21st-Century and Contemporary Southern Literature
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
From the colonial period through to the present day, the U.S. South has been seen as aberrant and different: as separate from the rest of the nation. Often thought of as backward and strange, the South has also been figured as the nation’s “Other,” home to anything that the United States wants to disavow: racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, poverty, and so on. While a debate rages in the field of southern studies about what and where the South exactly is—even whether we should continue to talk about the South as a solid geography—contemporary literature from the region continues to think through the multiple meanings of place today. Indeed, in the 21st century in particular, southern literature is expanding and diversifying more than ever. Three dominant trends are identifiable in contemporary literature from the South; time and again, texts return to these regional stories, though to different degrees. First, and perhaps most dominant, is the narrative of racial memory; this work explores the impacts and legacies of race-relations in the region, from slavery and Native American removal through to Jim Crow and beyond. Second is the narrative of the southern environment; these narratives are stories that contemplate and focus on the region’s diverse landscapes (from mountainous Appalachia, to the Mississippi Delta, to the swampy Gulf). They are also narratives that engage with the dramatic effects of climate change and ecological disaster, highly pertinent in the contemporary era of the Anthropocene. Third, there are narratives of an (un)changing South; this writing reflexively and critically explores the meaning of the region in a time of globalization and migration. When the population of the South—which has always been a diverse one—is changing in dramatic and incremental ways, the stories and narratives of the region are clearly adapting too. Southern literature continues to ask complex questions about what the South means in today’s United States.