Top Five Southern Novels of All Time

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, 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:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  3. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  4. God’s Little Acre, Erskine Caldwell
  5. 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.

28 thoughts on “Top Five Southern Novels of All Time

  1. David

    Oooh, oooh, oooh! Finally you write about books, movies or tv shows I am actually familiar with.

    I can’t say I’ve read enough to make a list.

    But I have read To Kill A Mockingbird, Wise Blood, and Huck Finn. This post reminds me of how wonderful they are. I’ll be putting them on my list of books to read (again).

  2. KP

    Absalom, Absalom! is a work of towering, hair-curling genius. It’s like exercise, though (people tell me) — you hate it while it’s happening, but you’re really glad you did it when it’s over.

    Gone With the Wind, definitely, I don’t care what anyone says. I’d put Their Eyes Were Watching God a little higher up on the list, and To Kill a Mockingbird right below Faulker, who would occupy my top three. For a laugh-out-loud southern read, Cold Sassy Tree.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov wrote that he was stuck in a hotel room during a signing tour and he was desperate for something to read and all that was available was “Gone With The Wind.” A book he had snubbed all his life. But he held his nose and started it — and didn’t leave his room for 24 hours. He said he was wrong and that it was one of the greatest novels EVER.

  4. Greg Flowers

    Is “Huck Finn” a “Southern” novel? Did Twain EVER live in the South? His home state of Missouri, where he set much of his action, is not in the South.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    Is Red Hills and Cotton a novel or a memoir?

    What IS a Southern novel? A novel about the South? Merely set here or does it have to deal with peculiarly Southern issues? by someone born here? living here when it was written?

    What makes it “great”– I am an English major, and I know it when I see it, sort of, but Christine Schweikert made a point about readability.

    I’m partial to Tobacco Road, but I’m from Aiken, near there.

    GWTW is a great read, but is really mythology, not a true reflection of how things ever were, scholars agree.

    I enjoy Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Faye Gibbons, because they reflect my experience growing up in the New South as a feminine child. They have a lot of my truth in them.

    Is Mark Twain even a Southern writer? Missouri?

  6. Doug Ross

    I tend to look at these “best of all time” lists with a “oh, really?” view.

    How is it that no great books are less than 50 years old? Really?

    There is some sort of “well, they teach it in college so it must be great mentality” to all of it. Kids today are forced to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” in school and I don’t see much (if any) call for more like it when they are done.
    If it’s so good, why doesn’t it resonate with many people today?

    It’s like saying there were no great baseball players after Mickey Mantle.

  7. Kiki

    I think anyone who has actually read GWTW would have to put it near the top. It’s a history book of the one event which defines the American South, with a satirical romance thrown in to keep the pages turning. I think people who haven’t read it imagine it very differently, as sort of early chick-lit. In fact, Mitchell has no sympathy for her “heroine,” often making terrible fun of her, instead using her as a vehicle to give Mitchell’s own version of why the war was fought (because men like to fight wars and are always looking for an excuse), the relationship between slave and master (NOT idealized as it is in the movie, any idealization is clearly meant as satire), the origins of the Ku Klux Klan, etc. BTW I’m not so sure about Huck Finn; while a great American novel, with a little work, I think I could construct an argument that Huck Finn’s not sufficiently Southern for the list.
    P.S. Yes I’m Brad’s “eldest daughter” though I wish he’d use some adjective other than “eldest”, such was “prettiest” or “most well-read”

  8. Doug Ross

    Some “modern” suggestions…

    The Color Purple – Alice Walker
    A Man In Full – Tom Wolfe
    The Great Santini – Pat Conroy
    Serena – Ron Rash
    Forrest Gump – Winston Groom

  9. Burl Burlingame

    Sorry y’all, but when I think slavery, I think the South, and that’s a big part of “Huck Finn.”

    Clemons briefly formed a Confederate militia in Missouri that, just as quickly, disbanded.

  10. Brad Warthen

    Further proof that, whatever you say about Doug, he’s not a “conservative.”

    Doug, I haven’t read anything written in the past 50 years — in the South, about the South — that I would elevate. For instance, of the two on your list (offered for the sake of argument, I understand), I’ve read two — the Wolfe and Forrest Gump.

    I’m a big Tom Wolfe fan, but I’m not terribly fond of his novels — the two I’ve read, anyway. And between the two, I thought Bonfire was better.

    Gump was, for me, forgettable. The movie is much better.

    I like novels written in the past 50 years — all of the Aubrey-Maturin books for instance, or Roddy Doyle’s works, and I thought Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity was stunning; I’ve read it over and over. But you’ll note that none of the ones that come to mind are American, much less Southern.

    I enjoyed Ferrol Sams’ trilogy based on his rural Georgia boyhood, but I wouldn’t put it on a Top Five list.

    And to my dear daughter I will say affectionately, if Huck isn’t Southern enough, neither am I. And I am…

  11. Brad Warthen

    Actually, I was thinking about High Fidelity when I read the OA list. I felt like all those scholars who were polled were a bunch of Barrys. If Barry had been snobbish about Southern lit the way he was about pop music, he would have mercilessly derided anyone who put GWTW on a list, because it’s too obvious. It would be like a list with anything from the Beatles on it; Barry would go ballistic…

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    If being *about* slavery counts, then Uncle Tom’s Cabin is eligible.

    I have not only read GWTW, I read it many times as a kid. It’s not historically accurate–ask USC profs Walter Edgar or Mark Smith. It’s a ripping yarn. I believe scholarship about M. Mitchell indicates that she was pretty reactionary, so to reframe it as satirical is kind of radical….She was a true believer by all accounts I’ve read.

  13. Karen McLeod

    I’d consider Huck Finn first, but only because I’ve re-read it as an adult. To kill a Mockingbird is definitely up there. I’m surprised that more don’t read it. I’m very surprised students don’t enjoy it (if that’s actually true, rather than said students simply meeting the requirement of ‘hating’ everything they’re assigned). I could go with Santini,too. It definitely evokes both a time, and a culture that were very southern. GWTW? Fun read, but nothing real I can take away.

  14. Susanna King

    When I hear “Southern novel” I think of a book that is a modern retelling of a Greek tragedy, set in a small Southern town. It has to be layered with meaning and hard to read.

    I didn’t bother to read this particular article in the paper because I figured it would be a list of books I had no interest in. It never occurred to me that something fun to read like Huck Finn would make the list.

  15. Libb

    Julia Peterkin – Black April

    Going with Doug on Wolfe’s Man in Full, much better than Bonfire.

    Blanche McCrary Boyd – The Redneck Way of Knowledge
    Ms Boyd’s essays on her return to SC to make peace with “the South in her”. This one really speaks to my Lowcountry roots and full of laugh out loud’s.

  16. Burl Burlingame

    Speaking as someone whose job all-too-often requires him to conjure such bogus lists out of his okole — “Top Ten Honolulu Entertainment Stories of 2009,” I can see it coming, like thunder on the horizon — I take the probably girlish view that any kind of ranking lists are dumb to the extreme. Right up there with ear-candling as a waste of time. Yeah, that would be Number One. Number Two would be …

  17. Brad Warthen

    Well, they ARE foolish, which is what High Fidelity is about. Hornby comes up with great lists, though. So I can compile lists with a great pose of doing so ironically — but still enjoy it.

  18. Bart Rogers

    Huck Finn most definitely. Part of my youthful experience was building a raft with my buddies and floating down Lumber River for a few miles after reading Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

    GWTW was a decent read and almost anything by Erskine Caldwell, especially God’s Little Acre.

    I know it was not on the list and may not be a good fit but “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was good for its genre.

    Everyone should be required to read, “To Kill a Mockinbird”.

  19. Steve Gordy

    Brad, I’m glad you enjoyed reading Ferrol Sams (he’s a friend of my mother). I agree he’s not one of the all-time greats, but I relished his books because they showed me what Georgia was like when my father and uncle were young.

  20. Karen McLeod

    I’d be hard put to put any order to my preferences. But many people have mentioned really good books, and I now have some titles I haven’t read to try. Thanks, folks!

  21. Herb B.

    I’m actually plowing my way through the 4th volume of Will and Ariel Durant’s History of Civilization: The Age of Faith and enjoying it immensely. Admittedly, it’s not a book that will keep me awake when I’m tired, but then at my age and condition, those are counter-productive. The only thing I’ve liked better is Shelby Foote. Sorry to spoil the fun– I’m just not into novels that much, unless I’m on an airplane and need Tom Clancy or John Grisham to overcome my RLS.

  22. Herb B.

    Oh, I did have a good read with The Poisonwood Bible and both of Khaled Hosseini’s novels are really essential reading in this global age.

  23. Kathryn Fenner

    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was nonfiction–the book at any rate–and a great one it was.

    The Millionaires by Inman Majors came out last winter. It is a fictionalized account of two self-made businessman brothers who are behind the Knoxville World’s Fair –an excellent book that was overlooked. Check it out. Better than Tom Wolfe, if you ask me…and I like Tom Wolfe–especially Bonfire–I lived it on the fringes.

    Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

    Idella Bodie writes juvenile fiction, and writes it very well. She was an English teacher in Aiken, and is from Ridge Spring or Monetta, one.

    Burl–no foot detox pads for you, then? No colon cleanse? (ick)


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