Cold Sassy Tree is one of many works—novels, short stories, and plays—that examine smalltown life in the American South, particularly during the early years of the twentieth century. Chief among American writers who chronicled small-town life was William Faulkner, who created a fictional county in Mississippi that he used in many of his novels and short stories. Other American writers who have taken up this theme include Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, and many others. One of the most famous novels set in the rural South and written by a southern writer is Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and certainly no survey of writing about the rural American South can ignore such novels as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Southern American literature is often considered a distinct genre in American letters. These works tend to be steeped in the past, in a former pastoral age that is imagined to have existed in the agricultural South before the Civil War. The American South was, and to some degree still is, regarded as unique because of its distinct history and culture. In writing Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns drew on this tradition of southern writing, steeped in a sense of history and uniqueness. Her perspective is not that of 1984, the year of the novel’s publication, although the themes of her novel are universal and are just as applicable in 1984 or any year as they would have been at the turn of the twentieth century. Rather, she draws on stories related to her primarily by her parents to reconstruct a historical past. More to the point, in reconstructing this historical past, she illuminates the clash that takes place when that past is confronted with more modern realities.
The roots of this type of historical writing extend back into the nineteenth century. As tensions in America began to mount over the issue of slavery—tensions that culminated in the Civil War—American writers began to explore the unique characteristics of southern culture: its language, its social institutions, its economy, its religion, and others. Many of these works tried to recreate a pastoral idyll, a world where everyone knew his or her place in the social order and where home, family, and particularly the soil were paramount. Many other novels, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, took the opposite tack, emphasizing the horrors of the South’s rigid social structure. In the twentieth century, many writers, including Burns, took a comic view of the South. On the one hand, they examined the South with a great deal of affection, recognizing that they themselves were shaped by the cultural institutions of the region. On the other hand, they were well aware of the limitations and peculiarities of southern culture and revolted from it in what Lucinda MacKethan, in Southern Space, has called the ‘‘revolt from the village’’ school of writing. Accordingly, they were able to lampoon its rigid social structure, taboos, and traditions, often by creating grotesque characters and situations. Those tales that emphasize the grotesque are often regarded as belonging to a tradition called Southern Gothic. This tradition arose, many scholars argue, because traditional southern culture had allowed few outlets for reasoned protest and disagreement.
That Burns made use of these traditions of southern writing is immediately clear. She lovingly recreates the dialect and unique patterns of speech in her southern small town, whose citizens have a love of oral storytelling. Characters are given odd names, such as Rucker, Lightfoot McClendon, and Hosie Roach; there are no ‘‘John Smiths’’ in her novel. Many of these characters have features that border on the grotesque; Rucker, with his commanding physical presence, his penchant for fighting, and his general brashness, is the central example. Through her depiction of Mill Town and its poverty, Burns reminds readers that the Old South was built on cash crops such as cotton.
The community’s rigid social structure— perhaps the most common theme in southern historical literature—is illustrated on virtually every page. Traditional religion is to some degree lampooned through such characters as Will’s Grandfather Tweedy, though it must always be recognized that through Rucker and his relationship with Will, a nontraditional, more thoughtful religious outlook is emphasized. Although the Civil War has ended some four decades before, the war and its aftermath are still a felt reality in the community. The Fourth of July parade route is lined with people waving Confederate flags, not U.S. flags. Miss Love is a threat to the community not just because she is an outsider but because she is from Baltimore, and therefore ‘‘practically’’ a Yankee. It is worth noting, too, that after Rucker and Miss Love travel to the big city—New York— thus leaving behind the small town, Rucker shows more affection to Miss Love and to some extent enters the modern world by deciding to become a car dealer, buying Miss Love a record player, and agreeing to the installation of indoor plumbing.
Many writers who follow the traditions of southern writing have taken an ultimately pessimistic view. They regard southern traditions and taboos as so entrenched that they cannot be resisted or overcome. They ultimately swallow the individual and determine the individual’s fate. Others take a more optimistic view, emphasizing the epiphanies, or moments of revelation, when characters recognize the realities around them and are capable of change—and of changing others. Cold Sassy Tree clearly belongs to the latter camp. Through Will, Burns stresses that historical realities are not imprisoning. And in connection with the child that Miss Love will give birth to, Cold Sassy can become Progressive City.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Olive Ann Burns, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.