While the classes that I taught in New York in 2012 revolved around Sherill Tippins’ February House, this year I decided to take a different approach with classes: to investigate Southern writers who lived and wrote in New York at some point in their lives. Since this program was founded because of Carson McCullers’ journey to New York City at age 17, I felt that a class that explored McCullers alongside other writers who undertook similar journeys might be, simply put, fun. Because the trip participants are all “Southerners” (if not by birth, then by current residency), I figured we’d all be able to tell about our own journeys as well. We’re reading Capote, Williams, McCullers, Walker—more canonical authors—alongside contemporary authors Karen Russell, Donna Tartt, and Allan Gurganus. Thus far, we’ve discussed the ways that the traditional southern gothic writers described New York and the South in their work, comparing and contrasting the ways these two places intersect and divide.
So, that’s my lens—that’s what I’m thinking about, as a Southerner visiting New York City. And thus far, I’m puzzled. So puzzled that I’m experiencing a little writer’s block. I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, to understand one’s own culture, one has to leave it. And then miss it. And then see it everywhere, even when one is estranged from it. And then understand that leaving it doesn’t necessarily make anything any better. It’s not that there’s no place like home–it might be that there is just no place to call home. Ever.
For instance, in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae Golightly from Tulip, Texas—the wild thing that stole turkey eggs and ran through brier patches. Even in New York, she cannot escape that identity. In Carson McCullers “Who Has Seen the Wind?,” Ken is also an ex-pat Texan, working on a novel about his gritty hometown. The New York literary life eventually drives him mad. In Williams’ “Happy August the 10th,” Elphinstone has filled the bookshelves with such titles as Notable Southern Bullshit, as described by her roommate Horne, a woman whom Elphinstone both loves and despises. In the end, both characters view the city’s buildings as tombstones: “…she watched the city’s profile, creep with understandable reluctance into morning, because, my God, yes, Horne’s comment did fit those monolithic structures downtown, they truly were like a lot of illuminated tombstones in a necropolis” (472). All of these characters are at home in New York, and yet, out of place. They are successes but failures; they are with companions but alone; they are caught between past and present, also between places. New York City cannot save them.
I don’t want to make this the bluest—or the mean reddest—post ever written, but I can’t help but reflect on what feelings of homelessness can do to folks: put them continually on the run and in search of home in people and places (like Capote’s Holly) or make them crazy and violent (like McCullers’ Ken), or if they are perceptive, make them begin to change and to seek different meanings of home (like Williams’ Elphinstone who we think might make amends with Horne despite her now bleak view of the city itself). One thing is certain: this feeling of searching for a home (of a certain sort of homesickness, which McCullers wrote about so often) is not unique to out-of-place Southerners who must flee their region. While some suggest it’s made worse because of the slow—snail’s pace—progress in the South, finding your “place” (considering all the metaphorical meanings of that word) is exhausting, even in one of the most progressive and culturally diverse cities in the world.