The Manual of Southern Know-How

Expand Your Southern Canon

It’s time to crack the spines of the new literary classics

Photo: Ross MacDonald

Welty. Lee. Faulkner. Sure, sure. And you’re all set on Walker and Conroy—great. But you should also update your bookshelves with the definitive Southern fiction of the last two decades or so. Mary Laura Philpott—author and founding editor of Musing, the literary magazine produced by
Nashville’s Parnassus Books—recommends beginning with these novels. 

Cold Mountain
by Charles Frazier

Frazier weaves together a love story and one man’s lone journey through the Civil War–torn Appalachian landscape. What’s impressive about this book—and one of the reasons it won the National Book Award, I’d guess—is that it’s firmly anchored in the past but conveys a timeless, even contemporary, sense of the South on the brink of change.

by Ron Rash

Rash writes prose and poetry with awe-inspiring beauty and efficiency. Serena gives us one of the most memorable antiheroines in recent literary history, a woman who treats her fellow humans with the same destructive ruthlessness as she does the trees in her Depression-era logging town. It’s the most entertaining environmentalist message you’ll ever read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

Ward is the living queen of the literary South. My favorite is her latest, about a Mississippi family trying to hold their lives together despite mistakes and misfortune. It’s her second novel to win the National Book Award (the first was Salvage the Bones), and even though it just came out last year, I’m calling it: This one’s destined to become a classic.

The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver

Yes, it’s set almost entirely in the Congo. But what happens when this family of Southern Baptist missionaries from Georgia leave their home behind in the 1960s and venture to the other side of the world is in many ways a Southern story. It explores themes that run deep through Southern soil, such as the struggle to reconcile past with present, and the friction between well-intentioned plans and real-world truth.

by Hillary Jordan

I’m always delighted and envious when I find out someone hasn’t yet read this book. Set in 1940s Mississippi and centered around one family’s reckoning with the fallout of World War II, it’s so good I wish I could forget it just so I could discover it again.

The Known World
by Edward P. Jones

Jones won the Pulitzer for this novel about an 1850s plantation in Virginia where the slave owner is a free black man. Jones doesn’t shy away from examining every layer of nuance in the relationships among friends, family, neighbors, the enslaved, and owners. It’s a tense, nerve-racking, beautiful read—the kind of book you hope your friends will read, too, so you can discuss it.

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