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What is Southern Gothic Literature?

Roark Wilson, Katie Surber
  • Author
    Roark Wilson

    Roark Wilson is an aspiring young teacher with a Bachelor of Arts from Sewanee: The University of the South and a Master of Studies in eighteenth-century literature from the University of Oxford. He has acted as an informal tutor for two years and a saber fencing coach for seven.

  • Instructor
    Katie Surber

    Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

Learn the definition of Southern Gothic literature, get to know Southern Gothic authors, and explore the grotesque characteristics of the Southern Gothic style. Updated: 11/01/2021

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What is Southern Gothic Literature?

Southern Gothic refers to a style of literature developed and popularized in the American South by authors such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O'Connor. While Southern Gothic bears many similarities to the European Gothic genre that arose some centuries earlier, it's distinct and characteristic American South setting allows it to comment perspicaciously on social issues within that region.

History of Southern Gothic

The Southern Gothic genre takes its name and inspiration from Gothic literature. The first Gothic novel is widely considered to be Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. The supernatural and barbaric take center stage in Gothic literature, with the language often attempting to invoke a sense of paranoia and panic. The classic Gothic theme is a repressed and forgotten past that seeps into the cracks of daily life, showcased through a series of rotting and collapsing castles and the things that may lie within.

Charles Brockden Brown catalyzed the creation of the American Gothic with his 1798 novel Wieland, which is often considered the first in the genre. While the genre lurked throughout the American literary scene, it did not take complete form until those themes of a repressed past met with the aftermath of the Civil War. After the war, the South took a severe economic blow, with many wealthy families being unseated and many poor farmers losing limbs, livelihoods, and families. Edgar Allan Poe crafted the first thematic model of the Southern Gothic with his The Fall of the House of Usher, which examined a decaying family replete with mental anxieties and shocking taboos inside a decaying mansion.

While American Gothic slowly gained academic credibility during the twentieth century, the initial outlook on the genre (like its forebear Gothic genre) was quite negative. Critics viewed the genre as intentionally shocking and outlandish in a way that damaged the work's credibility. The American Gothic's focus on the monstrous and degenerate was considered distasteful and a marker of attention-grabbing pulp fiction. The term "Southern Gothic" was first used by writer Ellen Glasgow to refer to what she viewed as "a new and disturbing trend in Southern fiction." However, as Poe's reputation slowly grew in academic circles, so too did the genre his works spawned.

While authors and poets such as Poe established the initial patterns and genre themes of the Southern Gothic, William Faulkner was the first Southern Gothic author. Faulkner shifted focus from failing wealth to the struggling countryside filled with the poorest members of society that the war made all the poorer. Faulkner contends with the tensions created by the war directly, speaking of race and class strife among a failing aristocracy and the poor blacks and whites. The uncanny nature in which these tensions take shape fit Faulkner's modernist authorial style perfectly, in which he explores unconventional and experimental narratives.

The Southern Gothic reached the height of its popularity in 1940-1960 with authors such as Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Flannery O'Connor. The latter's works are some of the most popular in the genre. Flannery O'Connor's Catholic inclinations reinforce the supernatural and mystical elements associated with early European Gothicism. Still, she accompanies mental defect and social tension with the physically grotesque (a trait closely tied to the modern definition of the Southern Gothic). O'Connor's legacy of the mystically grotesque carries onwards towards contemporary Southern Gothic authors such as Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy.

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American Gothic, by Grant Wood.

The two haunting, gaunt figures present a fitting thematic map of the gothic.

Characteristics of the Southern Gothic Style

The Southern Gothic bears many similar characteristics to the original Gothic style inspired by Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. The European Gothic is marked by a sense of lingering unease that, as David Punter puts it, manifests in paranoia on the part of both characters and readers. David Punter also marks the genre's fixation on taboo subjects. While the Southern Gothic deals with the same themes, it often gives them a darkly satiric twist.

Grotesque in Southern Gothic Literature

The most distinguishing aspect of Southern Gothic literature is its focus on the grotesque. The old Gothic genre contains supernatural and haunting elements: the Southern Gothic took these surreal elements and made them painfully real. Characters have deformities, old manors collapse on themselves, resources rot away, individuals are cruelly mistreated, etc. The "grotesque" refers to an unexpected shift in what would be considered normal, rendering an individual or object uncanny. This schism between expectation and brutal actuality can evoke unease, distaste, or even sadness and compassion.

Setting in Southern Gothic

While the most common Southern Gothic stories are set in the American South, this is not always the case. The archetypal Southern Gothic stories, such as those written by William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor, occur in states like Tennessee or Mississippi (the former's works are situated within a fictional Yoknapatawpha County within Mississippi). While these are by no means omnipresent within Southern Gothic works, the following two elements are setting staples:

  • The old, decaying manor. Post-American Civil War, many of the previously wealthy families collapsed due to military investment, the abolition of slavery, wartime deaths, and many other influences. The decaying manor serves the same purpose as the crumbling castles in European Gothic stories.
  • A focus on less-populated areas. Southern Gothic stories generally focus on rural or small-town settlements, even if they once had wealthy populations.

Characters in Southern Gothic literature

Southern Gothic characters are marked by strife, which manifests in physical or social conflict, such as characters fighting against class tensions or the expectations of their former societal positions. However, Southern Gothic characters often possess psychological aberrations or engage in taboo subjects. As an example of this, one can think of the hallucination and necrophilia of Edgar Allan Poe's works or the slight necrophilia and occasional bestiality within Faulkner's works (or, indeed, his famous mentally impaired narrator in The Sound and the Fury.) All of these elements veer into the grotesque, and Flannery O'Connor takes this a step further with a physical disability, such as the soon-to-be-stolen prosthesis of the perspective character in Good Country People.

One of the elements somewhat unique to the Southern Gothic is its focus on the poorest members of society. With the exception of a movement towards rural poetry in 18th-century England, literature focusing on the most unfortunate members of society was markedly unpopular. Many of Faulkner's characters represent the poorest black and white individuals of the South, and future authors in the genre such as Flannery O'Connor mirrored this consideration.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the defining characteristics of Southern Gothic literature?

Southern Gothic literature often focuses on mentally ill characters engaging with or confronting social taboos. Southern Gothic works frequently focus on the grotesque, meaning that they intentionally focus on objects, people, or situations that are uncomfortable, abnormal, and sometimes even monstrous.

What are some examples of Southern Gothic literature?

William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor are the two clear examples of Southern Gothic authors. The former's "As I Lay Dying" and "Absalom, Absalom" are classic Southern Gothic novels. As far as Flannery O'Connor is concerned, one might look at her short stories "A Good Man is Hard to Find" or "Good Country People."

What is Southern Gothic in literature?

Southern Gothic is a genre of literature that blends traditional Gothic tropes with an American South setting. It generally comments or highlights the inherent tensions caused by the American Civil War, including class struggles and racial issues.

Who created Southern Gothic literature?

While no one individual can claim credit for the creation of the genre, William Faulkner was one of the greatest influences. His works emphasized the "Southern" of the genre and focused greatly on the social issues that would later typify the genre. His unflinching look at abject poverty and racial tensions were proliferated into later works by other authors.

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