While discussing Absalom, Absalom! last night, Darwin (who's been reading along) and I were wondering if there were any great Southern writers from before the Civil War. Casting back my mind to my Survey of the American Novel class, in which I first read this book, I remember reading Melville, Hawthorne, and James (though he's a bit later), but no specifically Southern writers. Mark Twain (again, later) was from the south, but wrote Americana, even if he set some of his books in the South.
Working from memory, some southern writers that spring to mind are William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell, but they were all writing well after the turn of the century. Perhaps the earliest specifically Southern author I know of is Kate Chopin, but she was writing in the 1890s. In terms of literature that references the South, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published the wildly popular Evangeline in 1847, but Longfellow was a New Englander who never visited the region.
So: is there Southern literature before the Civil War? Did it take the War to produce a specifically Southern style? Perhaps that has something to do with what Quentin Compson ponders at the begininng of Absalom, Absalom: that although he was born after the War and had no personal connection to it, just by the fact of living in the defeated South his psyche is populated with the ghosts of those who died to defend a doomed culture.
The Great War: Vol, Chapter 5-2
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