When I talk about the “classic” novels set in the south I am referencing books written before 1980. I have another list of some of my favorite “contemporary” novels set in the south which are books published after 1980.
These are older books set in the southern US written by both white and black Americans. Racism and stereotypes of black Americans are a part of some of them. There is misogyny in some of them.
I have heard talk of no longer publishing Gone with the Wind and I understand that. I can see how some might feel that it romanticizes (the movie in particular) life in the antebellum south. We obviously have a lot to learn and a long way to go. But I think that it is important to remember how things were as well as to move forward together into how we want things to be. The famous quote from George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” is applicable here.
Hope you enjoy!
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Classic Novels Set in the South
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Even though you have probably all read it I simply had to include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on this list! But what else is there to say about a book that we all are familiar with and most likely were forced to read as a school assignment? I do think that it is a must read, but I admit to having mixed feelings about this book.
Hemingway loved it. He famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Dang! That’s high praise!
My favorite part in the book is when Huck can’t pray because he feels so guilty about the fact that he has decided NOT to send a letter to Jim’s owner confessing that he is helping Jim escape. Huck says to himself, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell” and then he tears up the letter. That’s at the heart of this book…following ones private conscience. Doing the things you know to be right even when society is telling you differently. Huck lets his empathy lead him even when he doesn’t understand it himself, yet it doesn’t lead him astray.
The anti-racist message in the book is very obvious, and Twain uses satire to get that and other messages across. People who are thought to be good are actuallybad. Mrs Watson preaches honesty to Huck, but then lies and breaks her promise to Jim to never sell him down south. Huck’s father is a racist, abusive, hypocrite who still thinks he is better than the black man. The feuding families are used to show the futility and even the stupidity of war. Both families believe in honor and ‘brotherly love,’ each Sunday they attend church together, yet they continue to kill one another in a never ending battle for a reason that none can remember.
There are parts of this book that I don’t like, the ending in particular gets on my nerves. Tom shows up and his immaturity and selfishness is in such stark contrast to Huck’s wisdom and understanding. Despite that, there are so many layers to this book that it is worth a re-read especially if it has been a few years since you were asked to write a high school essay on it.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J Gaines
Ernest Gaines has written many books that could have been included on this list. I choice The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman for two reasons, one because it was the first of Mr. Gaines books that I personally discovered, and two, because of the voice of the protagonist and the sweep of history as seen through her eyes.
This book is fiction written as an autobiography. It is presented as an interview with Jane Pittman who is currently over 100 years old and written as an oral narrative where Jane Pittman tells stories about her life, from her childhood as a slave to the Civil Rights era. This is both the strength and the weakness of the book in my opinion.
The author does a remarkable job with the conversational dialogue and you will love Jane’s sharp tongue, her wit, and her keen observations. However, because the book is written as a series of oral stories I felt I never really got to completely know Jane. It was as if she was always holding something back from the interviewer and therefore the reader. In addition, there are years, decades even, between the individual stories i the book so the narration can feel a bit choppy.
In spite of these slight flaws, I loved this book. Not only is it well written, it is important. It doesn’t try to encompass the whole history of race relations throughout the south. Instead it tells the experience of one woman, black, a freed slave, living in Louisiana. Her personal point of view, the nuance that she brings to everything that she has experienced, and the way that she survives in spite of a myriad of hardships are personal and you feel it as she tells it. It is the difference between reading a book of history and having a friend tell you what happened to them. I think it is a book that can encourage those of us who haven’t experienced racism to know more, to understand more, and to do better.
Christy by Catherine Marshall
I introduced this book to my daughters when they were younger and they didn’t like it. I loved it as a teenager and have read it several times since them. Just letting you know that this isn’t a universally loved book in my reading circle.
Christy has been called the first Christian fiction novel but don’t let that (or the terrible cover photo shown here) stop you from reading it! Faith is woven throughout the story in a thoughtful and deep way. This is not a fluffy book. Christy is about a young woman from Asheville, North Carolina who volunteers to become a teacher in an impoverished area of the Smoky Mountains called Cutter’s Gap. She finds that the mountain people are superstitious and distrusting to the point of endangering their own health and that of their children.
The honesty is sometimes hard to read. She tells of filthy cabins and the poor treatment of a mentally handicapped child. There are medical procedures described in great detail. The book contains abuse of women. In spite of these things Christy is also full of beauty. Christy’s friendship with Miss Alice, a Quaker woman who runs some missions in the mountains and takes Christy under her wing, is lovely. The openness of Miss Alice as well as her loving spirit and approach to God and faith were refreshing and taught the protagonist so much. Christy’s friendship with the intelligent, gentle, and poetic mountain woman Fairlight painted a picture of non-judgmental acceptance.
Above all this is a story of one woman’s desire to make a difference and how she grew and changed in the process. I think it is an incredible story and what makes it even better it is based on the true life of the author’s mother!
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Gone With the Wind is such an iconic book that it is hard to even know what to say about it. It is a must read for lovers of southern literature. And yet, the main character is so spoiled, so petty, with so few redeeming characteristics that it is hard to understand what it is about this book that has captured the imaginations of so many people. Scarlett O’Hara is not a nice person. And yet she and this book are captivating.
Let’s just say it, Gone with the Wind is racist. However, upon a recent re-reading I was surprised at just how classist it also is. And I was shocked to realize that it is also quite feminist. What an odd mix. Scarlett is one of the most determined female protagonists of all time. After the war she survives by picking cotton, running her plantation, starting a business, and even killing a man. By this point she is no longer a typical southern belle, as Rhett Butler says, “And, you, Miss, are no lady.” But I think we knew from the beginning that Scarlett wasn’t a lady, she just pretended to be one until the Civil War scratched away the veneer of any softness and civility.
I also hadn’t remembered just how brutally unhappy the book is. From the war on the characters face a series of unending misery. There are countless moments of terror, starvation, loss, and death. But Margaret Mitchell herself said, “If Gone With the Wind has a theme it is that of survival…It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.”
The Great Santini by Pat Conroy
Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m a Pat Conroy fan. I know he is not every reader’s favorite. I get it. He basically tells the same story in book after book and his writing can be a bit overblown at times. But I don’t care. I love lush, dense prose that reads like poetry and I get that from Conroy and then some.
His editor once quoted him as saying, “I will tell you, if there are ten words for something, I will use all ten. Your job is to take them out.'” His writing might not be perfect, but he is an amazing storyteller. In addition, his sense of place is one of the best I’ve ever read. Has anyone else described the South Carolina coastal area as well? Not in my opinion.
The Great Santini is Conroy’s first book and although written as fiction it tells the story of the author’s fighter pilot, controlling, abusive father. Ben, the oldest boy in the book represents Mr. Conroy and you will quickly discover why most of his books have the same themes. He is obviously trying to work through the difficulties of his own life! Was writing his therapy? I don’t know, but I’m glad he shared it with us.
You will not like the father in this book, Bull Meecham, also known as The Great Santini. There aren’t mixed emotions for you as a reader. However, you will strongly feel the conflicted and layered emotions of his children. You will feel their confusion as they can’t decide if they hate their domineering father or admire him. I found the mother, Lillian, almost as infuriating as Bull. Her denial, her absurd devotion to her husband, her refusal to acknowledge the damage The Great Santini was doing to her children even when directly confronted with their suffering. She drove me crazy!
The book isn’t all pain. There are some humorous scenes. The family is sarcastic and their banter although hurtful at times can also be funny. Ben and the rest of the children are so well written that you feel as if you know them and you do love them.
This may not the best of Conroy’s books but in it you can see his talent and his truth. It sets the tone for his books to come.
Light In August by William Faulkner
I went round and round trying to decide which Faulkner novel to include in this list. Because of course I HAD to include at least one. I love Faulkner, but let’s be truthful, some of his books just aren’t that readable. I finally decided to choose Light in August. Why? Because, although it is not strictly linear, it is easier to follow than some of his other books, it will allow you to get acquainted with Yoknapatawpha County which is the setting of many of Faulkner’s books, and it will give the reader a good sense of Faulkner and his themes.
I won’t try to really review Faulkner. I couldn’t possibly. I’ll just say that Light in August is a tragedy and in some ways a tragicomedy. It is Southern Gothic fraught with racism, misogyny, and religious fanaticism. Every character is striking and wretched. It is a story of misplaced persons. Nobody in this novel fits in, nobody belongs. The characters are miserable, but you can’t escape the memory of them, you can’t leave them behind once you close the book.
Faulkner points out over and over again that racism and misogyny often lead to destruction. Perhaps that is a lesson that we all need to be reminded of in this day and age. This is a book set in the early decades of the 1900’s. It will make you gasp at how far we haven’t come.
Give at least one Faulkner book a try. Maybe he will never be your cup of tea, or you might fall in love with the magic of his world and words.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
Two of my favorite quotes from any book EVER are found in Their Eyes Were Watching God. The first is this, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” I have repeated this so many times and have found it to be true in my own life. The second is, “When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.” Isn’t that a beautiful representation of not only the human spirit but also human relationships?
But beyond beautiful quotes what is this book about? It is about Janie Crawford, a spirited and independent black woman from Florida in the early 1900’s. She is raised by her grandmother, Nanny, who insists that Janie marry young and marry an older man in order for Janie to have security. Janie is, not surprisingly, unhappy in her first marriage. She runs off with another man, Jody, who takes her to the all black town of Eatonville where he becomes a wealthy landowner and something of a bigwig. Unfortunately he is controlling and cruel and doesn’t allow Janie to have her own voice. After about 20 years of marriage Jody dies leaving Janie independent, with a little money, and reveling in her freedom. This is when she meets her true love, Teacake.
The dialect used in the book causes it to be a slow read, but it also gives you a great feel for the characters. I have mentioned in a previous book post that I didn’t like the use of dialect in the book The Help. But I like it in this book! First, because it is used consistently, and second, one of the main themes of Their Eyes Were Watching God is that of finding ones voice. Janie’s first two husbands wanted her silent and at home. Tea Cake encouraged her to speak with him and to socialize and to voice her opinions. Gender roles and unequal relationships are at the heart of the story and as Janie finds her voice she finds herself.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird is always and forever on the list of my top five favorite books. Others may come and go but this one never does. I have loved this book since reading it as a young person and I love it to this day. My son got a college scholarship after a group interview and perhaps it is because when asked what literary character he would like to emulate his answer was, “Atticus Finch.” As he was walking out of the room one of the professors said to him, “Atticus was a good man.” Right? Who better to model oneself after?
To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize. It is compassionate and moving, it takes readers from despair to joy, from chaos to order, through love and hatred, humor and fear. To Kill a Mockingbird is, in my opinion, not only one of the best American novels, it is also one of the most important. It manages to powerfully discuss difficult topics such as race, prejudice, decency, tolerance, kindness, and injustice in the most deceptively simple way.
Told through the eyes of a young girl, Scout, the book is never preachy or flashy. It is never pretentious or excessive. We learn as Scout does that her father, Atticus, is the role model to end all role models. He is a man of quiet conviction and unwavering dignity. At one point when talking about the racism being displayed by the local townspeople Atticus says, “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” I mean…Wow.
You probably read this book sometime in school. If it has been a while please read it again as an adult. Read it yearly. If we all internalize a bit of Atticus I think that the world would be a better place.
True Grit by Charles Portis
I think that Mattie Ross from True Grit is one of the best child characters in literature. She is right up there with the aforementioned Huck Finn, though not as endearing as Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. She is less naive than either Huck or Scout and the word pluck seems to have been invented for her.
In True Grit Mattie is now an adult telling the story of when she was 14 years old and her father was killed and robbed in Fort Smith, Arkansas by a man named Tom Chaney. Mattie decides to avenge her father’s death. She selects Rooster Cogburn as the Marshall to help her because she has been told that is the meanest of them all. He also happens to be a drunk and has only one eye but Mattie believes that he has the “true grit” to get the job done.
I love this book. The elder Mattie is crusty, a bit judgmental, a little puritanical and a lot uptight. You can definitely see those same character traits developing in the young Mattie. My favorite part of the book is the way that the author selects words and puts them in Mattie’s thoughts and has them come out of her mouth. She is one of my favorite narrators in all literature.
The author, Charles Portis is a master of creating characters through language in this book. Mattie has zero sense of humor which makes her deadpan descriptions of the often tumultuous events unintentionally funny. Everything about the language and the exchanges between Mattie and her traveling companions is pitch perfect. She says about a judge in Fort Smith, “On his deathbed he asked for a priest and became a Catholic. That was his wife’s religion. It was his own business and none of mine. If you had sentenced one hundred and sixty men to death and seen around eighty of them swing, then maybe at the last minute you would feel the need for some stronger medicine than the Methodists could make.”
This is still a western with plenty of outlaws, and six shooters, and horses and you can read and enjoy it on that level. But I suggest reading it for the dialogue. It is effortlessly authentic.
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings grew up in rural Florida back in the days before condos and Disney World. She writes beautifully about life in a Florida that no longer exists. Her love for the landscape, the animals, and even the weather are undeniable. Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling and at the time it was published it was not considered a young adult novel. In fact, such a category didn’t exist. The book was simply immediately a best seller.
It tells the story of Jody, a young boy who lives on a hardscrabble farm in the scrubland of Florida near the St. Johns river. Jody adopts and cares for a young fawn who he names Flag. It is a shame that this book is marketed more for young people these days because the themes are quite mature. They are subtle and tricky and have to do with the inevitability of death as well as the way that humans interact with nature, particularly animals.
When the animals in the book aren’t dying or being hunted you will find stunning descriptions of them. In one gorgeous scene Jody and his father watch cranes dancing in the moonlight, the descriptions were so well written that I felt like I was there. There is another scene of Jody and his father watching an injured young wolf coming into the yard to seek companionship with the family dog. After the wolf leaves the author writes these words, “They squatted together by the hearth, caught up in the sadness and the strangeness. It was a harsh thing, even for a wolf, to be so alone that it must turn to the yard of its enemy for companionship.”
In addition to nature there is a lot of adventure in this book, there are snake bites, and bear hunts, floods and fights with neighbors. As you probably already know, this The Yearling is sad, but it is also well written and worth reading again, or perhaps for the first time.
Obviously, there are so many more books I could have included on this list! But these are the ones I have read and either loved or thought were important. One of my goals is to read more classic literature and as I do that and discover new gems perhaps I will add more books to this list. Let me know if there are some other “must-reads” that you would suggest.
Thanks for stopping by!