What makes someone an Alabama writer? Or, by reduction, even a “Birmingham,” “Mobile,” or for that matter, “Monroeville” writer, someone that citizens of a town or state can proudly claim for our own? Harper Lee is a special case, as she has lived and worked in the same town virtually all her life. But do we claim Pulitzer Prize winner Walker Percy since he was born in Birmingham and lived there until his teens? Or, since he then moved to Greenville, Mississippi, do we just write him off, so to speak, and let the great state of Mississippi (or Louisiana, for that matter) lay claim to his literary heritage? The reason I ask these questions is that, as we consider the literary landscape of Alabama, there are few writers who live, write, and then pass on in the same little postage stamp of native soil anymore. That can be problematic for a number of reasons.
For one, you are forced to stretch the definition of Alabama writers broadly where developing a term for “Alabama literature” should be understood as literature by Alabama writers as well as literature about Alabama. Here you enter a realm of writers that might include Tobias Wolff, T. S. Stribling, Edward O. Wilson, Booker T. Washington, even Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” anyone?). The point is not to overreach but to allow Alabama to take a little credit where credit is due.
Truman Capote spent much of his childhood in Monroeville which inspired his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, though by then he had moved to New York. John Beecher, of the New England abolitionist family, grew up in Birmingham and wrote activist poetry in collections such as Report to the Stockholders and To Live and Die in Dixie and was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. But, by that point, he’d moved on from his childhood home. Ralph Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute in the 1930s, Barry Hannah taught at the University of Alabama, and Gay Talese attended UA. Richard North Patterson, formerly a partner in a Birmingham law firm who took creative writing at UAB, has since has sold over forty million copies of his books. All have drawn deeply from their Alabama formative years, something that occurs today as much as it did back when America’s first native-born naturalist, William Bartram, traveled though Alabama and the Southeast in the 1770s. (Bartram’s Travels is still in print after more than 200 years.) Can we safely call these people Alabama writers? Maybe.
Jake Reiss would probably say so. “Writers are frequently co-claimed by different states, so I think the justification of the claim is in the eye of the claimer,” says Reiss. Owner of The Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham, Reiss is well respected in the industry for his dedication to Alabama authors and his tenacity in bringing big names to town for book signings and other literary events. “Gay Talese was just in for a book signing and said this was the biggest signing he’s ever had—and despite his time at the University of Alabama, he’s as New York as they come,” Reiss says. “Howell Raines said the same at his signing.”
If Birmingham turns out for such literary events at one bookstore, what larger literary context do we then inhabit? As mentioned, the tiny town of Monroeville has produced some mighty writing talents such as Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Mark Childress. Was there a minor literary revival in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood in the 1960s and 70s when Gene Crutcher’s bookstore became the intellectual nexus for a generation of young writers like Allen Barra, Steven Ford Brown, the Covingtons (Dennis and Vicki), and Michael Swindle? Could we be in the midst of another literary revival with the Civil Rights-inspired novels and autobiographies by local writers such as Sena Jeter Naslund, Paul Hemphill, Diane McWhorter, Leah Rawls Atkins, Howell Raines, and others who experienced the turbulent 1950s and 60s here? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that Alabamians—writers, readers, professors, and anyone proud of their state and fellow citizens—should play a part in the ultimate decision.
It’s the same with those “stretch” Alabama writers, the one where arguments might wear thin such as Zora Neale Hurston (born in Notasulga), Lillian Hellman (Demopolis, her mother’s home, is the setting for her play, The Little Foxes), James Agee (whose seminal work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, deals with Alabama sharecroppers in the 1930s), and others. Without Alabama, their oeuvre begins to look quite different, and I can’t help but take some pride in our state’s contribution to this expanse of literature.
It’s a minute point, perhaps, but, while other states tend to rally round the writers and poets that once called this-and-that spot a home, what is Alabama’s literary heritage? Who gets to claim it? My answer? We all do, it’s just there for the taking. Jay Lamar, director of the Alabama Center for the Book, tends to agree. A part of the Outreach Office for Auburn University’s College of Liberal Arts, the Center works to share scholarship and learning with the state of Alabama by promoting reading, literacy, and Alabama writers. Lamar spends much of her time discussing and expanding on just what an Alabama writer might be. “In Alabama, we tend to look to Georgia and Mississippi, and we have no idea of the literary heritage we can boast,” Lamar says. “Somehow fiction helps us understand ourselves or see ourselves more clearly.”
As we begin to look more deeply at the literature that we as Alabamians create, we begin to understand more clearly the contributions, the impact, and the rich history we have to draw upon, both in literature and in life. It raises the question: Does all this really matter? I don’t know, but we all get to decide.
Todd Keith (BA ’91) is a past editor of PORTICO Magazine in Birmingham. He is currently editor of SweetTea Journal and Senior Editor of Thicket. A version of this essay appeared in the October 2006 edition of Portico.