In a famously caustic essay of 1917, "The Sahara of the Bozart," H. L. Mencken pronounced it a region shorn of culture: "a cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodists, snake charmers, phony real estate operators and syphilitic evangelists."
For at least a generation now, the South has played a more nuanced role in the nonfiction narratives of TV news, while maintaining heightened status in the realms of literature. The South is steeped in Manichean struggles, forces of light against forces of dark in a drama of endless stagings, the most complicated, put-down, loved, hated and over-the-top part of America.
Flannery O'Connor, an orthodox Catholic who wrote about strange backcountry Protestants, had a wise take on the region's complex identity. "By and large," she commented, "people in the South still conceive of humanity in theological terms. While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn't convinced of it is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God."
Christ-haunted Southern dramas play to the national media, from the Scopes trial of the 1920s to the more recent spectacles of Jimmy Swaggart and Bill Clinton. Once a scourge of Catholicism, Swaggart was pulling in donations of $500 million a year until the late 1980s, when a rival televangelist exposed his pathetic cavortings with a prostitute.
The Clinton impeachment was also a profoundly Southern drama. The flawed president -- genuinely religious and sexually conflicted -- became a sacrificial figure for moral zealots in the House. Prosecutor Kenneth Starr grew up an Arkansas fundamentalist, the perfect prosecutor of a Rhodes Scholar who just could not stop backsliding.
The Swaggart and Clinton scandals were a jarring coda to the 1960s' redemptive drama of civil rights. The South moved from bedrock segregation to a society groping for a common identity between the traumatic memory of African Americans and a white South's hunger for innocence. Louisiana author Ernest Gaines' works, particularly A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, put the epic memory of black people in bold relief.
In the early 1960s, white ministers failed to stem the violence, even as the KKK burned black churches. A generation later, the Southern Baptist Convention declared slavery to have been wrong, racism a sin, and encouraged its members to reach out to their black brethren. Soon along, certain Baptist leaders set out to convert Jews.
This is not a regional mind easy to pinpoint.
In Pat Conroy's novel The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo travels from South Carolina to Manhattan to meet the psychiatrist treating his sister, who is recovering from a suicide attempt. "There is nothing stranger or more alien in the American South than being a Roman Catholic," broods Wingo. That's another way of saying that the South is still overwhelmingly Protestant, and evangelical. A few pages later, Dr. Susan Lowenstein tells Wingo that the South "is the most backward, reactionary, and dangerous part of the country."
Lowenstein speaks for many, including Southern Catholics, who catch errant views of the TV Jesus-sellers on Sunday mornings and experience sudden pangs for bourbon before Mass.
That the South should produce a continuing parade of weird folk, in politics and fiction, should come as no surprise. Behind all this bathos lies a topography of faith drenched in irony and a festival of spiritual nuances.
Susan Ketchin, a Durham, N.C.-based writer and scholar who has edited fiction for Algonquin Books, as well as Southern Exposure and Doubletake magazines, has been following these otherworldly maplines for years. Ketchin's 1994 book The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction is an underground classic that examines the spiritual dimension in the works of 12 novelists. Mixing interviews, commentary and excerpts, the book projects Ketchin's unapologetic belief that faith matters. Her issue is the intersection of faith and art.
In a story by the Mississippi novelist Larry Brown, "A Roadside Resurrection," a faith-healer losing his faith careens down a dark highway while a woman searches for him on behalf of her lover, a cancer-ravaged Elvis impersonator. At a pivotal moment wooden crosses appear on the side of a road. In her book, Ketchin interviews Brown and asks him what the crosses mean.
"The crosses," he replies, "are a mystery to me. You see them all over the South, along the sides of roads and interstates. I've seen them in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. Nobody ever sees them being put up. It's a great deal of trouble -- they're huge, like telephone polls."
The interview continues: "It may be stretching it a bit," says Ketchin, "but just as those crosses might be seen to be imposing a startling image of faith on the consciousness of those who are driving by, do you see your stories as possibly posing startling problems of faith for the reader?"
Says Brown: "Yes, I do, sure do. I think any literature, if it's going to be any good, has to be about right and wrong, good and bad, good versus evil. ... Whatever good is in this world has to have teeth in it if evil is to be dealt with."
One of the writers profiled in The Christ-Haunted Landscape is Sheila Bosworth, who grew up in New Orleans and spent many years in Covington. She became friends with Walker Percy, a convert to Catholicism who won the 1961 National Book Award for his first novel, The Moviegoer. Percy was steeped in the existentialists' view that one shapes destiny each day in a world gone absurd. But where the characters of Camus or Sartre face the world without hope of an afterlife, Percy's protagonists seek meaning through spiritual struggle. The Percy hero is detached and anti-heroic, more comic than grim, bound on a chivalric quest for authentic values in a world where science offers little for the soul, and faith provides clues more than answers.
"Abraham saw signs of God and believed," Percy wrote in The Moviegoer. "Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God's ironic revenge?"
Bosworth's novels, Almost Innocent and Slow Poison, key on women reacting to suffocations of patrician life; they bear little resemblance to Percy's searching philosophical works. Bosworth was a generation younger than Percy and a cradle Catholic.
"His church and my church were two different churches," she explained to Ketchin. "Sometimes we would argue about laughable things. For instance, I would tell him about something that a nun had done that cost me a great deal. And this sounds very funny to talk about mean nuns, but when you're a six-year-old baby leaving your mother for the first time and going to school, and you've got a nut at the helm, it can cost you big. And he didn't understand that. He didn't understand what it was like to be a female child in the Catholic Church in the 1950s. He'd say, 'I thought all the nuns were like Loretta Young.'
"He wrote me, cautioning me not to be too critical of the church and to have a set of beliefs I could hold on to. ... He struggled day by day, I think, just to get through. The best way to get there he thought, the best road map, is contained in the Catholic church."
"What I loved about all these writers was their issues of salvation," says Susan Ketchin during a recent phone interview. "They were all profoundly authentic, speaking straight from the cry of the soul, no matter the influence or how it might express itself."
Ketchin continues: "The dominant belief system around here is Protestant. Growing up I was fascinated by Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Ann Porter. My mother went to school with Flannery O'Connor. They were a part of my landscape and life. I was a recovering Calvinist, immersed in the fevered literature of the place. My favorite stories dealt with this ambivalence toward religion. In preparation for the book, I wondered if modern Southern writers are obsessed with religion as so many of the great ones of the past. I couldn't interview Faulkner or Percy or O'Connor, they were gone."
Ketchin also believes that "much of the best Southern fiction" is by Catholics. "The Moviegoer is about Catholic sensibility -- one that takes questions of good and evil and the dispensation of the soul extremely seriously. ... Percy is at heart a stoic. That combination of pondering deep thought and feeling in your bones that you can lead a good and noble life by thinking high thoughts and enduring pain is unique. But it's an important part of the one-man Southern tradition. It's strong in politics and also religious leadership. Percy was one of the few who wrote fiction about it."
That "one-man" tradition of stoicism included liberals who spoke out during the mid-century racial conflicts -- men like Hodding Carter in Mississippi and Clifford Durr of Alabama, both of whom also had courageous wives. The literary analogue would include the patrician lawyers in Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, all good men resisting evil in society.
In that Southern tradition associated with Percy, Ketchin also cites Valerie Martin, whose works include Salvation -- a 2000 novel about St. Francis of Assisi. Martin took a writing course that Percy taught in the 1970s at Loyola New Orleans, yet she has eschewed him as a direct influence. Martin also attended a Catholic high school (Mt. Carmel) but never joined the church. Nevertheless, a spirituality permeates her work with resonances of ancient Christianity.
Martin's "Francesco" of Assisi is not the gentle soul who walks with doves and deer, as produced in church holy cards. Rather, he is a man who plunges himself into a life of poverty and embraces lepers as part of a spiritual quest that makes him uncomfortable, restless, agitated. Along similar lines, one of Martin's previous novels, A Recent Martyr, centers on a young woman, locked in a debasing relationship with a selfish man, who experiences spiritual tremors through a friendship with a woman who is entering a convent:
"She inspired me with a sense of what I had given up in my appetite for personal relations," writes Martin. "I saw how the ties people stretch one to another, with languages and with emotion, only echo the fragility of all the ties nature forges. ... We long for a life we never had but of which we seem to have a clear memory; a life in which there is no longing."
If Percy has a more direct literary descendant in a philosophical vein, it would be John Gregory Brown, whose first novel, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, follows a young woman's quest to unravel racial secrets in a family whose forebear made statues for cemeteries. The prose has a quality of incantation, reflecting the author's Catholic upbringing in New Orleans, where the novel is set:
"How is it, I wonder, that suffering does all it can to make poets of every one of us, stirring up a kind of speech we never thought we'd utter, like we're all Shakespeare's King Lear standing in the middle of the storm, or for that matter, a man like your grandfather weeping in a statue garden. That may not be how my words read, but it's certainly how I feel, like the sky is falling all around me and all I can do is send out to you this faint message, which in the end is no louder than the beating of my heart."
Brown's third novel, the recently published Audubon's Watch, is set in antebellum Louisiana, and casts the quest for redemption as a metaphysical struggle between two men: Emile Gautreaux, a dissolute New Orleans physician, and John J. Audubon, the renowned naturalist and artist. Their paths cross in 1821 as guests at a plantation in St. Francisville, where Myra, Gautreaux's beautiful young wife, suddenly dies. Audubon spends a night in the parlor with the bereaved widower, keeping watch over Myra's body.
Audubon's Watch unfolds in alternating chapter-monologues as each man comes to terms with things hidden about himself. At first blush Audubon seems virtuous; Gautreaux the "anatomist" has the taint of vice from brushes with the law because of his procuring corpses for medical research. Audubon's passages are in a confessional mode, addressing the memory of his daughters, who died young, and thus will forever be innocent as he reveals his sins. Recalling the aftermath of a fleeting encounter with Myra in New Orleans, Audubon broods: "I could think of nothing to say and so ran down the street and around the corner, possessed once more by the shame of my profane desire."
Brown's concern is how a society nurses secrets of sex and race by fabricating words, disguising moral truth behind a facade of language. What lies beneath rarely rises to the vocabulary spoken aloud. When Gautreaux recalls his excitement as he and Myra stop on the ride to St. Francisville, the irony is all the more biting since we know that she will soon die:
"We raised glass after glass of wine and shared in a bottle of sweet clear rum passed around the inn by a merchant who had just delivered three dozen healthy slaves to a nearby plantation, losing fewer than a dozen others in passage, thus securing himself a healthy profit."
In a conversation with writer Reynolds Price in The Christ-Haunted Landscape, Susan Ketchin spells out the way spiritual themes are embedded in the South. "Part and parcel of all this were the impassioned sermons, the week-long revivals with preaching every night, and the songs," she says. "We became as southerners in the evangelistic Protestant South, intimately familiar with the resounding beauty of the biblical language and the unmistakable rhetoric of sermons, the rhythm and meter, symbols, the metaphors, the cataloging of images, and the building up of tension in the narrative."
A Christ-haunted terrain is arguably the dominant property shared by the region's leading novelists. Ketchin sketches a line of salvation narratives in the Protestant South. The outlines of a Southern Catholic tradition -- from Flannery O' Connor and Walker Percy to Valerie Martin and John Gregory Brown, among others -- suggest that even those detached from the church of Rome carry a spiritual sensibility that gives salvation quests more of a singular, philosophical search than that occasioned with a community of believers immediately at hand.
In Audubon's Watch, Gautreaux and Audubon roam a territory of reminiscence, longing for a resolution to the batterings of desire. It is, in the ambivalent Dr. Gautreaux's words, "that we might both learn, in our own manner, how we would be guided beyond this world to another realm."