slink and platinum scratch. However, it still seems very out of place next to the vulgar, foggy outburst from their past that is the brutal “The Chapeltown Rag”. Come Friday, we’ll see how the whole picture comes together. After all, Slipknot’s best albums (namely “Iowa”) are about keeping that momentum going as the band descends into the abyss.

STOPPED! – FREE LSD [LP/CD](Fat Possum/The Orchard)

When music critics look to this iteration of the searing punk movement, its real antecedent is the raucous outbursts of this all-star band. Like their classic “First Four EPs” from 2010, MM. Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks,) Coats (Burning Brides), new bassist Autry Fulbright II (And You Will Know Us By Trail of Dead), and phenomenal new drummer Justin Brown (Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Herbie Hancock) with Bad Religion’s Hetson’s help actually carve untouched territory on this fearsome, fast-paced, angry and frustrating ram. “War Above Los Angeles” throws slingshots through its changes with thunderous guitar drops, 150 mph drum fills and an apocalyptic finish. “Kill To Be Heard” is even more dramatic with a mix of scathing riffs and old-school LA Punk played at lightning speed. Faster but more precise with elements of Free Jazz and Science Fiction interspersed, OFF! is permanently activated.

YEAH YEAH YEAHS – Cool It Down [LP/CD](Dress up/Secretly/AMPED)

Back with their first album in nearly a decade, Yeah Yeah Yeahs unleash their now brilliant NYC Art Pop on a generation that has adopted their “Maps” as their standard. In his place, Karen O. duets with Perfume Genius on the mysterious but enlightening, powerful synth-pulsing ballad “Spitting Off The Edge of The World”. While “Burning” assures that the one almost skronky band that damages art has evolved into one that can incorporate dance beats, strings and raw emotion into a futuristic, commercial album.

Comments are closed.