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The Best Southern Words Ever?

Who knows? But here, in commonplace-book fashion, as compiled by a commoner, are dogged candidates.

“It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it.” —Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

“The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he cant know. He cant know whether knowledge will save him or kill him.” —Robert Penn Warren, All the Kings Men

“It is sheer nonsense to insist that obstacles are really opportunities and that chaos is constructive! Nevertheless, most stories are irrefutable evidence that such is precisely the urgent secret which most of the great masters of fiction have always been trying to reveal.” —Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues

“If you aren’t doing something different, you aren’t doing anything.” —Sam Phillips

“Even failure is worth while and admirable, provided only that the failure is splendid enough.” —William Faulkner, Essays, Speeches, & Public Letters

“He never did know how to cease trying.” —Marshall Frady, Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life

“Each of us is two selves. And the great burden of life is always to keep that higher self in command. Don’t let the lower self take over.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life

“Everything’s been said, but it needs saying again.” —Ernest J. Gaines, Conversations with....

“This is another thing about the world which is upside-down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.” —Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

“I know exactly what to do, what to say to this girl, if the hydrogen bomb should fall. But what if it does not?” —From an unpublished fragment by Walker Percy quoted in Jay Tolson’s Pilgrim in the Ruins

“People are much more eccentric than they’re supposed to be. But dully so.” —Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

“Now and again something utterly ridiculous occurs which makes us laugh, as if there were no problem of money, no unfriendly world to reckon with.” —Evelyn Scott, Escapade

“Bollard lived on the top floor of the Napoles Apartments and wrote novels. Of the grim modern kind, if I can read faces. I hadn’t read his books. My fear was that they might not be quite as bad as I wanted them to be.” —Charles Portis, Gringos

“When I listen to old music, that’s one of the few times that I actually have a kind of love for humanity. You hear the best part of the soul of the common people, you know—their way of expressing their connection to eternity or whatever you want to call it.” —Joe Bussard quoted in Eddie Dean’s “Desperate Man Blues”

“[Rock & roll] was widely perceived as a rebellion, but it was more an assertion of personality and possibility than anything else.” —Robert Palmer, Blues & Chaos

“All music is folk music—I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” —Louis Armstrong

“A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.” —Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves a Form

“That word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack....” —William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.” —James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

“The river was blank and mindless with beauty.” —James Dickey, Deliverance

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” —Mark Twain

“I was not leaving the South to forget the South, but so that some day I might understand it.” —Richard Wright, Black Boy

“Mamma has a new silage cutter and Mrs. W. has a new set of teeth. Otherwise nothing that I know of has happened in the United States since you left.” —Flannery O'Connor, Letters of....

“From the taboo on criticism of slavery, it was but an easy step to interpreting every criticism of the South on whatever score as disloyalty—to making such criticism so dangerous that none but a madman would risk it.” —W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South

“Criticism and progress, to be effective, must be iconoclastic and pugnacious. Before a sound literature can arise in the South, the old nonsense must be knocked down, and from within. It will be useless to attempt a compromise. You must arm yourself and take to the high road, ready to cut throats whenever it is necessary. The thing must be done boldly, and...a bit cruelly.” —H.L. Mencken, letter to Emily Clark, editor & co-founder of The Reviewer, a journal founded in 1921 in Richmond

“Al [Smith] has been ruined, I greatly fear, by associating with rich men—a thing far more dangerous to politicians than even booze or the sound of their own voices.” —H.L. Mencken, “Hoover in 1932”

Any man who can get the money necessary to be elected Governor of Texas,’ my companion said, doesn’t deserve to be Governor of Texas.’” —Willie Morris, North Toward Home

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.” —W.E.B. DuBois

“I see where hatred of the flesh comes from. It is through the flesh that you are at everyone’s mercy.” —Evelyn Scott, Escapade

“Dull people filled him with terror.” —Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

“He was so bitter with his tongue because his heart believed so much.” —Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

“Is there any sleeping person you can be entirely sure you have not misjudged?” —Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” —Mark Twain

“He looked a little greasy.” —Sam Phillips on Elvis, quoted in Robert Palmer’s Blues & Chaos

“For all I know writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.” —Eudora Welty, “Words into Fiction”

“There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain.” —Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

“Literature is the history of the soul.” —Barry Hannah

“You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.” —William Faulkner, Essays, Speeches, & Public Letters

“Only vegetables are happy.” —William Faulkner, Selected Letters 


Art: “Breathe” (2007) by Adrain Chesser.


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