By Glynn Wilson
There were pine forests here a long time ago but they are gone. The bastards got in here and set up the mills and laid the narrow-gauge tracks and knocked together the company commissaries and paid a dollar a day and folks swarmed out of the brush for the dollar . . . . The saws sang soprano and the clerk in the commissary passed out the blackstrap molasses and the sowbelly and wrote in his big book, and the Yankee dollar and Confederate dumbness collaborated to heal the wounds of four years of fratricidal strife, and all was merry as a marriage bell. Till, all of a sudden, there weren't any more pine trees. They stripped the mills. The narrow-gauge tracks got covered with grass. Folks tore down the commissaries for kindling wood. There wasn't any more dollar a day. The big boys were gone, with diamond rings on their fingers and broadcloth on their backs. But a good many stayed right on, and watched the gullies eat deeper into the red clay. . . .
Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men, 1946, page 2-3.
There is, at times, a tradeoff in life between explicitness and subtlety, or abstraction. Sometimes a fine line between them defines the center of all great works of art and literature. It could also be argued that there is journalism on one side, and literature on the other. It is in The Southerner's mission to straddle that line, to seek a natural balance. Think of it as a graceful sailboat, keeping an even keel, riding a whist of wind down the yaw of a wave in the Gulf of Mexico on a partly sunny day in spring.
In other words, sometimes we will tell you like it is. At other times, we will only hint at what it is, and allow you, the reader, to fill in the canvas for yourself. Perhaps this description is too abstract in this cyberworld of online publishing, where news sites and Web sites compete with TV and life itself for your attention like peacocks at a mating ball. If you simply must turn to the USA Todays of the world for a brief set of facts about something that happened today perhaps because you do not have time for reflection in your fast-paced, workaday world The Southerner magazine itself may not be your kind of place. But we are working on a South home concept to bring selected writings to your computer screens in a way no one has really done before. Think of this site as A Place To Come To, even if you are far away in another land much removed from the American South.
This month we bring you a collection of short stories chosen by a panel of fine writers and judges, all of whom are of the American South in one way or another. These are the chosen ones from 70 entries we received in the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction competition. Many, many thanks to our judges, who helped me chart this formidable path: Brian Griffin, writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Allen Wier, author and English Professor at UT; Fred Brown, president of the Knoxville Writers Guild and a staff writer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel; Michael Knight, author and professor at UT; Sean Lovelace, a writer working on an MFA at the University of Alabama; Thomas Fortenberry; Hugh Davis, a doctoral student in English at UT; and the University of Florida's Padgett Powell, who agreed to act as final judge.
We chose to honor the name of Robert Penn Warren for a number of reasons, not least of which is the passage he wrote in All The Kings Men cited above. As someone who has written extensively about the modern-day clear-cutting of the American South, I sometimes turn to that passage, knowing that it has happened before, and that other Southern writers acknowledged it in profound ways.
Other reasons? Warren is the only writer in American history to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and poetry. He graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1925, the year of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Rhea County, Tenn. He studied at Berkeley, Yale and Oxford. Beginning in 1930, he was published in I'll Take My Stand, the manifesto of Southern Literary Agrarianism, and later founded and edited The Southern Review, an influential literary journal from which we at The Southerner take a certain progressive tradition. All The Kings Men, his most memorable work, is arguably the best Southern novel ever. I reread the introduction on occasion to remind myself how to root a story in the land and place, and to recall the way our region was stripped of its trees in the first half of this century.
While none of the selections in this volume really get at that story, they are all fine stories written by dedicated writers who search for that fine line themselves trying to tell us a story we can understand, but not in a way that gives away everything, like modern-day journalism or the fashionable memoir. Enjoy. And as always, let us know what you think.
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