Top Ten Novels of the American South

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic I have decided on myself: top ten novels of the American South. (In fact, I may continue to do this, because I’d rather make my own lists than follow someone else’s. I’m a maverick, what can I say.)

  1. Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor. One of only two novels Flannery O’Connor wrote, this is a disturbing but brilliant novel about a “Christian malgré lui”, Hazel Motes, and his misadventures in rural Georgia. You would be hard pressed to find a book that better embodies the impersonal violence of the Deep South.
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. This is, without a doubt, one of the funniest novels ever written. My dad and I read it out loud when I was about twelve, and we frequently had to stop lest we choke on our own giggles. It’s the story of a Quixotic New Orleansean, Ignatius J. Reilly, and his oblique relationship to the real world. Marvelous, eccentric stuff.
  3. Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty. A Mississippian family saga in brief, written in a gorgeous, ethereal style that perfectly conveys hot evenings, red dirt roads, cotton fields, silk dresses, front porches. There’s a great deal packed into this book, and the narrative voice is almost High Modernist in the way it floats over events.
  4. Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. Difficult to choose between this and The Sound and the Fury, but Absalom, Absalom! wins out because of its obsessive interest in heredity and legacy. Nothing could be more Southern.
  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and her only novel introduces an African-American heroine, Janie, who is sexually liberated and long-suffering in equal measure. True love, heartbreak, and a hurricane: what more can you ask for in a novel?
  6. Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith. This is one of the two on this list that I’ve actually never read, but I’m reliably informed (by my mother) of its greatness. An epistolary novel about the experiences of a young bride, wife, and mother in the Blue Ridge Mountains from WWI to the 1960s, it is the Appalachian novel par excellence.
  7. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Oh my goodness. Need I say more? “You can shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember: it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus! Boo Radley! Scout and Dill! Tom Robbins! Mayella Ewell! Has ever a writer produced more instantly iconic characters in one work? (Answer: no.)
  8. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is based on an utterly true, but little-known, historical fact: there were (not many, but a few) black slaveowners in the antebellum South. How can you know that and not want to read a book about it?
  9. Cane, by Jean Toomer. The second book on this list that I’ve never actually read, but it, too, is a product of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a novel in the same sense that Spoon River Anthology is; it consists of poems and short vignettes about the experience of African-Americans in Georgia, in the North, and then back to the Southern plantations again. Mostly ignored by critics on its release, it is now considered a seminal work.
  10. Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. An autobiographical novel about abuse, alcoholism, and gospel music, this captures the experience of the so-called “white trash” demographic better than any I’ve ever read. Most Southern novels are either about wealthy whites or poor blacks; the poor white experience is generally not deemed literary, and yet Allison does it. It’s beautiful and distressing in equal measure.
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2 thoughts on “Top Ten Novels of the American South

  1. This is wonderful! My niece is about to set off for a year abroad at New Orleans and I’ve been wanting to send her off with a pile of appropriate books (she adores To Kill A Mockingbird – she studied it in school). Thank you so much – I’m going to have a lovely time figuring out which ones to get her!

    • How very apt! Do include A Confederacy of Dunces–it is such a classic New Orleans novel, and New Orleans is rather unlike the rest of the South, its version of Paris, if you will. Hope your niece has a fabulous time!

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