Let's just say that my favorite Southern novel is THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD! —from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s ballot
FOLLOW THESE LINKS FOR THE DELUXE, EXPANDED, ONLINE-ONLY EDITION OF THE OA SOUTHERN LIT POLL featuring an annotated list of the results (500 or so fiction, nonfiction, and underrated masterpieces—and why you might want to add them to your reading list), information about our 134 Judges, and opportunities for our readers to enter the great debate.
ABSALOM, ABSALOM! by WILLIAM FAULKNER (1936) (120 votes)
A profound exploration of race and all its attendant complexities. Faulkner’s rendering of the Southern “class” struggle through the life of one figure, Thomas Sutpen, makes Absalom, Absalom! the only serious rival to Melville’s Moby-Dick as the great American novel.
ALL THE KING’S MEN by ROBERT PENN WARREN (1946) (80 votes)
Robert Penn Warren’s book is an unqualified masterpiece. It is all-encompassing and eclipses everything else on the list. One could make a reasonable case for its being the greatest American novel ever written. Seemingly nothing escapes its scope or ambition. —Ben George
All the King’s Men is a terribly ambitious and sometimes maddening novel, five or six novels crammed into one. It is cumbersome, perhaps, but it is a generative novel, a novel that is so innovative it changed the novels that followed, or made them possible. Descendents of All the King’s Men are various—from popular political novels to, oddly, road novels like Kerouac’s (there is a whole Beat sequence in Warren’s book—a trip to California). And, in the weary voice of Jack Burden, we hear the slow, cosmic disappointment of Binx Bolling, who came after. —Moira Crone
THE SOUND AND THE FURY by WILLIAM FAULKNER (1929) (64 votes)
This stylized and ultra-literary concoction still manages to engage us. We work our way through four hundred pages of convoluted, sometimes impenetrable prose—and the members of the Compson family appear before us in all their appalling egoism, fear, greed, innocence, and hubris. Reading, you almost forget that this is fiction—the characters are so fully realized. As the final dissolution of the family comes to pass, you want to avert your eyes but you keep turning the pages—in fear and trembling. An unbearable tragedy, yet simultaneously a joy—as we recognize that the thirty-year-old, small-town author has gone the limit, investing his mind, soul, passion, psyche, everything, in the novel’s creation.
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by MARK TWAIN (1885) (58 votes)
If you can discern anything about the greatness of a book by how often someone has either banned it or tried to have it banned, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn surely must be the greatest Southern novel of all time. Critics can say what they want about the book’s ending, but I challenge anyone to come up with an American writer who was braver, funnier, and more eerily perceptive than Mark Twain. —Bronwen Dickey
Huck, the battered child, and Jim, the runaway slave, are capable of feeling painful sympathy, for each other and for others. Others aren’t so burdened. Huck wishes he weren’t. Others, including the King, the Duke of Bilgewater, Tom Sawyer, a justly popular undertaker, and the River itself, can put on a show. It’s the funniest great book there is. —Roy Blount, Jr.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by HARPER LEE (1960) (57 votes)
Okay, this is kind of like voting for Albert Pujols as best hitter—really predictable. But who doesn’t love this novel for its descriptions, its drama and humor, its characters that are now ingrained in the American psyche, and its explorations not only of race in the South but also of femininity and class? Even the questions that hover around the book (why did Harper Lee not write another? just what was Truman Capote’s role?) have become part of its lure.
Even though it simplifies race relations in the South, and even though Atticus really could have done more to save an innocent man’s life, almost every American remembers reading this book as a watershed moment. —Michael Kreyling
THE MOVIEGOER by WALKER PERCY (1961) (55 votes)
In Percy’s classic tale of love and longing in New Orleans, Binx Bolling woos his secretary, falls for his cousin, and muses lyrically on the nature of the search. This book has kept me company in China, Slovenia, Argentina. When I’m going to be away from home for any extended period of time, The Moviegoer is as essential a part of my travel kit as my toothbrush. I can open it to any page and instantly feel calmed. “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
If a better book than The Moviegoer has been written, I’ll cut off my little toe. —Ada Liana Bidiuc
AS I LAY DYING by WILLIAM FAULKNER (1930) (52 votes)
I once heard a poet say she never reads novels. When asked why, she said, “Because I always get about twenty pages in and then I realize, hmm, THIS isn’t As I Lay Dying.” In comparison, everything else is a bit of a disappointment. —Keith Lee Morris
INVISIBLE MAN by RALPH ELLISON (1952) (47 votes)
Write a novel this good and this significant that doesn’t die in the pursuit of significance but, instead, comes alive. Go on. We’ll wait.
WISE BLOOD by FLANNERY O’CONNOR (1952) (44 votes)
Flannery O’Connor’s seriously dark comedy Wise Blood is among the finest American novels squarely about religion—awash with street preachers, yearning rustics, fake and genuine self-inflicted blindness, roaming pigs, a stolen mummy pressed into service as a faux Holy Child, descriptions of an allegorical sky no one ever seems to see, a soul-consuming gorilla costume, and a battered black Essex automobile as pregnant with meaning as the Pequod in Moby-Dick. It is also a brilliant critique of what O’Connor called the “American tendency to address a problem by changing its appearance.”
Didn’t she turn over a rock with this one? And she didn’t flinch one bit. Renders the surreal believable. —Melissa Delbridge
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by ZORA NEALE HURSTON (1937) (41 votes)
Janie springs to life from the pages of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her half-understood yearning, her wordless understanding, grabs our hearts. Zora Neale Hurston, through her Janie—who, pondering under a pear tree, begins to understand what it means to try to live a fulfilled life—speaks for some of us in words, desires, and thoughts that we did not know could be articulated. She not only lives our experience, she makes it sing. —Jesmyn Ward
Click here for the rest of the best in fiction!
ABOVE PHOTOGRAPH BY DOUG HERBERT