Robert MacNeil remembers
From the University of North Carolina, texts, images and audio related to Southern history
Regionalism and Local Color
From the UNC University Library, find out how the terms differ
American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways. Christa Smith Anderson explains that Southern writers drew on oral tradition and social conflict to striking effect.
If any region is best known for distinctive voice writing, it’s the American South. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty all contributed to a growing body of classic literature that, in transcending stereotypes, illuminates complex characters and the false pretenses of societies built on a foundation of racial hierarchy. Richard Wright praised Carson McCullers as the first white writer of Southern fiction to treat her black characters “with as much ease and justice as those of her own race,” and remarked on the “astonishing humanity” of McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
The 1963 murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers prompted Eudora Welty to write a chilling short story that offered a character study of the suspect. In Where Is the Voice Coming From?, written before Byron de la Beckwith was arrested for the murder, Evers becomes the fictional Roland Summers. The narrator is his killer.
I stepped to the edge of his light there, where he’s laying flat. I says, ‘Roland? There was one way left, for me to be ahead of you and stay ahead of you, by Dad, and I just taken it. Now I’m alive and you ain’t. We ain’t never now, never going to be equals and you know why? One of us is dead. How about that, Roland?’ I said.
Once de la Beckwith was arrested, The New Yorker magazine asked Welty to change some details before it published the story, because there were too many similarities between her fictional creation and the real suspect who was charged.
Welty was a past master of voice writing. Shortly after she worked as a photographer for the W.P.A., she published A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. In the collection is Why I Live at the P.O. The young postmistress of China Grove, Miss., is fed up with her family when her sister, Stella-Rondo, returns home from Illinois, newly separated from her husband and with a baby that Stella-Rondo claims to have adopted. The narrator, whose family calls her Sister, doesn’t believe it for a second, and tries to convince their mother that the child is affected:
‘Can that child of yours talk?’ asks Mama.
Stella-Rondo says, ‘Can she what?’
‘Talk! Talk!’ says Mama. ‘Burdyburdyburdyburdy!’
So Stella-Rondo yells back, ‘Who says she can’t talk?’
‘Sister says so,’ says Mama.
Fred Chappell often writes about a Southern landscape altered by industry
North Carolina author Fred Chappell often writes about a Southern landscape altered by industry. In his story Children of Strikers Chappell captures the voices of a girl and boy accustomed to the industrial climate. They walk alongside a blackened chemical river, hardly noticing the “dreadful stink” that “rose off the waters.” The girl discovers something on the ground and pockets it, not — at first — sharing her find with the boy. Finally she tells him it's a foot. “What you mean? What kind of foot?” he asks. She says it’s a tiny baby’s foot. "I ain't believing that," he replies, but then his imagination takes hold and he says, "Gaw... Somebody probably kilt it." She finally shows him what is really the foot of a doll. Nonetheless as the story ends, the children look to the homes of Fiberville where, "In the overheated rooms both the light and the shadows loomed with an unguessable violence."
Folk culture and oral tradition continue to appear in the works of some Southern writers
Folk culture and oral tradition continue to appear in the works of some Southern writers. The title of Lee Smith’s Oral History, which drew comparisons to the works of Faulkner and McCullers, speaks for itself. Smith, one of today’s best-known voice writers, brings the characters and history of an Appalachian community to resplendent life. When Dory Cantrell comes to the school house to discuss her brother’s schooling, the young teacher, new to the mountains, is taken with her. “I live on Hoot Owl Holler,” Dory tells him, and warns, “and you’d best not come up there atall.” Richard Burlage is determined to get her name before she goes. “‘My name is Dory,’ she said then. ‘Hit means gold.’” In response, Richard thinks to himself, “I know… I know.” 
William and Flora Hewlett
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