Lush Rot

This article by Lincoln Michel originally appeared on Guernica on 3/17/14.

Flannery O’Connor, True Detective, Southern hip-hop, and the gnarled roots of Southern Gothic.

I don’t remember drinking sweet tea as a child, and no one in my family wore seersucker. But I do remember the kudzu. There wasn’t as much of “the vine that ate the South” in Virginia as there was in the Deep South, but there was a growth of it hidden in the woods that stretched between two branches of our neighborhood. My friends and I would play back there, launching smoke bombs from beneath the cover of giant leaves. It had already overtaken a football field length of land, descending down from a green tumor of a hill. Each year, it grew a little more, eating into the neighbors’ backyards.

The South is in a perpetual state of crumbling, at least in its own mythology. The paint is peeling off the walls. The yard is littered with trash. General Sherman burned the countryside to the ground. The plantation houses have been chewed apart by termites. Everything is collapsing and being overtaken by vines. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner describes the Deep South as “dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.” Of course, most of us can only play the most microscopic of violins for the collapse of an economy dependent on slavery, brutality, and dehumanization.

It’s comforting for Americans to see bigotry in art and entertainment confined to one ever-shrinking area. It allows us to admit our sins while simultaneously distancing ourselves from them.

This sense of rot and ruin is somehow fertile, like compost. The same region has given us everything from deep soul and bluegrass to southern hip-hop and sludge metal. Southern literature is also vast, yet perhaps best associated with Southern Gothic—a style of American literature that presents the South as land of freaks, violence, and the grotesque. This is the tradition that gave us such titans as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Cormac McCarthy.


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