Most Influential Southern Novel?

South Carolina Educational TV and the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies are in the midst of a series of eight one-hour programs collectively titled Take On The South. The last show aired back in October 2008, asking the question “Does the road  to the White House run through the South?” (video of that episode is online, along with other information). On Wednesday, May 13, ETV will broadcast another episode, with scholars Trudier Harris, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Noel Polk, professor emeritus at Mississippi State University, tackling the question “What was the most influential 20th-century Southern novel?”

As soon as I heard that question, two books popped into my own mind — William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men — and I was pleased to see those very two titles at the top of the list of 20 contenders for the prize, followed closely by Toni Morrison’s Beloved, another favorite of mine (though is it really a Southern novel?). The list was compiled by Harris, Polk, and faculty members from USC’s Institute for Southern Studies — and I should point out that it’s just coincidence that the first two books I considered were the first presented, since the nominees are simply listed in alphabetical order. The list is below, and the site features an online poll, where readers are invited to root for their favorites. 

  • Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines 
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. 
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Deliverance by James Dickey
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 
  • The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
  • Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Roots by Alex Haley
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

If you’re not able to get Southern Carolina ETV yourself, don’t worry about missing the show; they’ll post it online after the broadcast. And even if you don’t catch the talk at all, this is still a great list for those interested in Southern literature, and it’s reminded me of some gaps in my own reading; I’ve finished only 12 of the 20 books and need to get started on the rest. How many have you read? What are your favorites from the list? And which titles did they miss?

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0 thoughts on “Most Influential Southern Novel?

  1. Pingback: What Was The Most Influential Southern Novel? The Votes Are In! « Art & Literature

  2. Evan Lavender-Smith

    Influential to whom? The question is nonsensical without some better understanding of the context, right? If we’re talking US culture at large, the answer might be based on which of these books is most frequently taught in public schools, etc.

    1. artandliterature Post author

      That’s a great question, Evan, and I’m not sure I know on what basis the show’s producers are asking it. Looking at the website, they don’t entirely specify, though it may be something they discuss at greater length in the show itself. As a writer myself, I often think of the influence that a book has had on other writers — for example, the influence that Faulkner had on so many writers or that Warren had, and it’s easy to point to William Styron’s Lie Down In Darkness to see the influence that BOTH those earlier writers had on that novel. But then beyond writers…. Yes, how “influential” might any of these books have been on readers? And what does influence mean anyway — influencing the way they viewed the south? influencing the direction of their own lives? It could be any of these things, I guess…..

    2. walter edgar

      The term “influential” was deliberately rather than “best” or “favorite.” Was a particular work influential within the academy? Did it have influence on other writers? Did it have an impact on the broader culture. Rather than “non-sensical,” the two scholars involved [and others who were consulted before the question was posed] used the terms “thoughtful” and “thought-proviking.” They have conisdered the meaning of the term “influential” as well as the subject as part of the discussion.

      “Take on the South” is a program designed to produce serious discussion on important questions related to the region. And, in this case both the phrasing of the question and the subject have led to discussion.

      1. artandliterature Post author

        Thank you so much, Walter, for the perspective here. Certainly makes sense (and I’d never had said myself that the term was “non-sensical,” of course). Look forward to seeing the show!

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