The following is a preview of my Friday Film Focus for this week at Into the Hill. Hopefully the FFF will have a rebirth this fall, bigger and better than ever.
Enjoy, and be sure to head over to Into the Hill on Friday for the full version and much more great content!
COMMUNITY, REDEMPTION, AND SOUTHERN ART: SHOTGUN STORIES REVIEWED
I read recently how the great 20th century Southern writer Eudora Welty joked that the first questions a southerner asks upon meeting a newcomer are “who are your people?” and “where are you from?”. In the consciousnesses of the vast majority of southerners – even to this day – clan, family, and community are the windows through which all of life is primarily viewed. The few southerners who do not view the world accordingly are more than likely transplants from the North, migrants and misfits in the southern world of SEC football, sweet tea, and deep fried vegetables. Southerners are defined by their family names, their hometowns, and their work. That is why old southern families give their children christian names based after familial last names, why entire towns root so entirely and so passionately for local football teams – on the high school and college levels – and why many farmers and small businessman strive tirelessly in their cotton and tobacco fields, in their shops and store rooms, as big business scythes and corporate plows destroy a way of life so intimately a part of southern history and life.
For many years, this community-centric view of life was the inspiration for some of the greatest artists and works of art American culture has ever known, especially in the world of fiction. Joining Miss Welty in the canon of classic southern literature are notables like Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, even Harper Lee, and more recently Wendell Berry. Indeed, at the very heart of the stories these authors wrote was (or is) a firm belief in the power of community as redemptive force and place as a source of hope, themes without which their work would be radically and indistinguishably different. Welty grew up in, and was highly influenced by, the Mississippi back country, whose distinguishing habits and personalities her job as a journalistic photographer allowed her to observe closely. Faulkner too was shaped by his life in rural Mississippi. For O’Connor it was her youth in Georgia and her adult home at Andalusia. For Percy it was New Orleans and the Cajun deep south. For Harper Lee it was Alabama. And, of course, rural Kentucky was the breeding ground for Berry’s rich imagination and deeply personal characters. That each of these writers could so exquisitely examine and condemn their own places (as some of them are accused of – or famous for – doing) is a testament not to their cynicism towards the local ways of life (the local color, if you will), but rather deeply felt desires that their homes be perfected, potential fully realized. For they believed in every life, however big or small, is the potential for great grace – but also great sin. Between these paradoxical pillars, Welty and Co. might argue, stand the lumbering figures of tradition and community, arms outstretched, bearing upon their shoulders the weight of a tumbling culture.
It is true that in each of these author’s works appears what O’Connor calls “the grotesque,” but only in so much as grace is offered in response. That the “grotesque” often defeated the grace-full is, again, not a testament to cynicism, but rather a testament to what O’Connor referred to as “realism.” She argued that southerners had “such a penchant for writing about freaks… because…” “they are still able to recognize one.” She suggests that because of its emphasis on community and place, Southern culture is able to recognize what a “whole” man looks like, and therefore is able to understand what a “freak” (i.e., the grotesque) looks like. In other words, the southerner, and specifically the southern artist, knows that when the grace-full and the grotesque clash, there is always the hopeful possibility that the grace-full will come out victoriously. As she wrote in her essay The Fiction Writer & His Country, “… redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live…” She and her fellow southern artists operate(d) under the conviction that such cause is a reality. And a meaningful reality.