South Toward Home

“The South is not just the setting;” Alabama-born Margaret Eby writes in her new book South Toward Home, “it’s the soul of the thing.” Her conclusion comes at the finish of a winding road trip through the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia), literary sites dotting her map. Eby describes her pilgrimage—and the act of reading Southern literature in general—as an “ongoing cartographic exercise, to trace and retrace the boundaries of the South, to try to figure out what it contains. It’s about figuring out just where exactly you are. It’s about going home.”

The first home Eby visits is Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson, Mississippi. Rather than finding a stuffy museum, Eby feels welcomed. “I can breathe here,” she writes from Welty’s garden. The writer’s house, Eby reports, “feels less like entering another person’s home than like dropping into one of her stories.” The objects on display are likely to give the avid reader “literary déjà vu.”

For readers of Southern literature, Eby’s book will produce a similar effect, recalling favorite passages and exploring the legacy of such writers as William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Harper Lee and Truman Capote. As her selected canon of Southern writers spans genres and generations, Eby’s book works as a wonderful primer to the literature of the South. Eby interacts with the objects and settings that filled the lives of these writers, such as Faulkner’s liquor cabinet and the courthouse of To Kill a Mockingbird. She tours John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans, Barry Hannah’s fishing spot and even has a memorable encounter with Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks.
 
Throughout her travels, Eby applies a keen eye to the literature of the South, searching out the relationship between the writers’ oeuvre and their roots. “When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside of him,” Flannery O’Connor writes in The Fiction Writer and his Country. “Art,” she asserts, “requires a delicate adjustment of the inner and outer worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other. To know oneself is to know one’s region.” The joy of such art is that it can transport the reader into a new cultural geography, an experience Atticus Finch describes in To Kill a Mockingbird. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” he tells Scout, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As she stands taking in the writer’s well-manicured garden, Eby recalls Eudora Welty’s words: “One place comprehended helps us understand all places better.”