"Dark Raven Days of Sorrow": Modern Southern Writers and Despair

Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Department of History
University of Florida

Literary critics--Allen Tate in particular--have generally explained the emergence of a Southern literary "Renascence" as a sociological and political awakening resulting from the Great War. I contend that the modernistic transformation of art, with Faulkner and company in the lead, grew out of a tradition of regional artists' experience with affective disorder that stretched back to the 1830s. Arnold Ludwig, Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, Felix Post, and the late Anthony Storr illuminate the interconnections of art, emotional turbulence, and creative, disciplined incentives to override yet another resurrection of hopelessness. The death or abandonment of one parent and a troubled relationship with the other have been common ingredients in the early lives of Southern writers. Genetic factors governing emotional stability played a role in the family histories of such notables as Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Conrad Aiken, Gail Godwin, Kaye Gibbon, and many others

In 1945 Allen Tate explained why, in the years between the two great wars, an outpouring of regional fiction and poetry far exceeded the quality of prior literary generations. In a quotation often cited, Tate argued, "With the war of 1914-1918, the South re-entered the world but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border," a retrospection, he continued, that furnished the nation with a "literature conscious of the past in the present." In that era of political and social upheaval, he contended, the writer's imagination found fertile soil for intellectual growth.

Although he did not realize it, Tate, as well as critics who followed his lead, was describing a psychological phenomenon and not a purely sociological one. How curious it is that so clear a tradition of Southern pessimism and personal gloom should not have received greater critical attention than it has. First, one must begin with Edgar Alan Poe and follow the trail of his influence as other Southern poets and authors in the nineteenth century were emboldened to do explore, albeit with much subterfuge, their own inner alienation. Among them was Sidney Lanier who provided the words used in my title. If you entertain doubts, see my Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition, which covers the lives, the art, and the travails of thinkers from Poe to Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow.

Second, literary creativity and problems of depression have long been associated. In fact, just the other day, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article about the poet Robert Lowell's entanglements with depressive insanity. Such psychiatric as specialists Arnold Ludwig, Anthony Storr, Robert Rothenberg, Felix Post, Nancy Andreasen, Kay Redfield Jamison, among others, and others have elaborated, quite brilliantly, on the interconnection of artistic achievement and depression.

Of course the melancholia under consideration here differs widely from the ordinary ups and downs of existence that all human beings experience. Moreover, it is an unhappy state of mind to which literary artists, both male and female, suffer quite out of proportion to the general population. Arnold Ludwig, for instance, reports that 75 per cent of those attending a recent women writers conference reported clinical affective illness, four times the ratio of control groups. Felix Post finds that among 291 of the most famous figures of our time, writers were by far the most likely to suffer from depression and alcoholism, so much so that he contends that these ailments are "causally linked to some kinds of valuable creativity."

The origins of that connection may lie, at least in part, in a sensitive child's exposure to the trauma of death. Kathleen Woodward reminds us that "our lives are shaped and reshaped by losses which are succeeded by restitution." When such adversities occur early in life, however, the child has no adequate means for dealing with feelings of anger, guilt, and sense of betrayal--nothing against which to compare these shocks to self-possession, no means to build rituals, memories from daily life, and analogies with other deaths that the adult can assemble and internalize. The problem of repression and torment is likely to reappear in later years when similar losses of loved ones occur, as inevitably they will. Anger so often arises with loss because there is nobody to blame for a death--no target except the self or others nearby when logic clearly protests their innocence.

That state of affairs--familial loss--is a major source of adult depression in writers and other imaginative careers. As if generalizing about his own reaction to his mother's death from cancer when he was twelve, William Styron recently observed, "I find it overwhelmingly convincing that the death of a parent at that moment in one's development--especially a mother--can be just absolutely catastrophic. And that if one somehow freezes out the need for mourning, it can get you much later in life." Indeed, as in Styron's case, an incomplete bereavement may make worse any problems that a family heritage of depression had already engendered. Loss of mothers may be highly significant in a child's earliest years, analyst Felix Brown has disclosed. Death or disappearance of fathers may be more serious during the teens. Nearly sixty per cent of the major English writers, whose biographies were extracted from the Oxford Book of English Verse and the National Dictionary of Biography, before the age of fifteen, lost one or both parents. In fact, the novelist George Meredith proposed that most artists were "deprived of a normal, happy and healthy childhood" with the result that they felt compelled "to compensate themselves for their lack of companionship and outward incident by an early life of dreams and fantasies." The death or abandonment of one parent and a troubled relationship with the other have been common factors in the early lives of writers.

As mentioned earlier another major component in the development of the emotional disorder is a familial predisposition as geneticists have lately discovered, particularly through studies of twins separated early in their lives. While recognizing early environmental components, Styron called his form of mental depression a "biochemical meltdown" with genetic origins. Lord Byron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the American Percys, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, James Agee, to name a few, have this feature in common: a record of extraordinary gifts of imagination coupled with various forms of melancholia, from deep psychosis to dysthymia, the mildest type of the malady. The continuity of familial depression through generations, even when only one or two members show remarkable talent, suggests that family and cultural factors are intimately if not always clearly bound together

The third element is cultural. To return to Allen Tate's point, "that backward glance," to which Tate referred, that nostalgia for a time shrouded in a haze of legend, was, in the South, a form of collective mourning. But time does not permit me to fill out that proposition. Bearing in mind the complex mingling of anger, guilt, shame, and love that comprise the mourning process, I will treat three writers in particular to illustrate some of the characteristics of this Southern literary phenomenon of art born of despair and grief: Ellen Glasgow, Reuben Davis and Richard Wright. That's surely an eccentric trio, one of whom you probably never heard of. They will be, in effect, stand-ins for such other example as Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Evelyn Scott, Conrad Aiken, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers--to name only a half dozen. By understanding the ways in which art and psychological biography come together, we can better apprehend the ambivalent nature of Southern longing for the old times to which Tate alluded.

So, rather than begin with a male representative such as Wolfe or Faulkner, we open with Ellen Glasgow, who once was so unjustly excluded from the ranks of the great Southern novelists, uniformly male. Like her great predecessor Kate Chopin, throughout much of her adult life she felt alienated not only from her parent's high social milieu but from most of the rigid Southern conventions of her time as well. Glasgow once declared that "the Protestant Episcopal Church," to which her mother was devoted, "was charitable toward almost every weakness except the dangerous practice of thinking." She denounced the Lost Cause as a "sentimental infirmity" which had long stifled the Southern creative impulse. Like so many other Southern writers, male and female, she regarded her father as an unloving, patriarch. He was, she observed, too "Roman," too Calvinistic. "He never committed a pleasure," she wrote, and from the Bible "never read of love or mercy, for, I imagine, he regarded these virtues as belonging by right to the weaker gender, amid an unassorted collection of feminine graces." A part of her hated him because he took pets away from her without explanation or reason that a child could grasp.

Translating that personal experience into a wider generalization, she protested the "inarticulateness" of Southerners, a withdrawal that she found also in her father. A self-imposed reticence grew from fear of saying something that really mattered. To utter forbidden thoughts might demolish the fragile appearance of things.

Glasgow's family may have had some genetic problems with depression. Her mother, whose life was punctuated by a fearful melancholy, died from typhoid fever when her daughter Ellen was just twenty, a loss that left her feeling, years later, as if "some other self. . .buried yet alive" still "stands in the center of that desolate room." When Glasgow herself died in 1945, her bedroom was found to be arranged identically to that of her mother's so long before. Walter McCormack, a brother-in-law, who had awakened Ellen Glasgow to some of her intellectual interests, killed himself in a trip to New York, age twenty-six. Two sisters of whom she was fond died young. Her brother Frank, always delicate and intellectual, had been sent to attend the Virginia Military Institute to "`harden'" him, but the four years there "merely increased his unconquerable remoteness," as his sister reminisced. Unable to rebel against the difficult father, he eventually gave up on life itself and died by his own hand at age thirty-nine.

Thus, death, a frequent visitor in her life, was intermingled with a predisposition to melancholy inherited, most likely, through the genes. More than once Ellen Glasgow spoke of falling into an "icy vacuum, which, if nothingness has a superlative, grows deeper and deeper." Early in her upbringing she found that most people could be fooled by outward appearances. "I was still a child when I learned that an artificial brightness is the safest defense against life." At the beginning of her autobiography, The Woman Within Me, she recalls a moment of horror at the age of two while nestled in her mother's arms. Above the top windowpanes of the nursery in Richmond, she reports, "I see a face without a body staring in at me, a vacant face, round, pallid, grotesque, malevolent. . .Convulsions seized me, a spasm of dumb agony. One minute I was not; the next minute I was. I felt. I was separate. I could be hurt." Obviously she was retrieving a screen memory of some kind: before the age of speech the infant cannot invest an incident with the details that only later could be filled out. The important thing is that she thought the terror very real and that the apparition signified something more than a momentary fright. Often enough those with depression personify it in some fashion--as the Churchillian "black dog," Kafka's mice, Henry James's "crouching beast," Sylvia Plath's "demon." Perhaps for Glasgow that mingled sense of paralytic declension, fear and anger took this form. In fact, she also recalled being frightened as a very small child by a mob whose chase of a black dog through the street nearly cuts her down. Physical illnesses helped to account for her sense of apartness, but her unusual emotional sensitivity and intelligence were also factors. "Not until I was eight or nine years old," she recalled, "was I driven to unchildlike brooding over my sense of exile in a hostile world, and back again to that half-forgotten presence of the evil face without a body. . . ." Her mother's plunge into severe melancholia when Ellen Glasgow was ten had a profound effect upon the daughter. When she fell into one of her periodic cycles of despair, Glasgow recalled, "The very bread we ate tasted of hopelessness."

Like her mother, Glasgow was subject to spells of severe depression. The first and perhaps most serious episode followed her mother's death. Although for a brief time happy when her first novel was accepted for publication in 1899, she was overcome by a "wolfish terror" made worse by fears of a growing deafness.

Indeed, these experiences from Glasgow's poignant autobiography suggest how different it is from other women writers' self-histories. The work stresses the author's extraordinary sensitivities and sense of isolation and loneliness with a sadness that could be said to complement William Alexander Percy's gloom-laden Lanterns on the Levee. Feminist critics have noted how female writers usually place their lives in the context of others, a connectedness not to be found in Glasgow's account. In the words of Pamela Matthews, the "disrupted chronology, use of ellipsis, and lack of smooth transitions" of The Woman Within are partially attributable to "Glasgow's persona as an exile." Matthews argues wrongly, I think, that her reticence, despite her labored efforts to be honest and forthcoming, did not stem solely from a difficulty in writing about selfhood "in other than expected ways." The issue was also cultural as already suggested--the inhibitions of the lady or gentleman in raising issues that belong solely within the inmost circles of a family. Glasgow gives almost no details or even clear indications that Walter McCormack or brother Frank killed themselves.

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Let us turn, though most briefly, from the feminine to the masculine, from the famous to the obscure in order to show just how deep this interconnection of dejection and artistic response happens to be. The case of Reuben Davis, a short-story writer from the Mississippi Delta, is especially noteworthy. In 1953 Davis published a work entitled Shim, the name of the young hero in a semi-autobiography. Despite his anonymity, Davis's career and creativity offer some insights into the peculiarities of Southern fiction-writing: a nostalgia for a South long departed, preoccupations with troubled family life, rage and racism in the worlds of both whites and blacks, and elusive clues to darker themes from a reticent author's own experience. It is the last point that will be stressed here.

Davis's Shim employs one of the most persistent plot lines in Southern letters--the anger and grief of a boy for a missing or inadequate father and the substitution of another fatherlike guide who helps the youth on his path to adulthood. That story, often told as an adventure tale, bears examination as a clue to the history of the author himself. Mark Twain's example of Huck Finn and slave Jim provided his successors with literary precedent and example. For Southern authors the use of the device grows out of the often flawed relationship between real--not just imagined--fathers and sons. In a society with deeply implanted familial loyalty and patriarchal values, the maturing of a pre-adolescent boy, who must gird on the armor of honor, has special relevance. From a storyteller's point of view, the trope immediately engages the reader. The winsome vulnerability of the youth, the usually sordid imperfections of the father, and the contrasting heroism and magnetism of the surrogate parent, set in the midst of exciting and perilous quests carry the anticipation of a happy outcome. The source of Davis's mordant and apocalyptic vision was the fact that at age twelve had witnessed his elder brother slay his father, a drunk and abusive husband, as he approached the house at midnight intent upon injuring or killing his wife and mother of his children.

These considerations touch directly upon a major factor in modern fiction but most especially in Southern letters--the despairing effect of parental loss on the psychological wellbeing of the artist, a circumstance that has a bearing on the formulation of their plots. Disillusioned by the literal or figurative absence of the natural father, each young hero in the bildungsroman seeks an adult proxy of some kind to advise, command, and love him. Popular writers like John Grisham and Pat Conroy have adopted the formula which, obviously, has had much cinematic appeal.

Time limits the inquiry, but another aspect of the relationship of art and despondency may shed further light on the subject--the way in which black writers from the South were also affected. For reasons that are tragically obvious, the African American tradition of letters follows the same pattern and then some. Being works designed to arouse Northern sympathy, slave narratives of the antebellum period had to stress the ultimate triumph of freedom, blessed by an antislavery God. Although signs of personal despair and demoralization can be found in the more thoughtful ones, we can easily conclude that along with the personal rages and disappointments with which most everyone has had to battle, the African American writers have had to confront the corrosive terrors of white contempt, antipathy, and violence. Among those who dealt with both the private and public aspects of black demoralization was the third example, Richard Wright. As he put it in 1949, "In the United States the Negroes represent a terrible reservoir of despair and bitterness."<1> But Wright also suffered from what his friend Margaret Walker called "a kind of malaise, a disturbing and disquieting angst, which he felt was deep in his psyche." He only "sensed" that the origin of his dolor lay in his "personal relationships--with his family, his friends, his wives, even with himself, but he could not define it."

Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, reveals not only that aspect of African American resentment but also a more personal pattern of disenchantment. Combining an exploration of the two forms of frustration, Wright's Black Boy makes the childhood of James Joyce as depicted in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man seem almost idyllic though both are stories of alienation from provinciality and oppression. Wright's father deserted his family for another woman, a departure that relieved his son from further abuse from a violent parent. The absence of a breadwinner, however, soon introduced him as a boy of no more than four to a poverty of empty belly, uncertain shelter, and a life under the dominion of the "old, white, wrinkled, grim face" of his "Granny." "By the time I was fifteen," he once remarked, "I had lived in a dozen or more small southern towns." On one occasion, he and his mother hastily had to escape from Arkansas where Uncle Hoskins, a prosperous storeowner, was lynched by townspeople jealous of his financial success.

Throughout Wright's early years, his mother, his Aunt Aggie, and grandmother Wilson tried to beat down his spirit with religious demands and furious blows. As Wright recounts in another autobiographical sketch, while imparting "gems of Jim Crow wisdom," his mother beat him unmercifully with a barrel stave for fighting with white kids. That was the black caretakers' way to assure the survival of the young who had to learn the racial rules or die. In the African American family in the Jim Crow South, Ralph Ellison commented, "Personal warmth is accompanied by an equally personal coldness, kindliness by cruelty, regard by malice." Adding further to the tensions in his life, his mother's health, never good, drastically deteriorated during Wright's teenage years. She became permanently paralyzed. Wright recorded, "A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother's unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion. . that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me." In his efforts to help her, Wright's jobs under white bosses often resulted in his being humiliated both physically or verbally. The more he observed black subservience the more he felt personally degraded, particularly when he, too, had to don the mask of deference or dissolve into invisibility that Ralph Ellison so sensitively explored.

Compared with Frederick Douglass's brilliant but ultimately hopeful memoir of a slave's life, Black Boy is a story of daily anger and frustration, but not simply because of white injustice. Wright portrays a boy and young man in full rebellion against his family and the conservatism and intellectual limits of Southern black aspiration. Yet, like Davis and Glasgow, he, too, repressed his convictions even as he exposed his rage and hurt. In 1943 he gave an extemporaneous speech at Fisk University. Half way through he realized that he was voicing issues and ideas that black people were not supposed to utter in public, especially before whites. "What made me realize this," he recalled a year later, "was a hysterical, half-repressed, tense kind of laughter that went up now and then from the white and black faces." But even as he violated part of the racial code, he repressed other matters. Like Frederick Douglass who failed to acknowledge that his slave mistress in Baltimore had essentially taught him to read, Wright refused to acknowledge an intellectual indebtedness to others. Despite the punishments he received, the women around him--Ella, his mother, and grandmother--provided him with a moral structure and a stability that made possible a conversion of conflict, desperation, and turmoil into art. As Janice Thaddeus shrewdly observes, the ending of Black Boy ends artificially on a triumphant, hopeful note, a requirement of the publishers who sensed it would be the bestseller it did become. By having it terminate with Wright's flight to the North, they fit the work into the genre of slave narrative--the escape from the South that had to mean bliss thereafter. But Wright's sequel, American Hunger, closes on a much more tentative note. When both autobiographies are combined, they reveal, she says, the isolation, and finally the lack of order in Wright's world as he saw it, a sadness and disarray."

This exercise barely covers the range of authors and problems that afflicted so many of the Southern practitioners of the literary craft. A longer analysis would have to include the African American women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. And also the gay writers--both famous and nearly anonymous--who had to deal with a home culture as hostile toward their sexual orientation as it was to those of dark skin. And then there are the almost ubiquitous alcoholics. Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, W. J. Cash, William Styron, Harry Crews--to name just a handful that spring quickly to mind. Medically, alcoholism is closely connected with affective disorder or depression even though ethanol is itself a depressant.

But what is the ultimate point of dwelling on the pathological? Does it not reduce the value of what these authors created? I contend that it does not. Instead, the study of biography reveals the artist's steadiness of spirit, professional discipline, and determination to overcome the tragedies enveloping them. Moreover, dejection, when not so strong as to be emotionally paralytic, may be the actual source of creativity itself, however mysterious and still unfathomed it is. There is, however, as yet no way to know if that speculation is verifiable. Some artists find that the new antidepressants--lithium among them--stifle their creativity. Others find regular doses helpful. A psychiatric researcher concludes that the effect of using such compounds may inhibit, promote, or have no effect at all, depending "on the severity of the illness, on individual sensitivity, and on habits of utilizing manic episodes productively."

The late Walker Percy recognized that depression was instrumental to his own . In an interview some years ago, he told me, "There is something like `creative depression' and if you're lucky you can make use of it. Jung used to tell his patients, at least some of them, not all, `why don't you make use of depression--there's gold in those depths.'" He found that his best writing comes during a period of the `blues,' not the "clinical" kind, he quickly added, because then "you just feel empty and can't do anything," but "a touch of depression" opened the doors of inspiration. How lucky we are that his experience was one shared by so many others in the ranks of Southern letters. In an interview as early as 1954 Styron challenged the popular misapprehension of depression as irredeemable moral weakness, "The good writing of any age," Styron declared, "has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads." On that cheerful note, we can all agree.