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Alabama Writers
in the 20th Century

(In the text below, an asterisk [*] denotes a book that has been reprinted by the University of Alabama Press in its Library of Alabama Classics series.)

"As the last decade of the century progresses, and as we look back at what should remain alive in the next, there seems a good chance that Southern literature of the twentieth century will be remembered and read as one of the permanent gifts of modern times. A list of the best of Southern writers...would be recognized anywhere in the world where modern writing counts...." So claim the editors of a recent literature anthology. The so-called "Southern literary renascence," which had its beginnings in the 1920s, is not just a regional, but a national and international phenomenon. And Alabama helped to make it so.

The most famous of twentieth-century Southern writers is Nobel laureate and native Mississippian William Faulkner. In the 1930s, however, the fiction of Alabama's William Edward Campbell, who wrote under the pen name William March, was thought by some critics to be superior to Faulkner's. The Englishman Alistair Cooke, for example, called March "the unrecognized genius of our time" and ranked him "a whole ionosphere above Faulkner." March's first and last books, Company K (1933)* and The Bad Seed (1954) are probably his best known. The first is an affecting, brilliantly conceived novel drawing upon the author's World War I combat duty, while the other is a chilling story of a girl murderess which was made into a successful Broadway play and then movie. Like Faulkner, March created an imaginary geographical area where he placed much of his fiction; he called it Pearl County, and gave it the county seat of Reedyville, Alabama. The Looking Glass (1943), probably March's best novel, is set here, as are many stories in his collection Trial Balance (1945).*

The 1933 Pulitzer Prize for fiction was won by T. S. Stribling for his novel The Store,* part of an Alabama family-saga trilogy that included also The Forge* (1931) and The Unfinished Cathedral* (1934). A similar kind of work, set in south rather than north Alabama, was Lella Warren's Foundation Stone (1940),* a novel which rivaled Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind in popularity and sales. There were, in fact, many books being written in the 1930s about the Civil War. One, authored by Andrew Lytle, has been described as follows: "A first-rate novel that provides vivid descriptions of Alabama during an important period in the state's history, The Long Night * is set in the vicinity of Montgomery, Alabama, between 1850 and 1865. Originally published in 1936, the book is based on a true story related to Lytle by one of his close friends and colleagues at Vanderbilt University, Frank L. Owsley, who later became the chairman of the University of Alabama Department of History."

The cradle of the Civil Rights Movement as well as of the Confederacy, Alabama boasts a number of writers who have dealt with this critical time and subject of the twentieth century. Three of the best such novels are by Elise Sanguinetti, Madison Jones, and Harper Lee. Sanguinettis's The Last of the Whitfields* is, like Lee's world-renowned book, both a serious and a humorous story about a young girl's educational coming of age. Jones's A Cry of Absence has been called "a masterpiece of fictional art" and "the last pure tragedy written by a Southerner." Of Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, which is a world classic, it can be claimed that no book is more thoroughly Alabama and more universal through and through. Written by a supremely talented storyteller with a keen sense of humor and a keen, evident sense of history, it is also, in many ways, thoroughly American. Lee once gave a description of Albert Picket's 1851 History of Alabama that also characterizes her famous novel: it is, she said, "composed of small dramas within a huge drama, much of it drawn from the memories of those who were there." Just as Lee's novel can be seen, and used, to bring both the Depression 1930s and the Civil Rights 1950s into affecting focus, three novels that deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority can be so employed as well. William Bradford Huie, Borden Deal, and Madison Jones all recognized fundamental political, ecological, and economic issues, and great inherent human drama, in the TVA's flooding of vast areas of land and mandatory relocation of families. They wrote about these in, respectively, Mud on the Stars (1941),* Dunbar's Cove (1957), and A Buried Land (1963).

To the fine works listed in the summary that provide memorable representative looks into family and social life, urban and rural life, of ordinary twentieth-century Alabamians, many more titles could be added. Julian Lee Rayford's Cottonmouth (1941),* Oxford Stroud's Marbles (1991), and Nancy Huddleston Packer's Jealous-Hearted Me (1997) are only three of the rich possibilities. So many superb Alabama poets and fiction writers, especially, are at work today that the term "renaissance" is specifically being employed to describe the literary culture of the state as the twenty-first century approaches.

Also, autobiography, not always widely thought of as literature, has been a notable Alabama achievement throughout the twentieth century. At century's end, accomplishment here remains impressive both quantitatively and qualitatively—as simply the names of Kathryn Tucker Windham, folk tale and ghost story teller extraordinaire, and Howell Raines and Rick Bragg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, may serve to attest.