There is an old axiom – the victors write the history books. History, of course, began as a set of written and verbal accounts, handed down from generation to generation. Thucydides, considered the “father of history,” became a legend for accurate, factual storytelling through his own records. The same for Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius who, despite being portrayed as reckless fool and political shark in countless movies and series, had a passion for storytelling as well, recounting historical events to whomever would listen. As both a storyteller and a student (but far from an expert) of history, I began to put their storytelling approaches, and the axiom of who writes the history books, to an unusual test of why the American Southern history and culture, both antebellum and modern, has been embraced with such amazing affection. My conclusion is likely to spark some debate, but here it is.
Simply put, Southerners may just be better storytellers .
In the television series, “The Golden Girls,” Blanche Devereaux (played by the late Rue McClanahan) was a retired high society southern belle who once extolled to her female roommates the virtues of Southern culture. In particular, she mentioned how Southerners told “tall tales.” While the concept of “fish stories,” where the lines between reality and fantasy become greatly blurred, is used the world over, American Southerners seem to have perfected this art form. Some of the great literature in American history can come from, or was set in, the American south. Writers such as Margaret Mitchell (“Gone With the Wind,”) Kate Chopin (“The Awakening”), Majorie Kinnan Rawlings (“The Yearling”), James Dickie (“Deliverance”) and Lewis Grizzard (“Shoot Low Boys, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies”) captured the hearts, minds and souls of readers worldwide with their penchants for romance, drama, suspense and humor. In cases of Gone With the Wind, The Yearling, and Deliverance, these tales even made the silver screen. All of these writers are considered iconic, with the homes of Mitchell and Rawlings carefully preserved as historic sites.
While these writers are giants in their own ways, the fact they are “Southern Storytellers” is indicative of a common theme. Most southerners I’ve met are quite skilled at telling colorful stories. Indeed, it is not uncommon that most of the more romantic notions of the American south come from residents themselves. These notions appear to come from the practice of puffery, or making a story seem larger than life, for the purposes of entertainment. I have yet to meet a Southerner who is unable to spin a yarn, be it verbal or written, about something of interest to them which doesn’t capture the imagination of those listening or reading. While attending college in southwest Georgia, I met and befriended scores of native Southerners who had a natural ability with both the written and spoken word. Some have written fan fiction on websites, others have written dark stories and poetry, and many more I worked with as newspaper writers and managed to craft engaging stories about otherwise dry topics. I have even had the privilege of working with those who now use the spoken word to inspire others to action for a cause. The underlying theme to all these individuals was a penchant for telling a story, and it was because of these individuals I was inspired to take up writing.
More to the point, it is also the reason I have learned to love the American South as my own home. As an Atlanta resident, I have been blessed with meeting some amazing storytellers who, in my opinion, truly epitomize the Southern Storyteller. As an author, many of the most amazing independent authors I have met in the last few years are native Southerners, and they have demonstrated the uncanny ability to capture the imagination with the written word. This is just one reason that it’s hard to see a people through such a dark lens, as many activists wish to, when they can tell some amazing stories of love, sacrifice and redemption.
Even if some of these stories are highly romanticized views of historical events, or are complete works of fiction, the Southern Storyteller is an asset to be prized the world over, and one which we should hope never becomes extinct.