08/20/2014 07:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 Journeys Through The South

In the fall of 1942, Vladimir Nabokov, unsuccessful at extending his teaching position in creative writing at Wellesley College, found work as a lecturer on a tour that included stops at small southern towns in South Carolina and Georgia. He spoke on "common sense" which, as reported in a letter to his wife Vera, "turned out -- well, even better than I normally expect." His journey had Pnin-esque twists and turns, and so in choosing five great books set in southern towns, I have selected novels that have at their heart the idea of a journey.

Sometimes one sample of a writer's work can cause a reevaluation of another one. Growing up in the South made me impatient with Jim's submissive language and the childlike naïve way in which he is characterized in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, set in St. Petersburg, Missouri. In reading recently about the Belgian Congo, I came across Twain's parody of King Leopold, King Leopold's Soliloquy, published impressively in 1905. It became clear Twain had chosen humor and satire as perhaps the best way to make certain his work would be read and his point of view and argument considered. And Twain could do multiple things at once. Twain's description of Huck's separation from Jim on their journey down the Mississippi River where he feels both the disorienting beauty and terror of night is to borrow Nabokov's words, "spine tingling, " and serves as a metaphor for Huck's reorientation of the way in which he regards Jim.

I was floating along, of course, four and five mile an hour; but you don't ever think of that. No, you feel like you are laying dead still on the water; and if a little glimpse of a snag slips by, you don't think to yourself how fast you're going, but you catch your breath and think, my! How that snag's rearing along.

Most any Faulkner novel could make it in a top five list. In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner tells the story of the Bundren family of Yoknapatawpha County who make the 40-mile journey to honor their mother's wish to be buried among her own people in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Faulkner famously criticized Hemingway for never taking risks in his fiction and for lacking "the courage to get out on a limb." Faulkner was more than qualified and justified to make these observations. As I Lay Dying written in 1930 is the novel's equivalent of Philip Petit's walk across the Twin Towers. Narrated by 15 characters, Faulkner forgoes exposition, scene setting, and ignores back stories. Of the 59 chapters, the most famous is only five words, "My mother is a fish," spoken by the small boy Vardaman. Among writers, Tennessee Williams singled him out as one who "by distortion, by outrageous exaggeration... get an effect closer to reality." True, but Faulkner, with a poet's gift of compression and transformation, could go the other way, too -- taking reality and expanding it into something it is not - as when Darl says about his mother who has just died, "her peaceful rigid face fading into the dusk as though darkness were a precursor of the ultimate earth, until at last her face seems to float detached upon it, lightly as the reflection of a dead leaf."
Zora Neale Hurston's willingness to take risks was so great that her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was misunderstood when it was published in 1937 receiving severe and harsh criticism from African American critics and writers for not giving voice to protest. So myopic were the views of critics such as Richard Wright who accused Hurston's novel as functioning as a minstrel show that he could not see that she was writing lyrically about affirmation and not apology. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford leaves her home town of Eatonville, Georgia and travels with her third husband, Teacake, a man who "done taught (her) de maiden language all over" further south into the lush, wild world of the Everglades to a community rich in black tradition. Janie Crawford, independent, articulate, self reliant could be the African American cousin to Isabel Archer who embraced the advice of another James character, Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?"
How to tell a story once is hard enough, but three times with the plot given away at the beginning so as to deal with the more interesting question of "why" and not "who" is a feat few writers could handle. It is the technical equivalent -- to return to the metaphor of Philip Petit -- of rope-walking across the Twin Towers. Not even Faulkner dared in any one text. In Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country, Edgar Watson, journeys from Edgefield, South Carolina to Ten Thousand Islands, Florida, a remote region at the edge of the Everglades where the swamp meets the ocean. Matthiessen tells the story of Edgar Watson's life and death at the hands of a lynch mob three separate times from differing points of view: Book I is the collective narrative of twelve first person testimonies; Book II is the third person account of Watson's youngest son's quest to find out who his father really was and what became of him: and Book III is the first-person account of Edgar Watson himself. In his exquisitely written and gripping meditation on the subjects of ambition, "unbridled enterprise," race, violence, and defeated dreams, Matthiessen sets the reader up as the final judge and shatters the last page of text into a poem that ends, "This world is painted on a wild dark metal."
Novels about journey include those both for and against, and no list is complete without some dissent. In John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly, a character described by Walker Percy as a "slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one," confesses at the beginning of the novel that a trip to Baton Rouge atop a "Greyhound Scenicruiser" has caused him to swear off journeys. "Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins." Like Tennessee Williams's Blanche Dubois, Ignatius J. Reilly is a man not suited for the modern world, but as the previous quote suggests, he is armed with, if not common sense, then at least a vast array of literary references. His favorite book is Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and his references range from Hroswitha, the 10th century German secular canoness, to Batman who "tends to transcend the abysmal society" despite having a morality that is "rather rigid." Ignatius feels kinship with among others, Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, who are, as is he, "outside the inner realm of American society." Ignatius's almost chronic disavowal of "that dreary fraud Mark Twain," calls attention in "the lady doeth protest too much" style to the similarity in method. With echoes of Pnin who leaves Waindell College in a car with his stray dog, when the Charity Hospital ambulance arrives to take him away, Ignatius, unlike Blanche who goes willingly, reverses his stance on journeys and escapes with Myrna Minkoff, the girlfriend who supports radical causes. Throughout this satirical novel Toole shows, as did Twain, that knowledge and an open mind can provide the way past the boundaries of prejudice.