Faulkner - of course - dominates, but there's room for Twain, Lee, Welty and Ellison on these lists of books you might remember from high school English classes
Choosing the best Southern novels of all time isn't like ranking that other Southern passion, college football.
I mean, how do you break down the character development of William Faulkner vs. Mark Twain's perceptive take on human nature?
Selecting your favorite novel is closer to announcing your favorite child ... if you had thousands of worthy children.
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But Oxford American, a magazine devoted to Southern writing, couldn't resist the chance to spark family squabbles in the literary world.
The magazine devoted to Southern writing asked 134 judges to rank the best novels, best nonfiction works and most underrated books by Southern writers or about the South.
Most of the judges are of the scholarly bent, so don't expect anything in the Jeff Foxworthy realm. In fact, the list is the stuff of high school students' nightmares.
But if you've never read any of the books on the list without an essay test hanging over your head, you ought to give some of them a second try, or a first read.
To soak up the full magnificence of the subject, go online to oxfordamerican.org and search for the August issue. If you don't have the time, here's the Cliffs Notes version.
- Joey Holleman
TOP 10 NOVELS
1. "Absolom, Absolom!," William Faulkner, 1936, 120 votes
2. "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren, 1946, 80 votes
3. "The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner, 1929, 64 votes
4. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain, 1885, 58 votes
5. "To Kill a Mockingbird," Harper Lee, 1960, 57 votes
6. "The Moviegoer," Walker Percy, 1961, 55 votes
7. "As I Lay Dying," William Faulkner, 1930, 52 votes
8. "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison, 1952, 47 votes
9. "Wise Blood," Flannery O'Connor, 1952, 44 votes
10. "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Zora Neale Hurston, 1937, 41 votes.
Worth noting: Faulkner had two more in the top 25 ("Light in August" and "Go Down, Moses"); Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" tied with "Go Down, Moses" for 21st.
S.C. Connection: Former USC poet-in-residence James Dickey's "Deliverance" tied for 24th and Greenville native Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina" tied for 25th. Pat Conroy's "The Prince of Tides" got four votes, ranking well down the list.
TOP 5 NONFICTION
1. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," James Agee (with photography by Walker Evans), 1941, 55 votes
2. "Black Boy," Richard Wright, 1945, 39 votes
3. "The Mind of the South," W.J. Cash, 1941, 33 votes
4. "One Writer's Beginnings," Eudora Welty, 1984, 27 votes
5. "The Civil War: A Narrative," Shelby Foote, 1958-1974, 24 votes
WHAT JUDGES HAD TO SAY ABOUT THE TOP SELECTIONS
1. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by James Agee (photography by Walker Evans)
"The reception of this book has varied over the years. Sometimes, Agee's meditative prose has been emphasized (or condemned as overwrought), while at others, Evans' classic photographs are seen to make this an unusually important book. But what isn't emphasized quite enough is the way the book combines a modernist, experimental aesthetic with a kind of documentary intention. What makes LUNPFM so groundbreaking is the effort to escape the formal constraints (and assumptions) of the 1930s documentary, while preserving the attempt to 'document,' in some fundamental way, the lives of those who have been forgotten or used."
- Richard King, professor emeritus, University of Nottingham
"In 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,' Agee employs elements of fiction, the personal essay, poetry and Walker Evans' photography to depict the landscape and people of the South as well as to reveal the values and character of the region. Simultaneously personal and universal, this book dramatizes the collective consciousness, the soul of the South."
- Allen Wier, novelist and professor, University of Tennessee
2. "Black Boy" by Richard Wright
"Wright accomplished the astonishing in 1945, simply by reflecting on his Mississippi childhood as a true 20th-century thinker, blunt on race and comfortable with Freud. He got word never to come back to Mississippi, not that he wanted to. President Obama cites Wright in 'Dreams of My Father,' which uses the same reflective hindsight that Wright first employed.
- Ellen Ann Fentress, essayist and journalist, Mississippi
"One cannot understand the American South without reading 'Black Boy.'"
- Connie May Fowler, novelist, Florida native
3. "The Mind of the South" by W.J. Cash
"Presentist critics are quick to point out its racism and sexism, but Cash's book captured the Southern white mentality and its origins brilliantly."
- James C. Cobb, professor, University of Georgia
"Thanks, Wilbur, for attempting to untangle us and for presenting us as worthy of consideration."
- Melissa Delbridge, essayist, Duke University
4. "One Writer's Beginnings" by Eudora Welty
"A brief book that glows. In retracing her dawning literary consciousness, Eudora Welty manages to settle once and for all (in an aside) the reason why we should even read literature in the first place.
"Her artistic interest in capturing life (as a documentary photographer and as a fiction writer) led her to the awareness that 'there's so much more of life that only words can convey.' A confounding thought for those who resort to the slippery excuse that there are some things that words just cannot describe."
- Carol Ann Fitzgerald, managing editor, Oxford American
5. "The Civil War: A Narrative" by Shelby Foote
"With narrative techniques closer to the novel, Foote writes a compelling story of the leaders and battles of the war that forged the country as it has come to be."
- Thomas Bonner, professor emeritus, Xavier University, Louisiana
"It started off as a minor project for Foote and became the work and monument of a lifetime. Its three volumes disproved Walt Whitman's prophecy that 'the real war will never get in the books.'"
- John Grammer, English professor, University of the South
1. "Absalom, Absalom!" by William Faulkner
"A profound exploration of race and all its attendant complexities. Faulkner's rendering of the Southern 'class' struggle through the life of one figure, Thomas Sutpen, makes 'Absalom, Absalom!' the only serious rival to Melville's 'Moby-Dick' as the great American novel."
- Richard King, professor emeritus, University of Nottingham
2. "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren
"Robert Penn Warren's book is an unqualified masterpiece. It is all encompassing and eclipses everything else on the list. One could make a reasonable case for its being the greatest American novel ever written. Seemingly nothing escapes its scope or ambition."
- Ben George, editor, professor, UNC-Wilmington
"'All the King's Men' is a terribly ambitious and sometimes maddening novel, five or six novels crammed into one. It is cumbersome, perhaps, but it is a generative novel, a novel that is so innovative it changed the novels that followed, or made them possible. Descendants of 'All the King's Men' are various - from popular political novels to, oddly, road novels like Kerouac's (there is a whole Beat sequence in Warren's book - a trip to California). And, in the weary voice of Jack Burden, we hear the slow, cosmic disappointment of Binx Bolling, who came after."
- Moira Crone, author, teacher, Louisiana State
3. "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner
"This stylized and ultra-literary concoction still manages to engage us. We work our way through 400 pages of convoluted, sometimes impenetrable prose - and the members of the Compson family appear before us in all their appalling egoism, fear, greed, innocence and hubris. Reading, you almost forget that this is fiction - the characters are so fully realized. As the final dissolution of the family comes to pass, you want to avert your eyes but you keep turning the pages - in fear and trembling. An unbearable tragedy, yet simultaneously a joy - as we recognize that the 30-year-old, small-town author has gone the limit, investing his mind, soul, passion, psyche, everything, in the novel's creation."
- William Caverlee, contributing writer, Oxford American
4. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain
"If you can discern anything about the greatness of a book by how often someone has either banned it or tried to have it banned, 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' surely must be the greatest Southern novel of all time. Critics can say what they want about the book's ending, but I challenge anyone to come up with an American writer who was braver, funnier and more eerily perceptive than Mark Twain."
- Bronwen Dickey, author, South Carolina native now living in North Carolina
"Huck, the battered child, and Jim, the runaway slave, are capable of feeling painful sympathy, for each other and for others. Others aren't so burdened. Huck wishes he weren't. Others, including the King, the Duke of Bilgewater, Tom Sawyer, a justly popular undertaker and the River itself, can put on a show. It's the funniest great book there is."
- Roy Blount Jr., author
5. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
"This is kind of like voting for Albert Pujols as best hitter - really predictable. But who doesn't love this novel for its descriptions, its drama and humor, its characters that are now ingrained in the American psyche, and its explorations not only of race in the South but also of femininity and class? Even the questions that hover around the book (Why did Harper Lee not write another? Just what was Truman Capote's role?) have become part of its lure."
- Hope Coulter, creative writing teacher, Hendrix College, Arkansas
"Even though it simplifies race relations in the South, and even though Atticus really could have done more to save an innocent man's life, almost every American remembers reading this book as a watershed moment."
- Michael Kreyling, professor, Vanderbilt University
6. "The Moviegoer" by Walker Percy
"In Percy's classic tale of love and longing in New Orleans, Binx Bolling woos his secretary, falls for his cousin and muses lyrically on the nature of the search. This book has kept me company in China, Slovenia, Argentina. When I'm going to be away from home for any extended period of time, 'The Moviegoer' is as essential a part of my travel kit as my toothbrush. I can open it to any page and instantly feel calmed. 'To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.'"
- Michelle Richmond, author, Alabama native
"If a better book than 'The Moviegoer' has been written, I'll cut off my little toe."
- Ada Liana Bidiuc, recent college graduate
7. "As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner
"I once heard a poet say she never reads novels. When asked why, she said, 'Because I always get about 20 pages in, and then I realize, hmm, this isn't 'As I Lay Dying.' In comparison, everything else is a bit of a disappointment."
- Keith Lee Morris, author, creative writing professor, Clemson
8. "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison
"Write a novel this good and this significant that doesn't die in the pursuit of significance but, instead, comes alive. Go on. We'll wait."
- Wyatt Mason, contributing editor, Harper's
9. "Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Connor
"Flannery O'Connor's seriously dark comedy 'Wise Blood' is among the finest American novels squarely about religion - awash with street preachers, yearning rustics, fake and genuine self-inflicted blindness, roaming pigs, a stolen mummy pressed into service as a faux Holy Child, descriptions of an allegorical sky no one ever seems to see, a soul-consuming gorilla costume, and a battered black Essex automobile as pregnant with meaning as the Pequod in 'Moby-Dick.' It is also a brilliant critique of what O'Connor called the 'American tendency to address a problem by changing its appearance.'"
- Mark Winegardner, author, professor Florida State
"Didn't she turn over a rock with this one? And she didn't flinch one bit. Renders the surreal believable."
- Melissa Delbridge, author, Duke University
10. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston
"Janie springs to life from the pages of 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,' and her half-understood yearning, her wordless understanding, grabs our hearts. Zora Neale Hurston, through her Janie - who, pondering under a pear tree, begins to understand what it means to try to live a fulfilled life - speaks for some of us in words, desires and thoughts that we did not know could be articulated. She not only lives our experience, she makes it sing."
- Jesmyn Ward, author, professor, University of New Orleans