The Southern Gothic Problem
By Kenneth George
Now, more than ever, aestheticization is in everyday life. Some may argue that aestheticism was most common during the lock-down era of the Covid-19 pandemic; this is simply untrue: aesthetics, as we modernly know them, developed during 2020 and 2021, when young people needed an emotional catharsis and an outlet for self-expression, but they began to be applied in the real world post-lockdown. Now, in 2023, everyone has aesthetic and everyone knows the aesthetic cycle: we saw “soft-boys” evolve into eye-rolling, thirst-trapping “e-boys,” and now these early forms of aestheticization have evolved in a way that every niche is exploited: there are the skaters, the academics, the preps, the jocks–it is a Mean Girls lunchroom of aesthetics, and everyone is part of it.
But aesthetics existed long before Tiktok. Since the birth of the literary canon, aesthetics have existed; one such aesthetic is known as Southern Gothic. This literary aesthetic grew in mainstream popularity during the years of Tumblr and Pinterest superiority and has now spread into real life.
Southern Gothic is an aesthetic that revels in the dark parts of the Deep South’s culture. The wood-plank sign at the side of the road, brooding red letters urging viewers to, “REPENT OR BURN”; the ramshackle church; the pieces of flowing white cloth hanging from the sycamore trees: all images that epitomize Southern Gothic. Those followers of the lifestyle that surrounds the aesthetic are urged to be mysterious, dripping in religious trauma, and bearing Southern Hospitality like a knife, all the while flowing about in loose linens and tattered boots.
This depiction is intrinsically modern, a product of a sort of aestheticization and romanticization only observable on Tumblr, and, as aforementioned, Southern Gothic has much earlier literary roots.
The champion of Southern Gothic is, truly, William Faulkner, the writer of such classics like Absalom, Absalom! and As I Lay Dying that epitomize the edifice of Southern Gothic. As I Lay Dying, for instance, goes through all the perspectives of Addie Bundren’s family before and after her death, including that of Addie herself. In this novel alone, the inspirations for modern Southern Gothic can be seen: the focus on death and religion, the importance of nature, the richness and mystery of the Inner Life, and the romanticization of Southern life: heat, flies, horses, mangled wood, flooded creeks. Faulkner writes about the Grand Ol’ South in a way that is indicative of his time: in Absalom, Absalom!, the N-word is used several within the first 10 pages, Black people are described explicitly as savages and undomesticated beasts, and Emancipation and Reconstruction are demonized–this is the true Grand Ol’ South; it has nothing to do with picking flowers and going to the river, contrary to what the champions of Tumblr, Pinterest, and Tiktok will insist.
That is both the cause and the detriment of modern digitized Southern Gothic. It is clear that Southern Gothic became popular on digital spaces as a way for Southern minorities, like Queer and Black people who get the brunt end of Southern “Hospitality,” to reclaim their Southern heritage. By romanticizing the South, these minorities were able to accept and revel in their Southerness; this reclamation, however, soon became adulterated. Now, while there were few to begin with, there are virtually no Black subscribers to Southern Gothic–why would Black people romanticize and promote the very institutions that harbored and synthesized White Supremacy?--and the demographic of Southern Gothics–for lack of a better term–is predominantly White, so, really, what progress is being made? Institutions that promote White Supremacy are only being repackaged to be more pleasing to the eye and the internet.
In the defense of the demographic, there are very many White queer and transgender Southern Gothics. One member of this community is poet Keaton St. James, whose poems such as “Rural Boys Watching the Apocalypse '' follow a Southern Gothic style. Throughout the poem, St. James utilizes a form of Southern dialect, creating lines such as: “Some glad mornin’ when this life is o’er” (34). This poem, and other literature that follows in the same vein, illustrate the second problem with Southern Gothic: it is nearly a farce.
Modern Southern Gothic does not have the same authenticity of original Southern Gothic. Faulkner and even Harper Lee actively experienced the culture of Southern Gothicism; modern authors can not due to the antiquity of the aesthetic. Thus, literature is synthesized that is not genuine and aggrandizes the non-literary inspiration for the aesthetic: modern Southern Gothic literature is almost mocking of the people and traditions that shape the aesthetic, while still being problematic by deifying certain parts of Deep South culture.
So, what can be done? Southern Gothic is a powerful literary tool that can be used as a way to actively critique and redress American culture. Rather than ignoring and accepting White Supremacy in this literature, authors can opt to depict Black characters in a way that is empowering and indicative of the Black experience in modern America–this is an especially important depiction for White people who do not live in the South, as they often believe that, because of the Emancipation of enslaved people, generational racism no longer persists. In short, Southern Gothic should not romanticize the South, it should expose it.
Additionally, White authors who utilize Southern Gothic must acknowledge that the aesthetic is rooted in their own racism. White people hold onto aesthetics like Southern Gothic because they are reminiscent of a time when they faced no repercussions due to their racism, as opposed to modernly, when racist thoughts and sentiments are rightfully demonized.
Ultimately, the deconstruction of Southern Gothic is necessary because it is the deconstruction of racism.
Please note that the thoughts and sentiments expressed in this article are not necessarily indicative of those held by The Playful Porpoise or their employees. This is an original thread with individual ideas. Additionally, the author is always open to hearing minority opinions on the subject discussed; you may contact him at KennethGeorgeWriter@Gmail.com
St. James, Keaton. “[POEM] Rural Boys Watch the Apocalypse by Keaton St. James.” Reddit, 10 Dec.