As a Road Scholar with the N.C. Humanities Council, I offer a talk entitled, “What Makes a Southern Story Southern?” It’s based on reading I did for my MFA degree a few years ago. The Southern question sprung out of research on an unrelated topic. As I read story after story, I noticed patterns among Southern stories. And I took notes.
It was very audacious of me. I am not a native of the South but, as the saying goes, I got here as soon as I could: 1979. I realize that I can never be a bona fide Southerner, but over the past 34 years, I’ve learned a few things about Southern life.
There’s a maxim in literary circles that all authentic Southern tales must include a dead mule. I thought this was a joke until I found the source of the claim: the late Dr. Jerry Leath Mills, an esteemed professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He wasn’t kidding. In his research of “thirty prominent 20th-century Southern authors,” (his words) he found no less than 200 dead mules mentioned. He concluded that the dead mule is absolutely required in Southern literature. In fact, he termed it an “definitive, delimiting and final.”
Dr. Mills’ research would imply that a Southern author on average writes about 6 2/3 dead mules during the course of his or her publishing career. If that’s true, I’d better get started.
Yet, there were no deceased mules in the works of Harper Lee, James Agee or Carson McCullers. Somehow they skipped the rule and managed to get into the Southern canon.
OK, so I have doubts about Dr. Mills’ rule, but what if he’s correct? What if Lee, Agee and McCullers managed to slip into the Southern hall of fame without paying their mule dues? At what point do Faulkner wannabes make the mule a self-fulfilling prophecy? When does the dead mule become a cliche’?
My guess is a long time ago.
Whenever a mortal claims a cast-in-concrete rule, red flags go up for me. How can something as fluid and complex as Southern literature be boiled down to a litmus test? This is as silly as claiming that a “true” Southern meal must include barbecue or grits and red-eye gravy, or hush puppies or fried pies.
Well, maybe fried pies.
I believe there are several elements that make a story Southern: race, religion, alcohol and a strong sense of place, to name just four. There are others, but with all due respect to Dr. Mills, a dead mule isn’t one of them.