Before global warming and ominous signs that Earth will eventually combust in an end-time fireball, the American South satisfied all the requirements of heat demanded by hell. The way weather affects the region’s inhabitants has been a subject of discussion for centuries. In the 1800s, visitors from the North and from Europe wondered whether heat was the reason Southerners were so cussed, truculent, and explosive.
Climate was also invoked to explain anatomical differences. For instance, when French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Toqueville visited the U.S. in 1831, he ventured South long enough to observe that Southern girls appeared to reach puberty earlier than their counterparts in other areas of the country. In short, climatological factors caused incipient Southern belles to “blossom” sooner than girls subjected to the frigid climes of New England. This circumstance meant that Southern girls were also promiscuous at an earlier age, an occurrence appalling to precise New England Puritans.
With so many uses for the South’s weather, it may not be a stretch to ask whether climate partially accounted for so many first-rate Southern writers in the twentieth century. For these literary luminaries, heat was, and is, an atmospheric fact, one ingredient in a cauldron of trouble in which characters find themselves swirling. There’s an adage among fiction writers: “Stick your character in a mess – fast.” If earth, air, fire, and water complicate a plot and deter a protagonist’s progress, then all the better for a story. Sweat drips from the pages of Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor (whisky, too, for Faulkner). Can anyone imagine this triptych composing in the artificial comfort of air conditioning?
What shouldn’t be startling is that Southern writers – then and now – have plenty to say about the weather, and their utterances tend to rise at times to the level of poetic evocation. So, if you think the weather is a dreary subject, pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass of iced tea, and enjoy the weather forecast delivered by some of the South’s finest raconteurs:
1.) “Summer for the citizen of the Deep South is eternity drawn down like a shade into time. It is not that way in Eastern Tennessee, but it is still hot, and on some days the heat there is as terrible as any place on earth.”
– Richard Marius
2.) “Can you imagine the Scopes trial in an air-conditioned courthouse? The 100-degree heat, the florid faces and sweating bodies were what made Dayton, Tennessee, seem savage to Mencken and outsiders, nearly as much as the fundamentalism.”
– Fred Hobson
3.) “It was hot as only a day can be hot in the middle of an airless field in Georgia.”
– Harry Crews
4.) “Walking the streets of Charleston in the late afternoons of August was like walking through gauze or inhaling damaged silk.”
– Pat Conroy
5.) “The air was oppressive even in the early morning hour, hot with the scorching promise of a noon of glaring blue sky and pitiless bronze sun.”
– Margaret Mitchell
6.) “It was hard to understand how people here made out before air conditioning and screens.”
– V.S. Naipaul
7.) “Take away the environment of the South and you might as well have New Jersey.”
– Fred Powledge
8.) “It was hot; heat quivered up from the asphalt, giving to the familiar buildings about the square a numbus quality, a quality of living and palpitant chiaroscuro.”
– William Faulkner
9.) “Born of dog day necessity and Depression-era affordability, the seer-sucker suit is, if you will, vernacular fashion at its best: a cool, crisp answer to the South’s sticky summers, climate control cum haberdashery, fashion and function all rolled into one. A practical idea turned into the staple of romance and style.”
– Elizabeth Byrd
10.) “In the Mississippi Delta, there was nothing gentle about nature. It came at you violently, or in a rush; sometimes it was just plain lazy and at others crazy and wild.”
– Willie Morris
11.) “Down here in the deep, dark South, we know and live with the real world. Candy-Land idealism is quietly suffocated in the relentless humidity. This is the world where fist meets face. This is where the calluses on a man’s hand are bigger than his conscience, and dreams get drowned in sweat and tears.”
– Damien Echols
12.) “And so we dreamed and loved and planned by fall and winter, and the flush of the long Southern spring, till the hot winds rolled from the fetid Gulf, till the roses shivered and the still stern sun quivered its awful light over the hills of Atlanta.”
– W.E.B. DuBois
**Featured image from PxHere
Eddie, I enjoyed these steamy quotes. As the climate that generated these remarks continues to migrate northward, do you think our Northern neighbors will evolve our Southern weather-driven traits?