Monday, August 31, 2009

The Oxford American, the Southern Magazine of Good Writing surveyed 134 Southern writers to ask them to name the best Southern novels.

I'm not sure what parameters were used to define Southern writers, or Southern novels, but there's no call for nit-picking.

Here are the top ten titles mentioned.

1: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)
2: All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
3: The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)

4: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)

5: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

6: The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy (1961)

7: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner (1930)

8: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

9: Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor (1952)

10: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
It's interesting that the newest novel on the list is nearly 50 years oldI suspect there would be a similar result for the best American novels at-large. That is to say, it will be 50 years before some of the best novels of today are recognized as having multi-generational staying power. Or maybe not. Other than the Twain novel, all of these were written in a 31-year span. Was it a golden era that won't cycle around again for another century or more?

Five of the ten were written before the Second World War, when Civil War veterans still roamed the Earth.
Several of these were fairly predictable, though I was surprised to see Wise Blood ranked so high. Long fiction was not considered O'Connor's strong suit, and I always thought of Wise Blood as an interesting (difficult) but not monumental work. I love O'Connor, and feel moved to revisit that work. As I prepare to close out my forties, it's pretty clear to me that everything I read in my teens and twenties could be re-read now as if for the first time.

I see Drew's favorite Walker Percy novel comes in at number six. I have this on my bookshelf, and have started it twice. Will have to give it another go. I confess I knew nothing about number ten, and had to look it up after reading this list. Apparently Oprah even produced a TV movie adaptation, starring Halle Berry. I never heard of that either.

How many of these have you read?


Drew@CWBA said...

I really preferred "The Last Gentleman" to "The Moviegoer", although not by a wide margin. I think I finished three of WP's novels, so I only have half to judge from.

Too bad there is no Cormac McCarthy on that list, but you are right in that it shows the typical discounting of more recent classics that we find in nearly all book and movie 'all-time best' compilations.

I have never heard of author or title of #10.

Chris Evans said...

I remember the movie version of #10 though I had never really heard of the book before.

'The Moviegoer' has a favorite line of mine even though it is just a passing one, "...What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in 'Stagecoach'." What a wonderful line, it is used in one of the best biographies of a actor that I have ever read 'John Wayne: American' by Randy Roberts and James Olson.

I hope one day the great novels of Howard Bahr will be considered on a top ten list of novels from the South. Especially his Civil War novels, 'The Black Flower, 'Year of Jubilo', and 'The Judas Field'. I think those works are of a very high caliber and are classics and should be considered as serious contenders eventually. They are some of the best modern fictional writing on the Civil War or anything else ,for that matter, that I have ever read.

dw said...

Drew -- Oh yes, I forgot about "The Last Gentleman." I'd wager you've read approximately three more WP novels than most people.

Cormac McCarthy is notably absent -- I thought about that as well. I think something of his will endure long enough for future lists like this.

Chris -- thanks for the comments. I haven't ready any of Bahr's books, though someone gave me "The Black Flower." You've piqued my interest on that score.

Who knows what future lists might hold. Toni Morrison's "Beloved"? Maybe something by up-and-comers like Skip Horack. I really love the work of T. R. Pearson ("A Short History of a Small Place"), but I can never find anyone else who's read one of his books.

Robert said...

I can honestly say I've never read any of them.

I'm just wondering where A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is?