Notes Toward a Supreme Regionalism

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 2, "Festival: Celebrating Southern Literature." Find more from that issue here.

What happens on one small limb of the tree is all I can ever know of the whole tree. But what I know is pretty much what everyone else knows, wherever the inhabited limbs are, whether at the bottom of the tree, near the middle, or at the top of the tree. There is, after all, not that much difference in the limbs. 

Writers, I think, try deliberately to separate themselves from centrality. Of course, there’s regionalism. I tell you what my limb is like. You tell me what your limb is like. Another tells us both what yet another limb is like. All of us are rather like the blind men recounting the regions of the whole elephant. But we must remember that a limb is a limb, wherever it is located, at the bottom, near the middle, or at the top of the tree. It is the tree we should be interested in, the whole tree, while writing our best descriptions — poems, novels, essays, plays — of our own individual perches. That the views are somewhat different necessarily from the different locations, no one with perception can deny; but they are, at the same time, similar enough in essential respects to be all one limb. That is, good writers should be able to extrapolate the whole tree from their particular segments of it. 

Here is where universality creeps in. Here is where your really good story about one limb is a good story about another limb and another limb. So you may have your cake and eat it too, you regionalists; for if you are any good at all as a writer, you will, in the very act of writing about your locality, transcend that locality by force into a community of limbs where all stories have a great deal in common, more similarities than differences, at least so far as the human spirit goes. You can’t help being universal anymore than you can help being local or regional if you write truly about what you know best. And that’s the only kind of writing that counts. So it’s all really small talk about definitions, boundaries, limitations, geography in literature. Of course it’s nice to be distinct and distinguished by a local habitation and a name. But the feeling is a delusion. There is, after all, only one locality, and one name. And that locality is earth and that name is humanity. 

In my own writing I give you a mythic county which, like all mythic things, is based on the real: there are real mountains there, real rivers, real rocks and trees and meadows with their real flowers — chiefly the daisy, the day’s eye, as the old Anglo-Saxons had it because of the golden face and the flaring white corona of petals. It’s good to begin with the reality of a flower and proceed from there to a larger field of the real. So I give you these realities behind the dream, and I give you real people behind the dream of the people encountered in my writing, chiefly in my poems and my one novel. Long ago I realized that one small county would be all that I would ever know about the universe, and all that I would ever need to know, just as I early recognized the fact, in spite of my dabbling in several foreign languages, that only one language would I ever know, the others merely serving in the understanding of that one language, my own. 

Put, then, that county and that tongue together, plant my feet in that familiar mud, add a predilection for mythic forces by which I mean a fondness for all things in poetry — all things are poetry — and what is more natural than that from love of a place and its native speech should emerge, or appear as an island rising in the midst of waters, another country, another speech, one adumbrated above the other, as if each encouraged and emboldened the other to become other than each was in the beginning? Not the caricature then of a county, nor yet the hyperbolization of a people, but the imaginative uses of what was and still is my own: that piece of land in the southeast corner of Tennessee called Polk County, whose blue mountains, blue pinewoods, green-blue sulphate rivers in their beds between banks overgrown with the ubiquitous willow, going seasonally from brown to gold to green to gold to brown again, and whose red clay roads and purple sedge hills, and many a thing else, made of the place as much a color as a substance, as much a dream as a reality. 

It was a land I loved, a land I love still, though much of it has changed through industrialization and the advent of radio and television and the money now to buy newspapers (late still, of course, because of the county’s still largely rural nature and the slowness of the mails). We lacked all those means of communication in the county I write about, and, of course, did not really miss them, not noticing their lack. Happily, since the county remains largely as it was, despite inroads from outside, the interstate highways still pass it by. There is still to be seen, in some lonely place between a mountain and a river, a man spreading manure beyond the roar and smudge of the vacationers speeding by on their way to Southern comfort and happiness on the spoiled beaches of the states to the south. The people in my county remain pretty much the same: that is, what they once were and have been over the millennia, human beings. 

So I have shaped in my mind and in my writings an adumbration, an overshadowing, of that county, writing out its life sporadically as the urge came, so that by now I have in the body of my work something of a portrait of a time and place — which is a portrait, in effect, of all times and places — now somewhat lost to the general American knowledge and imagination. Even transformed counties, while being mythic counties — Faulkner’s in prose, mine largely in verse — are apt to run to seed, but it is always a human seed. We know these counties fail and expire, that there are no permanent raintrees, whether in Indiana or Tennessee. My county itself never succeeds much, certainly not as Faulkner’s has. It may be that, as one editor said, “You can’t get here from there.” But that is the editor’s disbarment. Perhaps I never wanted to be where he is, finding my own place a place of sufficient world. Be that as it may, I give you my county. Take it for what it is: a regional place without the restrictions of regionally. Over the tallest mountain there, in the deep, once-unpolluted blue, a door opens momentarily in the horizon and a bird — a dove — flies forth, and returns with the news not of a new land but of other similar land, farther on.


By George Scarbrough


Always in transit

we were always temporarily

in exile,

each new place seeming

after awhile

and for awhile

our home.


Because no matter

how far we traveled

on the edge of strangeness

in a small county,

the earth ran before us

down red clay roads

blurred with summer dust,

banked with winter mud. 


It was the measureable,

pleasurable earth

that was home.

Nobody who loved it

could ever be really alien.

Its tough clay, deep loam,

hill rocks, small flowers

were always the signs

of a home-coming.


We wound down through them

to them,

and the house we came to,

whispering with dead hollyhocks

or once in spring

sill-high in daisies,

was unimportant.

Wherever it stood,

it stood in earth,

and the earth welcomed us,

open, gateless, 

one place as another.


And each place seemed

after awhile

and for while

our home:

because the county

was only a mansion

kind of dwelling

in which there were many


We only moved from one

room to another,

getting acquainted

with the whole house.


And always the earth

was the new floor under us,

the blue pinewoods the walls

rising around us,

the windows the openings

in the blue trees

through which we glimpsed.

always farther on.

sometimes beyond the river,

the real wall of the mountain,


in whose shadow

for a little while

we assumed ourselves safe,

secure and comfortable

as happy animals

in an unvisited lair:


which is why perhaps

no house we ever lived in

stood behind a fence,

no door we ever opened

had a key.


It was beautiful like that.

For a little while


Death by Dynamite

By George Scarbrough


I went out to the wheat that

was gold beside the river

under the hulk of a blue mountain

and said O golden wheat, bedstraw

stuck with the gold guardhairs

over the shelly bread he

worked so hard for,


you killed my grandfather

as surely as cockle grows.

For you revealed nothing when

the haulers of bright fish,

companions of loaves, tossed

the hot, percussive sticks into

the glinting river waves.


You disclosed nothing when in

the aftermath of day, going

home, in your rough bound sheaves

they thrust away the costly,

contraband fire, among the fine

filaments of leafy gold they

hid away his death.


O golden grain I said to the sweet

ripe field beside the shining

river, while the mountain loomed

blue as a water gentian under

the gold overhang of the drooping

bank, roofing the wondrous

dark cerulean flower,


you bereft me of him whom I

never loved because I never

knew, who came fatherstrong in his

own beautiful, sweaty prime

with the great ravening

rapturous machine chewing

the bouncing sheaves


until O golden wheat blowing

in broad gleaming waves

up the western hill to where

the sun abides in streamers

hardly rivalling your grassy gold

an iron tooth flamed out and

                          ate his brooding heart.