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by William H. Benson

October 4, 2007

     The citizens of Nashville, Tennessee will celebrate the Southern Festival of Books next weekend. It is an event celebrated the second week of October each year, and its purpose is to promote reading and writing, as well as a broader understanding of the language and culture of the Southern states.

     Two of the best writers America has produced were from the South: Samuel Clemens also known as Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken. Actually, they were from Southern slave states that did not join the Confederacy at the time of secession: Twain was born and raised in Missouri, and Mencken hailed from Baltimore, Maryland. Few writers since have demonstrated greater skill with the English language than did Twain and Mencken.

     Twain knew the South. He knew her people, their language, and the details of their lives. He knew the river! It was “the great Mississippi, the great majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun.” From the river Clemens took his name. Rivermen would call out “mark twain” when sounding two fathoms.

     On the steamboats Clemens piloted, he met up with all types of characters: the gamblers, the fast talkers, the dull-witted, the destitute, the innocent dupes, and the downtrodden. When he set about to write his stories, Twain drew heavily from his days on the Mississippi. He created Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the slave Jim who all lived in St. Petersburg, Missouri. Jim, with the help of young Huckleberry, escaped his owner by boarding a raft, and the two slid down the mighty Mississippi.

     But Twain knew the ugly side of life in a small Southern town. Through Huckleberry Finn’s voice, Twain described the degradation of the poor slaves and of the desperate white sharecroppers. Huck Finn told how Colonel Sherburn in public shot and killed a town drunk named Old Boggs. The Colonel was never arrested, for he knew that no jury would ever convict him. With clarity, Mark Twain painted a devastating landscape of a Southern village, complete with murder, drunkenness, human ownership of other humans, mob rule, and utter hopelessness.

     It makes for great literature, but it must have been a terrible life for most. It is no wonder that Samuel Clemens as an adult chose to live in the north—in Connecticut and in New York City, and also in Europe.

     In the spring of 1882, two decades after Sam had left the Mississippi, he returned to St. Louis, and aboard a steamboat, he sailed up and down the river. He was stunned at how backwards the South was relative to the North. He thought it was because the Southern people were still gripping their feudal past. The economy of the former Confederacy was blighted, and the people were lost in sentimentality and romanticism.

     “Everybody bragged, everybody blustered,” he said, and “all over the land, two things could count upon reverence and championship—religion and slavery.”

     Fifty years later conditions had not changed much. H. L. Mencken echoed similar sentiments in his highly critical essay, The Sahara of the Bozart. “And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the ‘progress’ it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. There are single acres in Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac.”

     “Alas, for the South!” Mencken wrote. “Her books have grown fewer. She never was much given to literature.”

     The situation in the South has greatly improved since the days of Twain and Mencken. The former Confederate States now are economic powerhouses. Her cities—Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Worth, Little Rock, and Charlotte—are world class. Except for Reagan, all of our Presidents since 1980 were from the South: Carter was from Georgia, both Bush’s claim Texas, and Clinton was from Arkansas. Truly, the South’s economic and political transformation is our nation’s miracle, a rags-to-riches story.    


     And slowly, Southern writers, such as William Faulkner of Mississippi, have created a respectable Southern literature. And then there are the modern popular writers: John Grisham of Mississippi and Patrick Conroy of South Carolina. The South’s books have grown, not fewer, but larger.