The Writing Life: What Makes Me A Southern Writer (Part 1 of 5)

I’m an 8th generation Southerner. Being from the South and growing up in an area where members of my family had lived for several hundred years had a major effect on me as a man and as a writer.

Some months back my friend John in Boston, who is a Yankee through and through, asked me the following question:

John wrote:

I have always loved Southern writers, from Faulkner to Styron and Percy and Robert Penn Warren and more. What is it that appeals, beyond the ability to spin a damn good yarn? The sense of elegy? Fragility and doom and inevitable loss? You tell me, Charlie.

Dear John:

I’ve thought a lot about this my own self as you might imagine because there seems a definite regional influence at work. Part of what makes Southern writers different stems from the sense of doom which accompanied the very hot weather in times not distant. And a sense of doom inevitably fuels sexual passion whether from the certainty of disease or the risk of death in battle. Conventional morality is abandoned in wartime the closer one gets to the front. London in World War Two wasn’t the stiff, Victorian city we imagine. Everyone was fucking whomever was at hand regardless of marriage vows. 35,000 Londoners were killed in the Blitz alone. It isn’t hard to imagine how both the fact and fear of random death from the sky inflamed desire.

Less than a century ago, yellow fever and malaria still ravaged the states in the Deep South. It’s no accident that the only school of Tropical Medicine in the United States is at Tulane University (my alma mater) in New Orleans. The last malaria epidemic in the United States occurred in New Orleans in the late 1920s which was within the living memory of people when I lived there. To live in New Orleans is to be aware of catastrophe standing in the wings. Like the Civil War and “Beast” Butler, the terrible fever epidemics were still discussed when I lived there in the 70s and early 80s.

I don’t know if this custom still exits, but when I lived in New Orleans, Catholic and Episcopal priests as well as Catholic nuns, were not required to pay a fare when they rode on public transit. The reason: only they had stayed and helped the sick when New Orleans experienced a terrible malaria epidemic in the late 1800s. Because of their heroism, they were given the right to ride public transit without charge. The story may be apocryphal but the tradition was absolutely true. On dozens of occasions I witnessed clergy and nuns board public transit without paying the fare. And this was more than one hundred years after that epidemic so you can see how deep in the bones of Southerners is this experience of sudden death in epidemics or hurricanes or, in the phrase beloved of insurance companies so they won’t have to pay your claim, “Acts of God.”

For centuries living in a tropical climate was far deadlier than living in a colder climate. It probably still is. Mosquitoes, who carry both yellow fever and malaria, can’t survive when temperatures go below sixty degrees and remain there for any length of time. But that is a rarity in the Deep South. In New Orleans, years and years will pass and the temperature will not go below sixty degrees and stay there for more than a day or so. New Orleans just recently went through several decades where the temperature never went below freezing. Besides helping mosquitoes, that climatic anomaly caused a wholesale attack by termites on every wooden dwelling in the city.

So summer meant heat and its human equivalent — sexual passion — along with languor and love and the inevitable death of yourself or someone you loved who died from diseases which came from nowhere and whose cause could not be comprehended. This intensified the experience of sexual passion and love since it seemed so fleeting and for many it was. Southerners have an overabundance of passion both emotional and sexual, the two elements put together ignite a roaring flame. The same passion that drives the faith of many Southern preachers also drives them into the arms of prostitutes.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia and YatBazaar.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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