Did you see that list of Top Ten Southern novels of all time that Joey Holleman wrote about in the paper Sunday? Were you as outraged as I was to see Huck Finn down at fourth place? Seriously, folks — the only question to be asked about Twain’s masterpiece is whether it’s the greatest novel of any kind ever, much less best “Southern” novel.
Mind you, this is not Joey’s fault, he’s just reporting on the list compiled by the magazine Oxford American.
Now, right off the bat, you have to figure that any mag that calls itself “Oxford” anything is going to be prejudiced in favor of a certain person, even if it is based in Conway, Arkansas. And sure enough, the list kicks off with a Faulkner work, Absalom, Absalom!
And here’s where we get into my own blind spot: I’ve never read Faulkner. Oh, I’ve tried, back when I was young and felt like I had to in order to be an educated person. But a page or two of Faulkner, and I felt like I needed oxygen. I decided that I must hold my breath until I reach the end of a sentence or something, which can be deadly with Faulkner. Anyway, I never got very far. I’ve got several of his books sitting on a shelf to this day, awaiting me. Personally, I intend to read Finnegan’s Wake first, which means Faulkner will have to wait awhile. Sorry, Bill.
So basically, we have a problem in judging this list — no publication called Oxford American could possibly be unbiased with regard to Faulkner, and I’m not in a position to judge when they’re giving him too much credit and when they’re not. So we’re just going to have to throw all the Faulkner books off the list. Sorry again, Bill, but them’s the rules I just made up.
Since three of the 10 were thus tainted, that leaves us with a Top Five list plus two, and now that we have the Faulkner distraction out of the way, we can see more clearly that the list does, indeed, fall short:
1. “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren, 1946, 80 votes
2. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain, 1885, 58 votes
3. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee, 1960, 57 votes
4. “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy, 1961, 55 votes
5. “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison, 1952, 47 votes
6. “Wise Blood,” Flannery O’Connor, 1952, 44 votes
7. “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston, 1937, 41 votes.
See? Huck Finn still isn’t first. In fact, it comes in second to All the King’s Men. Now I’m perfectly willing to assert that All the King’s Men is a wonderful work, one of the best ever — for about three pages.
Seriously, you can read the good parts of All the King’s Men in the “LOOK INSIDE!” feature at Amazon.com, and be done well before they cut you off. I’m talking about the stretch that goes from that wonderful ode to Highway 58, and ends with the paragraph that tells you everything you need to know about Sugar-Boy, ending with:
He wouldn’t win any debating contests in high school, but then nobody would ever want to debate with Sugar-Boy. Not anybody who knew him and had seen him do tricks with the .38 Special which rode under his left armpit like a tumor.
Great stuff. (Never mind that it should be “that rode under his left armpit like a tumor,” or that there’s no reason a grown man would participate in a high school debate anyway. It’s still great writing.) After that, it’s kinda downhill with all that decadent Southern nobility and corruption-of-idealism-by-power stuff. Go ahead and stack the first few pages of Huck Finn up against it, why don’t you — and then tell me it doesn’t hold its own. Never mind that the whole tone changes to deep and dark in the middle part, or then shifts back to that broad farce tone when Tom Sawyer gets back into it at the end. The greatest Southern novel — indeed, the greatest American novel — should have unevenness and inconsistencies. I wouldn’t give shucks for any other way, as Tom Sawyer would say.
Beyond that — well, I’d put Mockingbird ahead of Warren, too. As for Walker Percy — while I’ve read The Moviegoer, and enjoyed it near as I can recall, I was never tempted to re-read it, which means it wouldn’t make it onto a top anything list of mine. (I actually have a clearer memory of Lancelot, which I did not like. That whole “Southern Man as severely dysfunctional loser” theme leaves me cold; a few pages of it is a gracious plenty, as my Aunt Jenny would have said. It’s why I didn’t read past the first chapter of Prince of Tides, and regretted having read that much.)
The absence of Gone With The Wind is of course a deliberate snub, based on its not being highbrow enough or cliched or politically incorrect or whatever. Perhaps it was too popular. And no such list would seem complete to me without either God’s Little Acre or Tobacco Road, if not both. What, the Oxford American folks don’t like books with hot parts? Or are we only concerned with the troubles of the upper classes, and don’t have time for working-class dysfunction? Caldwell’s novels were certainly way Southern; you’ve got to admit that.
We can’t blame the editors of the magazine entirely, since the list resulted from a poll of “134 scholars, scribes, and a few mystery guests.” There is something vaguely un-Southern about this. Subjecting things to a vote seems kinda Yankee to me, like a New England town hall meeting or something. A true Southern list should be drafted by one quirky individual who doesn’t give a damn what anybody else thinks. At least it wasn’t true Democracy, since the electors were hand-picked — in a process that helps us understand why the list has more than a whiff of snootiness.
So now that I’m done tearing down this list, I should post one for y’all to tear down. So have at it:
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
- God’s Little Acre, Erskine Caldwell
- Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell
OK, one last admission — I haven’t actually read Gone With The Wind, either. But I heard about it so much from my eldest daughter when she was growing up that I feel like I have. And I wanted to put it on the list just to cock a snook at those pointy-headed types who ignored it in the OA poll. I thought about putting Pudd’nhead Wilson at No. 5, just to load my list up with Twain the way they did theirs with Faulkner, or even saying “a Faulkner novel of your choice” in that spot, just as a grudging acknowledgment. But I didn’t.