Among southern states, only Mississippi, by virtue of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wright,
Georgia writing developed in response to the same events and forces that shaped the national literature: the disappearance of the frontier, the expansion of industry, the growth of cities, the trauma of war and depression, and the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. Yet factors unique to the state also left their marks. The relatively late founding of the Georgia colony in 1733 and the persistence of the frontier well into the nineteenth century significantly influenced the state's literature—especially its penchant for humor and violence—and its emphasis on regional themes and settings. In the twentieth century the explosive growth of Atlanta and its impact on surrounding areas has also played a powerful role.
Beginnings to 1900
The first writing in Georgia was not really intended to be literature. It came in the form of letters, diaries, journals, political speeches, and newspaper articles. These provide a valuable record of the state's early history and of the lives of its residents. General James Oglethorpe's journal entries, for instance, report on the early days of the colony's settlement, while Hugh McCall's History of Georgia (1811-16) chronicles the colony's development through the end of the eighteenth century.
But the first important literature did not appear until early in the nineteenth century, when the prominence of the frontier in Georgia,
The earliest and most popular Georgia humorist was Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, whose 1835 collection, Georgia Scenes, helped define the southern humor genre. Like much southern humor, Longstreet's sketches are often brutal; in "The Fight" town rowdies engage in bloody combat, which is described in graphic detail. In "The Horse-Swap" an unsuspecting man is swindled when he trades for a horse with a festering saddle sore (a tale that influenced William Faulkner's novel The Hamlet). "The Gander Pulling" describes a small-town contest in which young men on horseback compete to be the first to pull the head off a goose suspended from a tree.
Another Georgia humorist was William Tappan Thompson, whose charming narrator-farmer, Major Jones, writes letters to a city newspaper editor about life in rural Georgia. Thompson's sketches, written mainly during the 1840s, are unusually gentle for the southern humor tradition. Bill Arp (Charles Henry Smith) wrote satirical newspaper columns later in the century (the mid-twentieth-century Piney Woods Pete was his successor). Slave tales preserved by Joel Chandler Harris in the Uncle Remus stories show how African Americans practiced the genre as well.
Readers who found southern humor too vulgar could turn to other kinds of writing. One alternative was the sentimental fiction
The end of the Civil War (1861-65) marked a clear point of division in the state's history and literature. Joel Chandler Harris, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, wrote an impressive variety of stories, novels, and sketches. He is best known for his Uncle Remus tales. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings appeared in 1880 and was followed over the next twenty-seven years by four more volumes. Some regard these tales as sentimental or racist, but many of them were written with a psychological perceptiveness and a real desire to preserve these remnants of African slave culture.
Another late-nineteenth-century Georgia writer was the realist Will Harben, who focused on poor Georgia whites and who dedicated to Harris one of his best-known books, Northern Georgia Sketches (1900). Harris, along with William Tappan Thompson, Bill Arp, Henry W. Grady, and others, worked during the late decades of the nineteenth century at the Atlanta Constitution, a newspaper that played an important role in the development of the state's literature.
Georgia's leading nineteenth-century poet was Sidney Lanier, a Civil War veteran and accomplished musician. Lanier's total poetic output amounts to just under 100 poems. Though not often anthologized today, he wrote several poems of considerable merit—especially "The Marshes of Glynn" (1879) and "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877). The success of these poems stems from the natural music of Lanier's language and his ability to evoke the emotional impact of landscape.
In "The Song of the Chattahoochee" Lanier playfully manipulates meter, line length, and geographical place-names
The Twentieth Century
Throughout the twentieth century Georgia writers continued to explore their changing region and gradually began
Race was clearly a central issue for twentieth-century Georgia writers. Encouraged by the slow but undeniable progress in Atlanta and other cities, and by the Harlem Renaissance in the North, African Americans in Georgia began to write in every genre. Several public leaders were among them. The educator and philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois, on the faculty of Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) from 1897 to 1910, encouraged the development of a cultural and political identity for blacks in Atlanta and the nation. His 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk remains an important study of race and racism in American society. Walter White, a founder and the first executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote two novels, Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926), a distinguished autobiography (A Man Called White, 1948), and several studies of racism in America.
African American writers faced a complicated set of issues. Foremost among them were the question of identity and
Race was also important for white writers. Among them, Lillian Smith gave the issue the most controversial treatment for her time.
Among the notable works by Georgians during the 1920s and 1930s were novels by women. Frances Newman, a Georgia Institute of Technology librarian, wrote two highly stylized novels about southern women
Three years later another Georgia novel, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936), also won the Pulitzer. This perennially best-selling book was made into a film widely regarded as a classic of its era. Mitchell sought to present a historically accurate account of the nineteenth-century South and the place of women in a male-dominated society defeated in war. Her descriptions of Tara, the plantation home of the O'Hara family, and of the main character, Scarlett O'Hara, have become indistinguishable in the popular imagination from the historical reality of the Old South. Despite a number of brilliant scenes, many critics argue that Gone With the Wind is marred by stereotyped characters and a flawed vision of southern history.
Perhaps the best-known Georgia writer during the 1930s was Erskine Caldwell. His novels Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933) offered controversial studies of poor whites in eastern Georgia during the depression.
The publication of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940 by twenty-three-year-old Carson McCullers of Columbus marked the emergence of another major figure. McCullers's wistful, elegiac portraits of isolated, repressed, and psychologically tormented individuals in small southern towns gained her a national reputation. She followed her first novel with Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946), and a series of short stories. By the time she published what many consider her best work, The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), her health was failing, and her career was nearly finished.
Less well known, and more traditional in his use of regional subjects and literary forms, was Byron Herbert Reece, a north Georgia mountain poet and novelist. His melancholic, dark lyrics about disappointment in love and emotional and physical suffering also express a strong devotion to the region of his birth. His novels Better a Dinner of Herbs (1950) and The Hawk and the Sun (1955) are evocative portrayals of modern life and its problems in small-town north Georgia.
With the civil rights movement, the growth of Atlanta into an international city, the crisis in farming, and the dawning of the information age, Georgia plunged headlong into modernity. Writers in the state explore the receding past as a way of understanding their regional identity, examine the difficulties of adjusting to a rapidly changing society, or chronicle those scenes and characters that the modern world threatens to push out of the way. No longer does the state's regional character seem a mark of separateness.
Such writers as Raymond Andrews, Olive Ann Burns, Terry Kay, Ferrol Sams, and Alice Walker turn to the past to recover and define their origins, to place themselves more securely in the modern landscape.
Four writers have dominated the literary landscape of modern Georgia. Flannery O'Connor, who died in 1964, was a major figure in American writing.
James Dickey's poetry, novels, and literary criticism made him a dominating figure in American writing during the 1960s and 1970s. He began publishing in the 1950s,
A third important figure is Alice Walker. She has written from a number of perspectives, exploring the nature of life for black Americans in the modern world and examining the plight of women—especially women of color—in a male-dominated society.
The career of Harry Crews extends through the last three decades of the twentieth century and includes an impressive list of novels about marginal characters in the nether regions of the modern South. His perspective is darkly comic, and he often focuses on deformed or tormented characters (following in O'Connor's tradition): a paraplegic wrestler in The Gypsy's Curse (1974), a female body-builder in Body (1990), a failed college athlete who lives in a trailer park near the rattlesnake capital of the world in A Feast of Snakes (1976). Crews's fiction advocates stoicism in the face of despair and defeat. His memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978), about his early life as the son of a south Georgia sharecropper, is considered by many to be his best book.
Georgia Writers Today
Contemporary Georgia has produced an impressive group of poets and fiction writers. David Bottoms, Georgia's poet laureate from 2000 to 2012, is one of the leading poets of the last thirty years,
In fiction, the novels of Pat Conroy, largely set outside Georgia, have gained a wide following, as have those of Anne Rivers Siddons. Charlie Smith's fiction about torment, sex, and violence in the Deep South has also received national attention. Ferrol Sams gained a popular following with a trilogy of novels about life in early-twentieth-century Fayette County. Pam Durban's stories and novels have established her as a leading writer of southern fiction,
In nonfiction, Melissa Fay Greene with Praying for Sheetrock (1991) and The Temple Bombing (1996), James Kilgo with Deep Enough for Ivorybills (1988) and Inheritance of Horses (1994), and Janisse Ray with Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (1999) gained national followings.
In drama, Margaret Edson's play Wit was produced on Broadway, made into an HBO film, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999. One of the leading contemporary American dramatists has been Atlantan Alfred Uhry, whose plays, including Driving Miss Daisy (1987), The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1996), and Parade (1999), a musical based on the Leo Frank case, were produced on Broadway. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a Tony award, and an Academy Award for the film version of Driving Miss Daisy. Plays by Pearl Cleage have also been widely performed.
Georgia writers have written about the same subjects that have interested writers across history and throughout the world: family, war, hardship, ambition, love and death, change, the search for knowledge and meaning. But Georgia has provided its writers with a context of history and geography, with social and cultural values, that give their work an identity grounded in time and place, a shared heritage and experience, which out of all the world's literature and history make it distinctive and unique.
Michael E. Price, Stories with a Moral: Literature and Society in Nineteenth-Century Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000).
Louis D. Rubin et al., The History of Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).
Hugh Ruppersburg, ed., After O'Connor: Stories from Contemporary Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003).
Hugh Ruppersburg, ed., Georgia Voices: Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992).
Hugh Ruppersburg, ed., Georgia Voices: Nonfiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994).
Hugh Ruppersburg, ed., Georgia Voices: Poetry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000).
Hugh Ruppersburg, University of Georgia
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