Old times not forgotten: Family and storytelling in twentieth-century Southern literature

Lisa Ann Cade Wieland, Marquette University


While many historians and literary critics have discussed southern culture and southern literature at length, to date, there has been no detailed study of the relationship between southern culture and narrative form in southern literature. This purpose of this study, then, is to investigate the interrelationship of form and content in four twentieth-century southern novels: William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding, Lee Smith's Oral History, and Clyde Edgerton's The Floatplane Notebooks. Each of these novelists is writing in an era of radical change in the South. In the case of Faulkner and Welty, this change was the Civil War and Reconstruction. The later writers, Smith and Edgerton, write about the changes brought about by the Civil Rights movement, the women's movement, and the Vietnam war. All of these events had a profound impact of southern culture, and the writers discussed here respond to this impact in their novels. One way in which these four novels respond to radical change is through formal experimentation. Specifically, the writers use multiple narrators to tell the story of a family. There is no central authority in any of these novels, and so the reader is left to make sense of the story for him- or herself. This experimental narrative form, along with the absence of a central authority, allows the writer to portray and reflect southern culture in the midst of significant change. This study, then, begins with a discussion of the importance of family and storytelling in southern culture. Then, it describes influence of modernism on the nature of formal experimentation in twentieth-century southern writing. After then establishing the connection between southern culture and narrative form, including the reader's role in creating meaning, each specific novel is considered. The purpose of discussing specific novels at length is to illustrate the similar ways in which southern writers respond to radical change, and to examine as well the differences found in each response. The conclusion to this study both examines the present and considers the future state of southern literature and southern culture. In particular, it contemplates the influence of different voices (such as those of African-American writers) on contemporary southern writing.

Recommended Citation

Wieland, Lisa Ann Cade, "Old times not forgotten: Family and storytelling in twentieth-century Southern literature" (1998). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9842442.