At the end of September in 2015, I drove up from Tallahassee to Savannah, Georgia for a weekend. While part of that trip was to visit with a friend who was going to be there at the same time as me, another motivating factor was to make the trip to Flannery O’Connor’s home in Millidgeville, Georgia, a couple of hours away from Savannah. I’d made trips to the homes and relevant locations of other writers I loved (particularly Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway) but I still hadn’t been to the famed Andalusia farm of O’Connor even though I now lived in the (relatively) same part of the country for quite a few years. Since I didn’t know when I would be getting that close to Millidgeville again, I decided I should make a special effort and finally make the pilgrimage to the town so closely associated with Flannery.
The truth of the matter was that I had not really appreciated the degree to which I was interested in Southern writers. There were those I knew I had a great love for, like the aforementioned O’Connor and her Southern Catholic compatriot Walker Percy, but Andre Dubus and Eudora Welty and, of course Faulkner (though I still stand firmly on the side of Hemingway in the mythological bout between William and Ernest, I certainly appreciate Faulkner’s powers as a writer). But while I read Southern writers and I was aware of the idea of the Southern writer as seen in courses taught on that very topic, I’d never considered myself as someone who was particularly engaged with Southern writers in a meaningful way.
Just before I was going to leave on this trip to Savannah and Millidgeville to go into The South (in all that those capital letters imply), I came across Margaret Eby’s book South Towards Home. I can’t remember where exactly I came across the book, what publication had offered up a favorable review that made it very enticing, but it was on my radar and when it happened to show up at our local Barnes & Noble I was sure to pick up a copy and I made my way through it with the alacrity that is indicative of a well-written and engaging work.
Eby, a journalist and critic who has written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Salon, Slate, and is currently the features and essays editor for HelloGiggles, “a positive online community for women […] covering the latest in culture, female empowerment, style, relationships, friendship, careers, and issues that matter most to young women’s lives,” writes a travelogue of a journey throughout the south to see the landmarks and places closely related to that region’s most prolific writers that in some way illuminates what it is about the South that makes its writers so remarkable and their writing so distinctly and wonderfully southern. What Eby does in this book, and what makes it both so enjoyable and worth reading for the novice as well as the expert, is to seamlessly blend thoughtful travel writing and historical background with a sharp focus and critical eye that speaks to a knowledge and understanding of the source material crafted by these writers. This is a book that both speaks to those who know very little-to-nothing about these writers as well as those who are a bit more familiar with those upon whom she focuses.
I felt this to be particularly true as I represent both sides of that equation. I did not know much of anything about Eudora Welty and Richard Wright beyond the few things I’d read by them, and I was woefully in the dark regarding Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and even John Kennedy Toole (who so caught the attention of one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy), thus the chapters focusing on them were welcome introductions that encouraged me to either read more by these authors or to read something by one of them for the very first time. But I felt like, as she talked about Welty’s garden or the hot dog vendors of New Orleans that feature so prominently to Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I was being better prepared to tackle and understand their work, reflecting Eby’s insight into what is most essential and factors most greatly into our understanding of these writers and their writing.
Those chapters on the authors about which I knew a good bit more– William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and of course Flannery– were just as interesting as well. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on O’Connor, her home in Millidgeville, and the famous peacocks that she brought onto the grounds. But within that, there were many biographical bits of information or observations about O’Connor and her work that I had never encountered before and that made me realize certain things about O’Connor that I had not realized before that moment. Though it is perhaps something that cannot be translated to any kind of quantifiable form, it is this quality that displays that this is a book that is not just restating things or that Eby is writing a book for the novice. This is a book that can hold the interest of someone who has (or likes to think they have) a grasp on these things.
I sometimes feel as though we (those of us in the realm of literary criticism) often shy away from the biographical so much and so greatly that we never take the time to familiarize ourselves with those things to the degree that we should. While I’m not saying that all critical endeavors need to be the byproduct of biography and constantly refer back to the author’s life, there should be more encouragement and space allowed to fully acquaint ourselves with the histories of these authors we work on, something that came to mind as I read South Towards Home, which provides this blend of critical reading of the primary texts with the biographical and historical foundation that helps us as readers to better understand and comprehend what we’re reading.