Georgia can boast of a number of writers—poets, novelists, essayists—whose work has influenced other writers, gained a national and international following, and even played a role in historical events. These twelve works of fiction published about Georgia are important because they have been widely read and discussed, they have helped form their readers' perceptions of the state, and in many cases they hold an important place in the American literary tradition.
Each work presents a particular view, not always a positive one, of the state and its history. More than any objective body of figures or facts, these books exemplify how the state came to life for the authors who wrote them, and who in turn brought the state to life for the rest of the nation and the world.
The works are listed in chronological order:
Georgia Scenes (1835). Many regard Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's collection of sketches and stories of frontier Georgia as the first true expression of indigenous American humor. Unlike other early humorists, Longstreet drew not from European sources but from American frontier life: he described fights between town bullies, dishonest horse trading, and young men competing to pull the head off a goose. Georgia Scenes was the first in a rich succession of books and writers of southern humor, culminating at the end of the nineteenth century in the novels of Mark Twain, whose wry wit and rollicking characters owe a direct debt to Longstreet. William Faulkner borrowed from Longstreet's story "The Horse Swap" for his novel The Hamlet, and other modern writers, from Erskine Caldwell and Flannery O'Connor to Harry Crews and Lewis Grizzard, work in the landscape Longstreet opened up in this modest book, which later in his life he tried to repudiate in embarrassment over its loose and raucous humor.
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880). Between 1880 and 1905 Joel Chandler Harris published seven collections of African American folk tales that made him internationally famous. Many modern readers have condemned these tales as a white writer's appropriations of African American folklore or as sentimental stories about slaves who loved their masters. A 1946 Walt Disney film based on these tales, The Song of the South, contributed to these views. Many of the Uncle Remus tales, however, present allegories of the slaves' efforts to outwit their masters, to survive in a hostile world. They are comic, witty commentaries on the importance of struggle and endurance. Had Harris not written them down, they might have been lost. Harris was a prodigious writer whose work was varied and often distinguished. But it is Brer Rabbit and the other characters of these tales for which he is remembered, and that represent his lasting achievement.
Cane (1923). Jean Toomer's recognition that Georgia black folk culture would soon irretrievably change helped motivate the writing of his novel. In an autobiography he explained, "The folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was so beautiful. Its death was so tragic. Just this seemed to sum life for me. And this was the feeling I put into Cane. Cane was a swan-song." Toomer spent only three months in Georgia, serving as temporary principal of an industrial and agricultural school for blacks in Sparta, but from that brief stay came his most memorable work. Cane combines short sketches and stories, poetry, and drama into a highly innovative and even experimental novel. Widely acclaimed when it was published, Cane is one of the most important works of the Harlem Renaissance.
Tobacco Road (1932). No novelist has written a longer or better scene about an argument over a bag of turnips. Along with God's Little Acre, published a year later, Erskine Caldwell's novel earned acclaim and notoriety with its graphic and sometimes comic portrayal of poor white farmers in eastern Georgia. Caldwell's sympathy for the plight of these farmers is counterbalanced by his willingness to exploit stereotypes, and by his overemphasis on sex and comic behavior suggesting the ignorance of the Lester family. Unlike John Steinbeck's nobly suffering Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, there is little nobility in the Lesters. They are the naturalistic victims of economic and historical forces beyond their understanding, and of their own depraved natures. Caldwell's reputation flagged as William Faulkner's rose, but in its treatment of poor white farmers Tobacco Road has much in common with Faulkner's own fiction. It is a compelling and underrated book and an important work of modern realism.
Gone With the Wind (1936). Ancient Greece had the Iliad, Rome the Aeneid, India the Upanishads. Georgia has Gone With the Wind. An epic is a defining document, a literary work that celebrates the highest virtues of the civilization it enshrines. Many felt Margaret Mitchell's 1,000-plus-page novel did just this when it was published in 1936. The ensuing Pulitzer Prize for Mitchell, and the famous 1939 movie, with Clark Gable's swaggering mustache and Vivian Leigh's saucy green eyes, inscribed Mitchell's novel in the southern literary "City of the Soul," along with the fallen Old South, Robert E. Lee, and pecan pie. No matter that once Atlanta falls the book slows significantly. No matter that it tells the story only of some southerners, not the poor whites and certainly not the African Americans who exist mainly to make us laugh and remind us of their owners' nobility. There are undeniably powerful passages in this novel, especially dealing with the fall of Atlanta and Scarlett O'Hara's return to Tara. Scarlett herself is bigger than the novel. Whether she is a paragon of flirtatious southern womanhood or a symbol of an aggressive and ambitious New South, when one finishes reading this novel, she is what one remembers.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). Carson McCullers fused the Southern Gothicism of William Faulkner, the small-town lyricism of Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson, and what would become Flannery O'Connor's fascination with the grotesque into her own poignant, unsettling vision of the modern South. In her first novel McCullers explores the desire of four citizens in a small Georgia town for companionship and meaning. Their friendship with a deaf-mute is McCullers's symbol for loneliness in the modern world. A New York Times reviewer observed that McCullers wrote "with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a first novel. One anticipates the second with something like fear. So high is the standard she has set. It doesn't seem possible that she can reach it again."
Strange Fruit (1944). Lillian Smith's novel, set in a small south Georgia town in the 1920s, is arguably the most controversial book ever written by a Georgian. Published in 1944, Strange Fruit was banned in Boston for its candid treatment of sexuality and lambasted in the South both for its portrayal of interracial love and for its graphic description of a lynching that implicates much of the white community, either directly or indirectly. Smith was one of the first American white writers to look at the problems of race with an unblinking eye. Strange Fruit, along with her impassioned invective Killers of the Dream (1949), did much to awaken readers to the problems of racism and inhumanity. What the book may lack in subtlety or nuance it compensates for with fierce moral vision. Smith herself commented, "I thought of my book as a fable about a son in search of a mother, about a race in search of surcease from pain and guilt—both finding what they sought in death and destruction."
A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). Few works of fiction have had the impact or literary success of this story collection. Flannery O'Connor is recognized the world over as a master of the short story and of the Southern Gothic form, a label that hardly does her justice. A Catholic writer in a largely Protestant South, she made the fallen nature of the modern world and the possibility of redemption her central subjects. Her stories are at the same time comic and gruesome, and she rarely shows mercy for her characters. In the title story a family on vacation is murdered by a fugitive outlaw. In other stories a small boy drowns, a Confederate veteran dies at a high school graduation, an amputee with a Ph.D. is seduced by a Bible salesman, a woman farmer is terrorized by three boys from the city, and a traveling salesman marries and abandons a mentally deficient girl in order to get her mother's car. O'Connor's stories are notable for their ironic titles (drawn from popular sayings, advertisements, and newspaper columns), their precision of style, their finely drawn characters, and their unrelenting judgment of the world.
Jubilee (1966). Margaret Walker was born in Alabama and lived most of her life in Mississippi, where she taught English at Jackson State University. Her novel Jubilee, about the life of a Georgia slave girl before, during, and after the Civil War, is based on stories Walker was told as a young girl about her own great-grandmother, Elvira Dozier Ware. Walker began writing Jubilee when she was nineteen and finished it thirty years later—it was literally her life's work. Regarded as an African American response to Gone With the Wind, praised by some for its historical accuracy, criticized by others for perpetuating myths about the Old South, it is one of the most popular African American novels of the twentieth century. It was translated into seven languages and has never gone out of print.
Deliverance (1970). The publication of this novel loosely coincided with the brief emergence of the American South as a focus of pop culture in the 1970s. Deliverance, and the movie it inspired, elevated its author, James Dickey, to near-cult status. The novel's many qualities were obscured by the uproar surrounding the film, and by criticism that it unfairly maligned north Georgia highlanders. Southern history and the modern South collide in Deliverance, which chronicles what happens to four businessmen from the big city (modeled on Atlanta) who travel to the north Georgia mountains for a weekend of canoeing. The setting is a river soon to be erased by waters rising behind a hydroelectric dam built to power the city from which the men come. Dickey's novel questions the meaning of progress, which is wiping out southern geography and traditional southern ways. At the same time it illuminates a theme Dickey explored throughout his career: only through confrontation with danger and the threat of annihilation can the modern individual find meaning in life. Deliverance is a vivid, disturbing, and powerful novel by a leading writer of the modern South.
The Color Purple (1982). Few novels begin with a more singular voice: in her opening letters to God, Celie speaks for the voiceless and dispossessed, and in the course of the novel develops her own voice and identity. Although Alice Walker, who was already a well-known writer, had published novels, poetry, stories, and influential essays, The Color Purple earned her the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and international acclaim. A successful 1985 film was based on the novel. The Color Purple 's achievement lies in its characters, in Celie's voice, and in her letters. Celie is a victim of rape, incest, and mistreatment by both black and white men, and of her own physical appearance. Her friendship with another woman, Shug, and her search for her heritage and a long-lost sister make this an uplifting work that at the same time reveals clearly the sexual and racial oppression generations of black Georgians have suffered.
A Man in Full (1998). Tom Wolfe is not a Georgian, and he hasn't spent much time in Georgia either, judging from some of the snafus in
his comic novel about Atlanta. With characters eerily similar to well-known Atlanta politicians and media moguls, Wolfe describes
a city so full of itself in the heyday of the 1990s boom that it teeters on the verge of collapse. His portrait of unbridled
boosterism, of the city's power structure, of racial tensions lurking just below the surface, is hilarious and on the mark.
A Man in Full loses steam toward the end, but Wolfe's choice of Atlanta as the subject of his best-selling second novel (published eleven
years after The Bonfire of the Vanities) signifies the prominence the city has attained in the minds of the nation's writers.
Hugh Ruppersburg, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.