The American South has produced an incredible amount of great literature. Earlier this month, we published a hearty list of classic novels to come out of the region. But for those who don’t have the hours to devote to Southern culture’s long-form masterpieces, there’s plenty of great short fiction set south of the Mason-Dixon, too. Featuring some famous tales by literary greats like William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Flannery O’Connor, this list is a great way to start exploring Southern short fiction. Be sure to suggest your own favorite short stories in the comments!
“Barn Burning,” William Faulkner
First published in Harper‘s in 1939, this story, a prequel to the Scopes trilogy, is widely anthologized and studied across the globe. Like many of Faulkner’s stories and novels, it focuses on class conflicts and the relationships between fathers and sons in the pre-WWI South.
“The Bear,” William Faulkner
Faulkner’s epic short story (if there’s such a thing, Faulkner definitely did it) is the closest he got to Moby-Dick, with Old Ben standing in for the white whale. Following Isaac McCaslin from childhood to adulthood, Faulkner’s great story depicts man’s destruction of nature, and nature’s ultimate influence on man’s own ruin.
Written almost completely in dialogue, Wright’s story, featured in Uncle Tom’s Children, is an experimental piece focusing on the violent lynching culture in the South and its innocent, unwitting victims.
Twain’s story, a true tall tale, was his first successful publication and brought him national attention when it was published in 1865.
“A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote
Capote’s autobiographical story, which has been adapted for television and stage, concerns a young boy named Buddy and his elderly, unnamed cousin — his best friend — who find small ways to celebrate the Christmas season on their own, despite feeling like outcasts within their own poor family. It’s a lovely short tale of love and loss.
“Drenched in Light,” Zora Neale Hurston
A portrait of African-American childhood in the South before the Depression, Hurston’s story follows a young girl named Isis whose continuous, playful troublemaking sets her at odds with her strict grandmother.
In Walker’s frequently anthologized story — a beautiful, sometimes funny rumination on African-American history and culture — a young, educated women is at odds with her mother over their cultural heritage.
Southern gothic wouldn’t be gothic without the impact of Poe’s dark sensibilities, and while “The Fall of the House of Usher” was published much earlier than what many classify as “Southern fiction,” themes of familial destruction run deep and are clear influences on the South’s 20th-century authors.
O’Connor’s most famous story is a chilling little thriller, slowly building tension and leaving the reader with a shocking climax. It includes one of the most gut-punching lines in American literature, courtesy of The Misfit: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
“Mama,” Dorothy Allison
Allison explored the themes of struggle, survival, and family in most of her works, and “Mama” (included in her 1988 collection, Trash) is the short story that best represents these ruminations. Like much of her fiction, this story is largely autobiographical.
Childress spent her early years in Charleston before moving to Harlem at the age of nine, which gave her the perspective needed to write this riotous short story, originally published in the Washington Afro American in 1957, which lambasts the Northerner’s view that race and racism are solely Southern issues.
Bierce’s most famous published work is known for its inventive narrative and twist ending. Its use of subjective time has been mimicked in various art forms, from fiction to film.
“Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor often explored the themes of grace and redemption in her stories, as she viewed writing to be her religious vocation. You can’t find a more perfect example than this sometimes-hilarious look a woman who receives her divine comeuppance in the form of a textbook titled Human Development smacked right into her head.
Faulkner’s first nationally published story is also one of his most famous. Focusing on the theme of resistance to change, the story follows an elderly spinster whose behavior becomes more erratic, sparking the attention of her neighbors and family members in the years following the Civil War.
“A Tidewater Morning,” William Styron
Originally published in Esquire and later included in the novel-in-stories of the same name, this autobiographical story looks back on a childhood afflicted by a premature experience with loss.
An older man pulls aside a young boy to teach him a life lesson about love and loss in this popular story from Carson McCullers, who often focused on themes of heartbreak in her work.
Betts’ most famous story follows a young woman named Violet who was left horrifically disfigured after a farm accident as a child. Now a young adult, she embarks on a journey to visit a faith healer to have her face restored.
Estranged sisters bring their troubled relationship to new extremes, forcing their family to pick sides in one of Welty’s most classic stories.
Chestnutt’s most popular and anthologized story is a surprising take on race relations within the African-American community, and an early one — it was originally published in 1898. In it, a biracial man, a member of the Blue Veins Society, is surprised when his first wife, a dark-skinned African-American woman, shows up on the eve of his wedding to another light-skinned woman.
No one quite nailed the sometimes-existential nature of the Deep South’s denizens quite like Larry Brown. “Wild Thing” is the perfect example of his ability to say so much with such limited, stark language.