The American South is a hotbed for literature, and many of America’s most famous novels have been written by Southerners. From Mark Twain and the invention of the American novel, all the way to Kartryn Stockett and her 2009 novel concerning racial equality, The Help, the South has produced countless classics. In honor of the 50th anniversary of William Faulkner's death, we've profiled five of the most well-known, highly regarded literary greats of the South.
Lula Carson Smith was born February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. A shy child with a penchant for feeling out tunes on her piano, she longed to move to New York City and study at the Juilliard School. She eventually did head to New York but never attended Juilliard. It is unknown why she never did, (the myth is that she lost her tuition on the subway), but Carson herself tells several versions of the story. Regardless, her musical failure brought the success of her literary career, and at 19 McCullers’ first story, Wunderkind, was published by Story magazine. At the age of 23, she published one of the great American stories, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a semi-autobiographical novel set in a small Georgia town. Her fame increased with the 1946 publication of The Member of the Wedding, but she was wracked with personal problems. A failing marriage, an alcohol addiction and declining health made the later years of McCullers’ life difficult. She died in 1967 at the early age of 50.
Born on September 25, 1897, the Nobel Prize Laureate William Faulkner grew up in Oxford, Mississippi—a town which would shape his life and later, some of the greatest works of Southern literature. Nurtured by artistic parents, Faulkner’s mother impressed reading on him and saw that he perform due diligence on his schoolwork. During World War I, he enlisted in the Canadian and British Royal Air Forces. He briefly studied at the University of Mississippi but dropped out after three semesters. Upon meeting literary mentor Phillip Stone, Faulkner’s career began to bloom, and he fell into the national spotlight with the 1929 release of The Sound and the Fury, a novel that resides on all of the major top-100 lists. Faulkner’s writing style was typified by a no-rules attitude; he often used experimental narratives and syntax while speaking on dark topics that could be considered taboo. He created a whole trope for his literature and set many novels in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. His prowess as an author was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and a Nobel Prize in 1949.
Quite possibly the greatest single-novel author in American history, Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 and has been scarcely heard from since. Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926. To Kill a Mockingbird is largely based on her early life in Monroeville. Like Atticus, her father was a lawyer who defended a black man who eventually was found guilty. Additionally, her real life best friend, Truman Capote—whom she later helped research his best-selling novel, In Cold Blood—was the inspiration for the character Dill. The success of To Kill a Mockingbird and its 1962 screen adaptation took a toll on Lee, and she essentially disappeared from public life. Asked recently by friend Thomas Lane Butts about why she never wrote a second novel, Lee allegedly replied, “I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
Tennessee Williams loved his childhood in Mississippi. He would often refer to the days of his youth as carefree and fulfilling. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams III was the son of a shoe salesman and southern belle. Tennessee began writing when his father accepted a position in St. Louis, forcing the family to move. Williams was disenchanted with his new life in St. Louis and found solace in writing. In 1939 Williams received a thousand dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for his play Battle of Angels, and with the money he moved to New Orleans, which would become the setting for A Streetcar Named Desire. Success came early in a career filled with accolades, as his first major play, The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway to acclaim. He would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams’ later career was marred by substance abuse, declining quality of work and various hospitalizations. Still, Tennessee Williams is remembered as one of the greatest playwrights, not only of the 1900s, but of all time.
Although he was born in Rhode Island in 1933, Charles Joseph McCarthy subsequently moved to Knoxville and later attended the University of Tennessee. At UT he began his writing career, and by 1965 he had published his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, for which he won the William Faulkner Award. Awards would become a theme for McCarthy, and later he would add a Pulitzer Prize, the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and the National Book Award, among others. Long beloved by critics, it took McCarthy until the 1985 publication of Blood Meridian to achieve mainstream success. His works are often brutally violent, depressing stories, marked by stoic prose and little hope. He has seen his work adapted to film several times. A noted recluse, McCarthy gave his first television interview on Oprah in 2007, in promotion of his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Despite mainstream and critical success, he rarely grants interviews to the press.