Anyone can tour the homes of the South’s most revered authors—many have been preserved and welcome visitors. You can take a trip to Rowan Oak and stand in the very room where Faulkner drafted his most famous lines, or chase after O’Connor’s peacocks on Andalusia Farm. You can admire the swimming pool in the backyard of the Hemingway House. Even if you’ve already made a pilgrimage to one of those famed locations, South Toward Home: Travels In Southern Literature by Margaret Eby offers something that you can’t get on tours: biographies of authors mixed with textual support from their books, immersed within Eby's own engaging journey as a student of literature.
South Toward Home is Eby’s personal tribute to famed writers of the South: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and many more. Eby herself hails from Alabama and often recalls her past, which was dotted with the presence of Southern literary icons, one in particular. Eby’s father, a doctor at the University of Alabama, once received a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from a patient who happened to be Harper Lee’s neighbor. Years later, Eby was dismayed when she missed a friend’s potluck in New York that Lee happened to attend. Her interest in Lee appears to have propelled her to question, more broadly, what makes Southern writers unique. To find out, she visited their homes to observe the places that inspired their work.
Eby writes that a Southern writer has a “fierce attachment to a particular place, and a commitment to exploring its limits in his or her work.” Sure, these authors are “Southern” writers because they write about the South. But by way of writing, Eby argues, they have become a part of the South’s history. Thus, Eby’s travels serve to document the impact these icons have made on their hometowns. South Toward Home is also a personal story. Besides exploring how great Southern writers influenced their region, with her book Eby aims to contribute to their literary legacy.
Her first stop is Jackson, Mississippi, for a visit to Eudora Welty’s garden. Of Welty’s relationship to her city, Eby writes, Jackson “hailed her as a hero.” Today, the garden is well kept and cared for by the state of Mississippi, and it continues to be a place of inspiration for writers, including Eby: “I can breathe there. It feels, to me, like a place full of small and camouflaged treasures.” Ultimately she downplays the garden visit, using it as a lens to focus on the past. Eby’s return to the present seems to serve only as an illuminating affirmation of Welty’s lasting influence.
Eby structures most of the book’s chapters this way, crafting bridges between the life of a writer and the places he or she recreated in fiction. The present-tense pilgrimages serve as meditations on how the towns have either changed or remained the same. In these reflections, Eby also observes how every town responds to their homegrown authors in different ways.
Take Jackson’s relationship with Richard Wright. Eby notices that although Wright grew up in Jackson (he was just a year older than Welty), his house has not been preserved. It isn’t there at all. The town didn’t publically appreciate him until 1985, when the governor dedicated a week to his honor. Eby quotes from Black Boy, wherein Wright describes his hope that one day the South—the South that made him suffer a lifetime of injustice—would “grow differently” into a more accepting place.
South Toward Home is a very good book for readers with a general interest in Southern literature, or for fans who want to learn more about their favorite authors. Perhaps this literary travelogue will encourage engagement with storied texts off the page. It is easy to imagine readers having a similar experience as Eby did when she visited Constantinople Street in New Orleans, in her exploration of John Kennedy Toole: “I had been straining my ears for Ignatius’s bellows, Irene’s sighs. . . . Toole so deftly populated the street with their clamor that I had half expected to be able to eavesdrop on them.”