Margaret Eby, a Southerner turned New Yorker, was always fascinated by the authors of her home region. When her parents moved to Jackson, Mississippi, the hometown of Eudora Welty, she learned of a different kind of South—a place teeming with the legend of one of its most famous residents. Following a warm response to an article she wrote for The Paris Review Online about the restoration of Eudora Welty’s garden, Eby decided to continue exploring the stomping grounds of other writers who so indelibly shaped the landscape of America’s greatest literature.
South Toward Home is a richly woven collection—part travelogue, part criticism, homage, and memoir—taking the reader deep into the South with the requisite stops for biscuits and gravy along the way. From the obvious destinations like Flannery O’Connor’s peacock farm and the inspirational courthouse from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to the more unexpected choices like Barry Hannah and Larry Brown’s fishing pond and John Kennedy Toole’s plucky New Orleans, Eby admits the list of writers and places she pursued was idiosyncratic and personal. However, she was highly concerned with culling out the nuances between the different voices and landscapes that are frequently glossed over with the stamp of being “Southern.”
“It’s interesting to see how much the South has changed, and what things it’s held onto and what things it’s tried to discard, and what things are worth remembering and really treasuring as part of the place, and what things needed to be fixed and still need to be fixed,” explains Eby. “The same town [Jackson, MS] that could tell you basically anything about Eudora Welty like her eating habits or where she got her dress, there’s just very little sign of Richard Wright, who was incredibly important and grew up there and there’s not a museum you can walk into.”
In further contrast to Wright—who, like many other African Americans, had to flee the South in order to write about it—Eby writes about Faulkner’s unwavering presence in Oxford, Mississippi: “Before football games, professors and Oxfordians gather in front of Rowan Oak to grill burgers and drink beer. At Faulkner’s grave, in St. Peter’s Cemetery, you can find bottles of bourbon in various states of emptiness alongside crumpled cans of Bud Light, evidence of tributes by English-worshipping Ole Miss students turned into full-scale revelry.”
Meanwhile, in Bacon County, Georgia, there’s hardly any acknowledgement of Harry Crews, admittedly a lesser-known entity, and more of a dark-horse cult author, who died only recently. It took Eby riding around in a pickup truck on unmarked streets with Crew’s cousin to gleam the fabric of the life this author was living. “The South has this reputation of being this constellation of these small bedroom communities, and to some extent that’s still true, but every place is different and interacts with history and the movement of history differently,” says Eby.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her first book, What Is Not Missing Is Light, won Rescue Press’ Black Box Poetry Prize.