A Migration of Great Minds

Scattered from the Mississippi River to the Carolina coast, the homes of Southern literary icons mark a trail of modest one-room shotgun shacks and antebellum Greek revival mansions. You can tour William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak in Oxford or Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, and motivated tourists, whether avid readers or frustrated writers, can find encouragement in visiting these inspirational origins. However, equally fascinating is the collection of famous, perhaps infamous, Dixie-born writers who fled their traditional homeland. This is especially true of Southern male authors, and the dissemination of this niche group is many times discounted or ignored entirely.  

Guessing the boyhood neighbor of Truman Capote is a bookish barroom bet. Identifying the hometowns of Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe ups the ante, and a round of fine Kentucky bourbon can be earned challenging tipsy MFA nerds to name where Hunter S. Thompson was born. Understanding these notorious characters, the New Journalists, reasons for leaving home doesn’t require overwhelming insight. If New York City couldn’t accommodate James Baldwin’s works on race and sexuality, it’s easy to explain why Capote never hosted a Black and White masquerade ball in 1966 Birmingham. The more intriguing issues center on what remnants of home the exiled collective carried with them and how they transformed the South despite their expatriate status.  

On the sleepy town square in Moreland, Georgia, not far from the offices of Southern Fried Karma, sits the plain clapboard birthplace of author Erskine Caldwell. The son of a progressive Presbyterian minister, Caldwell earned his notoriety for the novels God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road, which were part of standard high school reading curriculum until educational administrators read the books. The itinerate nature of Ira Caldwell’s preaching career sent Erskine and his family all over the South, and his father’s inclination for preaching sermons denouncing the institutional injustices of bigotry and income inequality garnered him a reputation as a social reformer and left a searing impact on his son. At the same time, the roving path of his early life allowed Caldwell to grasp the innate fabric of Southern communities: a quilt of farmers, shopkeepers, and professionals converged around the church. His father’s powerful influence and his keen awareness of rural life appeared as constant themes in most of Caldwell’s work, and like countless others of his generation, war and women accelerated his nomadic tendency.  

Beyond geography, Caldwell’s four marriages displayed his break from tradition. His union with the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White was the most prolific of these matches, and for ten years, they documented events around the globe. Their relationship began with their collaboration on You Have Seen Their Faces, a documentation of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, and ended as foreign correspondents in Russia during World War II. Chronicling the cataclysmic repercussions of both these catastrophes must have created a significant impression on Caldwell and caused him to further suspect the substance of his native culture. Like all of us, he benefited from questioning the rules the establishment espoused, and displaced Southern authors transformed the world they left behind by allowing their life’s work to exhibit a brash willingness to challenge authority.

From pre-kindergarten daycare to high school assemblies, our existences and choices are shaped by authority figures and cultural peer pressure. Below the Mason-Dixon line, this childhood assimilation begins with vacation bible school and ends with cotillion, awkward pubescent dances, and etiquette lessons. Beyond how to use your napkin, these potent indoctrinations engrain in all of us a code of thoughts and actions that may, in fact, be total nonsense. They have no relevance to our authentic purpose and breed a limiting ethnocentric view. Writers like Caldwell blaze the means for Southern white males to call BULLSHIT! The New Journalism of Capote, Wolfe, and Thompson empowers others to use all the crayons in the coloring box, start their own blogs, or dance in their first recitals. By altering our perspective, we get an inkling of the cyclical patterns that connect us—unite us all—not merely the random chaos that only appears to keep us separate. Once we glimpse the world beyond the edge of the furthest turnip patch, we realize that our people are more than our family, neighbors, and friends.

After the end of World War II, preceded by his divorce from Bourke-White and the death of his father, Caldwell was both the beneficiary and the victim of the post-war boom in book publishing. God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road were rereleased amidst the widespread surge of mass market paperback and sold well, earning Caldwell a steady annual income. The only drawback is that both titles were published with tawdry oversexualized covers, illustrations of backwoods hillbilly lust, discrediting Caldwell’s work among literary scholars, but it didn’t negate the morphic resonance that trailed his life. It’s hard to say how or where we experience the past. (Where was that memory of reading In Cold Blood when we were sixteen reside before we recalled it?) People that dwell in the good old days are often angry and frustrated with today, but as we pass from one day into the next, our first apartment to our first home, or the street where we were born and raised to the neighborhoods and cities we finally settle in, we leave behind an echo. Writers like Caldwell and the New Journalists imparted all of humanity wave after wave of messages that resound many times over and far beyond their simple Southern origins.

 

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