In its simplest form, Southern literature consists of writing about the American South. Often, “the South” is defined, for historical as well as geographical reasons, as the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arkansas. Pre-Civil War definitions of the South often included Missouri, Maryland, and p as well. However, “the South” is also a social, political, economic, and cultural construct that transcends these geographical boundaries.
Southern literature has been described by scholars as occupying a liminal space within wider American culture. After the American Revolution, writers in the U.S. from outside the South frequently othered Southern culture, in particular slavery, as a method of “[standing] apart from the imperial world order”. These negative portrayals of the American South eventually diminished after the abolition of slavery in the U.S., particularly during a period after the Spanish–American War when many Americans began to re-evaluate their anti-imperialistic views and support for imperialism grew. Changing historiographical trends have placed racism in the American South as emblematic of, rather than an exception to, U.S. racism as a whole.
In addition to the geographical component of Southern literature, certain themes have appeared because of the similar histories of the Southern states in regard to American slavery, the Civil War, and the reconstruction era. The conservative culture in the American South has also produced a strong focus within Southern literature on the significance of family, religion, community in one’s personal and social life, the use of Southern dialects, and a strong sense of “place.” The South’s troubled history with racial issues also continually appears in its literature.
Despite these common themes, there is debate as to what makes a literary work “Southern.” For example, Mark Twain, a Missourian, defined the characteristics that many people associate with Southern writing in his novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Truman Capote, born and raised in the Deep South, is best known for his novel In Cold Blood, a piece with none of the characteristics associated with “southern writing.” Other Southern writers, such as popular authors Anne Rice and John Grisham, rarely write about traditional Southern literary issues. John Berendt, who wrote the popular Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is not a Southerner. In addition, some famous Southern writers moved to the Northern U.S. So while geography is a factor, the geographical location of the author is not the defining factor in Southern writing. Some suggest that “Southern” authors write in their individual way due to the impact of the strict cultural decorum in the South and the need to break away from it.