Where Is Southern Literature?

The Practice of Place in a Postsouthern Age

in Volume 12 (2000): Issue 1 (Mar 2000): South to a New Place. Guest Editors: Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith
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Of the several stock answers to the perennial question ‘What is southern literature?’, the importance of ‘place’ (or the presence of ‘sense of place’) surely ranks near the top of the list. Immediately we are faced with a paradox: How can any regional literature be distinguished on so ambiguous a basis? Places are, after all, found everywhere and in all literatures, and it is doubtful that even a rigorous poetics could reliably identify a ‘sense of place’ that is distinctively southern. To complicate matters, ‘sense of place’ often seems to imply being located not merely in a distinctive region, but in a distinctive way; the term connotes something that is not just geographically different (a southern variation of a thing that exists elsewhere), but qualitatively different (a thing distinctive to the South). ‘Sense of place’, then, serves as both a description (southern literature has it) and a distinction (southern literature has more of it than other literatures). For my purposes here, it precisely the nebulous content of ‘place’ that makes it so useful as a point of entry into examining how critics have defined and practised southern literature; because of place’s conceptual instability, what stability it does possess can be ascribed almost exclusively to how it has been used. Arguably, the location of ‘place’ is not so much in the South or in southern literature as in the critical discourse about those things.