Since its inception in 1987, the Fellowship of Southern Writers has carefully avoided identifying itself with any university, group or style of writing–so carefully, in fact, that its biennial meetings coincide with Chattanooga’s Conference on Southern Literature, a civic rather than academic venture. Knowing the care with which the group has sought neutrality, it’s tempting to seek evidence to the contrary in the pages of its short story collection, The Cry of an Occasion. But despite a table of contents listing the usual suspects, and contributors’ notes revealing the predictable academic pedigrees, these short stories and novel excerpts show that Southern fiction remains varied and hard to define (even though someone tries to define it every three seconds).
Together the fellows pose for the camera at every biennial meeting, and their archive room in the University of Tennessee Library displays a commissioned photograph of each individual face. Such methodical preservation isn’t surprising for a group of Southern writers, people frequently labeled “past-obsessed.” And that obsession, if it is one, remains in evidence in this collection. But identifying the presence of the past as a prevailing theme may seem dangerously close to another definition. As with all the others, it would be too convenient, a way of overlooking or omitting what doesn’t fit. And yet the presence of the past persists more than the other often-repeated traits of Southern writing: ties to place and community, devotion to religion, attachment to rural life, a sense of defeat (often seen as a legacy of the Civil War), and in some instances, feelings of racial guilt.
When George W. Bush said: “I think we all agree that the past is behind us,” some laughed at his literalness. Others who agree with Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens–that the past is never dead, “It’s not even past”–laughed at Bush’s inaccuracy. The writers here represent both reactions.
Through memory, William Henry Lewis’ story, “Germinating,” describes how a forthright great-aunt becomes a catalyst for a boy on an afternoon he will revisit over and over again in his adult mind. Such memories as his are often triggered unexpectedly, as in the case of Ellen Douglas’ “About Loving Women,” in which a schoolyard fight over a girl becomes linked in a boy’s mind with the memory of his first love. Similarly, a photograph of a primitive grave marker (in Lewis Nordan’s “Tombstone”) and death (in Lee Smith’s “Between the Lines”) prompt memories of the past.
The memory triggered in Louis Rubin’s “A Man at the Beach” is of a boy so taken with a charismatic stranger he meets that the boy refuses to believe the man is a liar. Rubin’s boy is almost a reversal of the one in George Garrett’s “Feeling Good, Feeling Fine,” who sees his diminished uncle for what he no longer is. Only much later will the boy revise that chapter of his past:
When this boy is a grandfather, for reasons he won’t understand then any more than he does now, he will tell his grandchildren, and anyone else who will bother to listen to him, all about his Uncle Jack who was briefly, briefly–but is not all beauty and great achievement as brief as the glare of a struck match?–a wonderful athlete, a baseball player much admired and envied by his peers, someone who, except for a piece or two of bad luck, would have been named and honored among the very best of them. Someone to be proud of. Someone who once tried to teach him how to play the game.
The story here that’s set farthest in the past is also the oldest. Shelby Foote’s “The Sacred Mound,” written as a translation of a 1796 Spanish legal document, appeared as the last story in Foote’s 1954 Jordan County collection. As a series of stories tunneling one by one from the mid-20th century to the 1800s, Jordan County’s movement toward the past is a metaphor for all of us who revisit the past, redefining it and ourselves based on our changing perceptions of what-happened-before. Through such encounters with memory, we sometimes discover that even the recent past has become (in the words of L.P. Hartley) “a foreign country,” as in Jill McCorkle’s “Life Pre-Recorded,” where a child playing dress-up takes a drag on her play cigarette and says she’s pretending “it’s long, long ago. Back when cigarettes were good for you.” For that little girl, the past of Allen Wier’s Tehano may seem ancient, perhaps even prehistoric. In the first of two excerpts from Wier’s novel, Grandfather Samuel, the last slave left on the Noble Plantation who’d been born in Africa, is revered for his stories of enslavement and capture, terrifying but invigorating for their reminder of a life before. In the novel’s second excerpt, another slave, Knobby Cotton, determined that slavery will be part of a past left behind, runs away to seek his freedom.
In a past not that far in the future from Knobby’s escape, a real-life Union soldier lies dying in Washington’s Armory Square Hospital, where he is attended by Walt Whitman. The poet’s actual letter to the soldier’s mother serves as the first section of Allan Gurganus’ two-part story, “Reassurance.” Like Gurganus’ story, Barry Hannah’s “Death and Joy,” looks to a writer of the past. But unlike Gurganus, Hannah draws not on the writing but on the writer, himself, describing the character Willifox as “the later Tennessee Williams but a bit more bloated, a little balder, assless in green rayon pants, totally obscure.” That casual reference to the playwright seems a far cry from the killing of the peacock Bayard–an anxiety-of-influence moment, if there ever was one–back in Hannah’s first novel, Geronimo Rex. O’Connor’s peacocks and Faulkner’s Bayard Sartoris aren’t on the heels of any of the other writers, either. The ones haunted are the characters, themselves–most prominently in Doris Betts’ “Three Ghosts”–because the anxiety is theirs, not the writers’, whose influences aren’t necessarily Southern. “Tombstone” is as close to Raymond Carver country as any dirt below the Mason-Dixon line. And the Richmond of Michael Knight’s “For Alice to the Fourth Floor,” isn’t recognizable as the former capital of the Confederacy.
Editor Richard Bausch, also a member of the Fellowship, may have arranged the stories alphabetically (by authors’ last names) for the sake of the group’s much-sought-after neutrality. Unfortunately, the alphabetical order results in only 24 pages separating two stories with references to lobotomies. Some tag-happy readers might label that a motif–or worse, evidence of a Lobotomy-Laden School of Southern Fiction. But such labels are occupational hazards that haven’t fazed these writers, who’ve given us some of our finest contemporary fiction. Readers will be glad to know that The Cry of an Occasion is the first in the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ three-book series, with volumes of poetry and nonfiction slated to follow.