Why I never write about the South: a guest dispatch from Robb Forman Dew

Robb Forman Dew is known for writing novels set in the Midwest. Her latest, the subtle and wellregarded The Truth of the Matter (excerpted in the weekend’s New York Times Book Review), takes place in Washburn, Ohio.

I met Dew this fall and was surprised to hear what I thought was a trace of Louisiana or western Mississippi in her accent. I asked her about it, and, sure enough, Dew grew up in Baton Rouge and spent girlhood summers in Natchez, Mississippi. Her godfather, Robert Penn Warren, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account of the life of populist Louisiana governor Huey Long. But Dew herself doesn’t write about the South.

In the guest dispatch below, she talks about growing up in a family where books and writing were both prized and disdained, and she explains why she’s opted not to set her characters amid the kudzu.

Certainly I felt unappreciated and suffered my share of personal angst growing up within my immediate family. I had no idea, however, that I was universally misunderstood until I moved from Louisiana to Columbia, Missouri, where people actually asked me if in the South we had worn shoes when we went to school. At a dinner party my host turned to me suddenly and asked if it was true that the normal Southern diet was made up mostly of pork fat and greens. I was just married and only twenty-one years old, and so dumbfounded that I didn’t even realize the man meant to be rude.

“Well… I don’t know,” I said. “Sometimes we had bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches… My grandmother in Natchez usually uses a piece of salt pork when she’s cooking green beans…”

It was my paternal Natchez connection that had provoked his question; my maternal grandfather was, at the time, a fairly well known poet, John Crowe Ransom, and it was common knowledge that he was almost always among literate people. By the time I was born, in 1946, he had moved from his native Tennessee to Gambier, Ohio, and was editing The Kenyon Review.

But Natchez… Well, who knew what went on there?

Its history is troubling, as all of Southern history is because of slavery, race, racism, violence and bigotry. And I think, too, that the stereotype of the region throughout the rest of the country has helped reinforce the already sturdy wall of resistance to change that still does characterize parts of the South.

My father and his two brothers and his sister grew up in the 1920s with no money but with plenty of books. Almost no one in Natchez had any wealth to speak of, and therefore it was culture that delineated your place in society — culture along with intelligence, ambition, looks, manners, and family history. And race, of course, most arbitrarily yet conclusively of all.

After the war my father had set up his medical practice in Baton Rouge, and I visited my grandmother in Natchez during the summers. Everyone I knew in Natchez read everything all of the time. My grandmother was the one exception. She prized nothing more than “common sense,” of which I had none, and she was deeply suspicious of my mother, who was from Nashville, which might not be Northern, exactly, but which certainly wasn’t my grandmother’s idea of Southern.

She once asked me if my mother was still “reading all those books,” and, although I was probably about seven years old, I knew immediately to answer that, no, my mother never read books anymore. I admitted that she did sometimes read magazines, which I had noticed my grandmother read as well.

Widowed when the oldest of her four children were starting high school, my grandmother had taken over my grandfather’s job as Tax Assessor of Adams County, Mississippi, a job to which she had to be reelected time and again. I believe the endless door to door campaigning was a sort of humiliation that exhausted and even enraged her.

She never directed her anger in my direction, but while her sensibility was refined, her fury was crude and absolute and profound, and her outspoken racism shocked me and appalled both my parents. My mother and she argued about it before my mother realized the futility of the debate, and forever after my grandmother viewed her second son and his family with sorrow, suspicion, and disapproval. She wasn’t wrong on every front. My parents were miserably married and eventually divorced. My father died of heart disease and alcoholism when he was only forty-eight years old.

Both of my parents had writerly aspirations. My mother was a fine poet who lost interest in writing poetry. My father’s first ambition had been to become a jounalist. After a summer working at a newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, though, he decided the pressure was too great and the politics too foul. He became a neurosurgeon, instead, but I don’t think he ever got over the idea that he would have been happier and more admired by his family if he had become a writer. As it turned out, he could literally get inside the heads of other people, but only from the outside-in, with far less subtlety, to his mind, than that of the persuasion and seduction of the written word.

I know by now that he was wrong. His standing within his own family was precarious for all sorts of reasons, none of which would have been changed had he taken up journalism instead of medicine. And if he had been a writer he might have changed course after being disillusioned by jounalism, but eventually he would have had to make a stab at getting something down on paper. Of course, I’ve never performed surgery, but I’m convinced by my own experience that writing is a biological imperative, and I suppose we should all be grateful that neurosurgery is not, because most writers have to write even if they don’t possess a single scrap of talent.

I always knew I would write, although what I really wanted was to be a lounge singer in New Orleans. But I began writing before I had even learned how to print the alphabet, sitting at the dining room table and covering notebook paper with lines of occasionally broken loops that mimicked cursive. It was many years later that I felt the need to publish what I had written in order to be satisfied. I sent a slew of terrible poetry and fiction to a succession of literary reviews and wept secretly when each one came back again. It was Lewis Simpson at The Southern Review who first accepted a story of mine on the condition that I consider some very tactful suggestions. And his few comments allowed me a moment of horrified objectivity.

My early writing was shrouded beneath a kind of faux, gothic, Southern sensibility. In fact, I can’t remember if — early-on — I ever wrote a single thing that didn’t mention either maggots, Spanish moss, water moccasins, the Mississippi River, or Siamese cats who came to a bad end. I still don’t know what the cats were about; there’s nothing particularly Southern about the company of cats

But all the other was an attempt to integrate the idea of being Southern with whatever puzzle I was trying to sort out. And it was a cop-out. I was only tossing gothic elements into the mix in order to avoid trying to explain something I don’t understand even today.

Among other things, I wanted to understand the surprising bit of meanness I had seen my grandmother display one summer afternoon when she and I were sitting on the front porch waiting for the horse and wagon that belonged to the black “vegetable man” who made his rounds of Natchez neighborhoods almost every day.

He was late that afternoon, and she had gone inside, but I waited still, because it was thrilling and exotic to me to have our vegetable selection brought to our door by a man driving a horse and cart. When he came into view, there I sat, and I waved and called to him to stop. I ran inside to alert my grandmother, but she had heard the jangle of his wagon and I turned and followed her until all at once she came to a dead stop when she spotted the vegetable man standing on the porch outside the screen of the front door.

It’s an incident that has haunted me all my life, even though I don’t remember exactly what she said, only that she berated him for being there, at her front door. Her voice and the words she said were stunningly harsh. So cruel, in fact, that I was frightened and also imagined that the man, in turn, would fly into a fury on his own behalf. But he backed down the stairs, literally with hat in hand, mumbling apologies, and he brought a selection of string beans and mustard greens and Kale around to the kitchen door where she met him again, still so angry that she said no more to him than to get out of her yard. He left the vegetables in a heap at the back door as a gift, and I don’t know if she ever bought anything else from him.

I have puzzled over my grandmother’s behavior for over fifty years. But what I wanted to find out was how it was possible that she could sustain the genuine dichotomy of her two personas: she was my grandmother, whom I trusted, and yet she was also an outraged figure of authority who was frightening to behold. I became watchful when I was too young to be anything but solipsistic; I was only able to adjust my perception of the world as its events pertained to me and my own place among the people I depended upon to love me. It’s embarrassing in retrospect to have been less interested in what sent my grandmother into such an unreasonable, unnacceptable, unforgivable fury.

Children have no method to account for the inexplicable behavior of the adults in their lives. She was, in so many ways, an admirable and courteous woman, but I was so ashamed to be connected to her that afternoon that I never sat in the porch swing with her again.

To have loved people who were compromised by the nature of their society as well as whatever other demons besieged them is one of the remarkable conditions of being Southern. Over the years I’ve realized that I have no right to claim knowledge of a place I didn’t and don’t understand, and yet, having navigated such a complicated course, I have been hopelessly intrigued by how people become who they are, particularly within the endlessly complex web of family.

The great Southern writers have a remarkable ear and eye for nuance, for what is not said, for the seed of a tragedy planted by the smallest misunderstanding, and, without exception, they are masters of irony. Ellen Douglas and Elizabeth Spencer can convey an entire culture in a paragraph. Peter Taylor is often misread as being only a Southern writer, when often he used his understanding of a particular region to investigate universal themes. And any one of the many great American Southern writers would have predicted and intuitively understood my Natchez grandmother’s reaction when she confronted a black man standing at her front door smack in the middle of the 20h century.

But I’m not a Southern writer, and I struggled to unravel the stories I needed to tell while trailing behind me drifts of gardenias and curling lengths of kudzu. They dragged me off track time and again, or smothered the fragile and tentative exploration of how human beings get through the business of living a life.

Lewis Simpson sent back to me a manuscript edited with delicate tact that released me from my idea that I was obliged to defer to my Southern heritage. He managed to point out indirectly that I didn’t do it well.

Eventually, the solution to my dilemma was fairly simple. One of the headiest sensations in creating a fictional world is of remembering now and then that you are all-powerful: I placed my characters in locales about which no one I knew had any preconceived ideas.

Now that I’ve written three books set there, everyone assumes I’m from the Midwest. By an accident of timing, I was, in fact, born in Mount Vernon, Ohio. But I am deeply, gratefully, and inescapably Southern. And while sometimes I’ve felt that I’m a traitor to my own region, it’s only been by relocating my characters from their Southern setting, with all of its deep mysteries, that I’ve gotten to the root of what I am drawn to investigate.


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