10 Books by Southern Authors Every High School Student Should Read
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
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This autobiographical novel by the incomparable Maya Angelou deals with serious themes, but does so adroitly and in searingly beautiful prose. A National Book Award nominee in 1970, you’ll find this book on syllabi all over the country every fall. Angelou is one of the most beloved of American literary figures; her work as a poet, essayist, and activist made her into one of the country’s most recognizable writers. When she recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, she was the first person to do so since Robert Frost read at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961–and only the second poet ever to read at an inauguration. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the most famous of her seven book-long autobiographical cycle.
One Writer's Beginnings
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This book by Eudora Welty was originally presented as a series of lectures at Harvard University. In it, she relates her early life in Mississippi to the things that caused her to become a writer. She writes touchingly of her parents and their struggle to make sure that books were always a fixture in the house. Dictionaries were kept on stands, new books made appearances at Christmas and on birthdays. Much like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, this is a must-read for those who might be considering a career in letters. Not only does Welty describe what it took to make her into a writer, but the work opens a window into the life of the award-winning author.
Selected Short Stories
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No list with the words “Southern” and “author” would be complete without the inclusion of William Faulkner. While some of his later, more baroque works may be a little challenging for high schoolers, his short fiction is a good way to get to know the iconic Southern writer. Though better known for his novels, Faulkner was a master at the short story format. This book collects everything from “A Rose for Emily” (his first work to be published nationally), to multiple visits into his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the Mississippi locale that so many of Faulkner’s characters inhabit.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
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A beloved classic, this novel by Mark Twain is sure to be at the top of every high school curriculum, north or south of the Mason Dixon line. A strong contender for the Great American Novel distinction, the story of Huck and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi still rings fresh as an adventure story today. Readers will delight in the appearance of that other beloved Twain creation, Tom Sawyer. Ernest Hemingway said of the book, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The debate over Twain’s controversial use of language continues today, but the one thing that no one is debating is this novel’s rightful place in the American canon of great fiction.
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This 1899 novella by author Kate Chopin is widely regarded as one of the first feminist novels. Its heroine, Edna, finds herself adrift in her Southern Louisiana life as a wife and mother. A summer at a seaside resort leaves her listless and longing for a man who is not her husband. Unable to continue this life, she makes the uncommon step of moving out of her husband’s house and attempting to make her own living. From its almost-idyllic beginning to the tragic end, this Southern novella received much negative attention when it was published. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it began to be recognized as the feminist masterpiece that it is. A must-read for students both female and male.
The Collected Works
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Perhaps best known for her brilliant short stories, Georgia native Flannery O’Connor was a master of that art form, though her novels do not lack the brilliant lens through which she transforms the banal into far more than the sum of its parts. A Roman Catholic in the mostly Protestant South, O’Connor admitted the role of her faith in her world view and, ultimately, her writing. This edition combines her novels, the first of which was Wise Blood, with her collections of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Further essays and critical work are also included in this volume, which is essential for any student of literature, from Washington state to Washington, D.C.
The Glass Menagerie
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Filled with semi-autobiographical detail, this classic Tennessee Williams play was an instant hit upon its release in 1944. Williams was previously little-known, let alone hailed as the master of the Southern Gothic genre that he came to be. Set in St. Louis, the play addresses the plight of a mother with two children, struggling to make ends meet. Tom, the son, works in a factory to support Laura, his crippled sister and Amanda, his mother. Amanda is obsessed with finding a gentleman caller for Laura, who is so shy that she dropped out of high school. The play takes its name from Laura’s collection of glass figurines, which she has created to help fill her long days as a shut-in. Though relatively little occurs in this play, it’s a wonderful read full of well-developed characters and rife with enough symbolism for at least two term papers.
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This short, intense, dystopian novel is a good introduction to the great works of author Cormac McCarthy. Though some of his work (we’re lookin’ at you Blood Meridian) can be challenging, this novel of a father and son’s journey through a ravaged, post-apocalyptic America is at once tautly written and incredibly readable. The father and son duo face cannibals, criminals, and the spectre of the boy’s mother, who, unable to live in this new world, took her own life. The book was named as an Oprah Book Club selection, and McCarthy famously gave his only on-air interview to date with the talk show host. In 2007, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. It was subsequently made into a popular movie.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
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This classic by Zora Neale Hurston follows the trials and travails of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman living in the Jim Crow South, as she recounts life events to her friend. In this novel–widely recognized as a classic both as a feminist text and as a great American book–Hurston spins a tale of a woman with a mind of her own in a time and place where passivity was the expected manner of behavior for women. Janie’s relationships with her three husbands provoke thoughtful conversation about the subversion of normative gender roles. Published in 1937, this product of the Harlem Renaissance was written while Hurston was on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Haiti.
To Kill a Mockingbird
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This Harper Lee classic is assigned almost universally at high schools across the country. Whether you’ve yet to read it, or you’re reading it again, this classic novel, narrated by one of fiction’s most beloved children, Scout Finch, will transport you to the rural South of the mid-twentieth century. Set in a fictionalized version of her native Monroeville, Alabama, Lee sensitively and dexterously deals with issues of race relations in the Jim Crow South; Atticus Finch, so memorably brought to life by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film, was based on her father, a local lawyer. Lee’s vivid prose is oft-quoted and for good reason–this novel is, quite simply, a masterpiece.