In 2009, the Oxford American polled 134 scholars and writers for the five best Southern nonfiction books of all time.
#1 LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by JAMES AGEE,
with photography by Walker Evans (1941)
The reception of this book has varied over the years. Sometimes, Agee’s meditative prose has been emphasized (or condemned as over-wrought), while at others, Evans’s classic photographs are seen to make this an unusually important book. But what isn’t emphasized quite enough is the way the book combines a modernist, experimental aesthetic with a kind of documentary intention. What makes LUNPFM so groundbreaking is the effort to escape the formal constraints (and assumptions) of the 1930s documentary, while preserving the attempt to “document,” in some fundamental way, the lives of those who have been forgotten or used.
In LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, Agee employs elements of fiction, the personal essay, poetry, and Walker Evans’s photography to depict the landscape and people of the South as well as to reveal the values and character of the region. Simultaneously personal and universal, this book dramatizes the collective consciousness, the soul of the South.
#2 BLACK BOY by RICHARD WRIGHT (1945)
Wright accomplished the astonishing in 1945, simply by reflecting on his Mississippi childhood as a true twentieth-century thinker, blunt on race and comfortable with Freud. He got word never to come back to Mississippi, not that he wanted to. President Obama cites Wright in DREAMS OF MY FATHER, which uses the same reflective hindsight that Wright first employed.
—Ellen Ann Fentress
One cannot understand the American South without reading BLACK BOY.
—Connie May Fowler
#3 THE MIND OF THE SOUTH by W.J. CASH (1941)
Presentist critics are quick to point out its racism and sexism, but Cash’s book captured the Southern white mentality and its origins brilliantly.
—James C. Cobb
Thanks, Wilbur, for attempting to untangle us and for presenting us as worthy of consideration.
#4 ONE WRITER'S BEGINNINGS by EUDORA WELTY (1984)
A brief book that glows. In retracing her dawning literary consciousness, Eudora Welty manages to settle once and for all (in an aside) the reason why we should even read literature in the first place. Her artistic interest in capturing life (as a documentary photographer and as a fiction writer) led her to the awareness that “there’s so much more of life that only words can convey.” A confounding thought for those who resort to the slippery excuse that there are some things that words just cannot describe.
—Carol Ann Fitzgerald
#5 THE CIVIL WAR: A NARRATIVE by SHELBY FOOTE (1958-1974)
With narrative techniques closer to the novel, Foote writes a compelling story of the leaders and battles of the war that forged the country as it has come to be.
It started off as a minor project for Foote and became the work and monument of a lifetime. Its three volumes disproved Walt Whitman’s prophecy that “the real war will never get in the books.”