Southern Gothic Copes with Southern Shame
“The Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery,” my fifth-grade teacher said with her back turned to the class and the same smarty-pants tone we used on the playground. On the way home from school, I told my mother what I had learned that day. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and said, “That ain’t nothing but lying. Like a dog lies on a rug to hide and forget where it messed up the floor.”
When it comes to the Confederacy and slavery, some Southerners are quick to throw a rug over reality. Apologists deny the Confederacy’s atrocities with an outcry of “heritage, not hate.” For the sake of pride in their ancestors and legacy, the Old South demeans the tragedy of slavery. In the wake of the violent rally in Charlottesville, the Lost Cause defenders still embrace treason and racism. As progressives and moderates renew the call for the erasure of Confederate monuments, the nation wonders if the South will ever take an honest examination of its past. Yet, by revitalizing its tradition of macabre fiction the New South is acknowledging its history with a fresh voice and dealing with its trauma.
Southern Gothic is characterized by its use of fantasy, the grotesque, death, and deformity, both mental and physical. When asked to define Southern Gothic, author Jamie Kornegay answers, “It’s not just Southern vampires and trailer park mayhem. These are sophisticated stories shrouded in darkness and mystery, set in an old mannered South that has soured. The mansions are gray, and there’s something not right about the residents. There may be magic and illusion. There is death, most certainly, and bad behavior committed by the righteous. There is God and the Devil, standing in the muddy, snake-swarmed baptismal river, holding hands.”
The genre has roots in 19th-century Gothicism. During this literary movement, romantic classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe were set in unearthly mansions inhabited by deviant aristocrats and utilized the supernatural to convey deeper truths of our troubled psyches. The social and economic devastation beget by the Civil War and Reconstruction forced writers to delve beyond gentility in search for these same shadowy ideas lurking in our souls and minds. Famed Southern writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers questioned the nature of our struggles for redemption and the violent oppression of Southern culture. These authors and a host of others would go on to be associated with the development of the Southern Gothic movement and its peak in the 1950’s and 60’s. Southern Gothic writing has gone on to become a part of the American identity as well as national literary classics.
In his article “The Evolution of Southern Gothic,” author of the Southern Gothic novel Soil, Jamie Kornegay, argues, “I’m not convinced that Southern Gothic is completely viable in a modern-day story. With the flattening of the South, the old aristocrats have all moved to the city… Today Southern gentility has been replaced by conservative politics, which is anything but chivalrous. The decay of the Old South is aggressively apparent.” However, contrary to Kornegay’s argument, the genre is evolving still and growing in popularity with new novels. Authors like Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, and Barry Hannah have written novels in the past twenty years that sit comfortably on Goodreads’ “Best Southern Gothic Books” list and investigate the troubled past of the South from a fresh perspective
Further, Southern Gothic is beginning to evolve to create new genres such as Southern Fabulism, a form of magical realism in which fantastical elements are placed into an everyday Southern setting. One upcoming title from indie Stalking Horse Press called A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo claims to “weave together southern fabulism and gothic fury” in a novel about race, women, sexuality and so much more that will “reinvestigat[e] the American soul.” Indeed, the genre of Southern Gothic has a promising future toward progress.
Many argue that Southern Gothic’s mass appeal is in its depiction of the South as the underdog. Articles cite the Old South’s past in the civil war and slavery as its “heroic past.” But, being a hero insinuates that you have risen above your failures and have become something greater to destroy evil. The South isn’t there yet. Arguably, Southern Gothic’s appeal is not because it depicts the region as a heroic underdog but because it shows it as flawed. The South has guilt, anger, and grief because of its crimes, and Southerner masses have tried to move on by calling it heritage; however, denying the truth is like making a mess on the floor and using a rug to cover it. Through the genre of Southern Gothic, however, Southerners and other Americans can come to terms with this shameful past and find a security blanket to cope with their pain.