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What Was The Most Influential Southern Novel? The Votes Are In!

May 15, 2009

On Wednesday, May 13, South Carolina Educational TV and the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies aired “What was the most influential Southern novel?” — the latest episode in the eight-part series Take On The South. The show’s host, Walter Edgar, discussed the question with two renowned professors of Southern literature — Trudier Harris, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Noel Polk, professor emeritus at Mississippi State University — and the program is now available online here (click the “Watch” tab).

The question at the heart of this episode was first discussed on this blog on April 27, attracting great attention (my highest hits ever) and some pointed discussion from readers, including this question: “Influential to whom? The question is nonsensical without some better understanding of the context, right?” Checking in himself, the show’s host, Walter Edgar, offered his own response:

The term “influential” was deliberate rather than “best” or “favorite.” Was a particular work influential within the academy? Did it have influence on other writers? Did it have an impact on the broader culture? Rather than “non-sensical,” the two scholars involved [and others who were consulted before the question was posed] used the terms “thoughtful” and “thought-proviking.” They have considered the meaning of the term “influential” as well as the subject as part of the discussion.

For those interested less in the discussion than in the bottom line — “So which book won?” — below are the top five vote-getters from the online reader’s poll of 20 nominees, with the top title an absolute runaway win:

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  3. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe 
  4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
  5. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 

And which titles remained at the bottom of the list? Jean Toomer’s Cane — a brilliant modernist masterpiece — and Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman — the classic 1971 novel made into a landmark TV movie — unfortunately earned only one vote each in the polling. But don’t let the results sway you. All the contenders are well worth reading, and the debate on the topic is well worth watching.

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