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Lillian Smith Record Collection: Southern Fiction and Chronic Suicide

This is the LibGuide to for educators and the public to explore the Lillian E. Smith digitized records from Laurel Falls Camo

Paula Snelling

Lil and Paula


Paula Snelling and Lillian Smith were lifelong partners. They co-directed Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, published a literary magazine together from 1936-1945, and fought tirelessly for social justice during their lives. Snelling's "Southern Fiction and Chronic Suicide" originally appeared in the Summer 1938 issue of The North Georgia Review, the journal that her and Smith published from the top of Screamer Mountain. The prefaced the article by stating that "[t]he following notes, now incompletely developed, later will be expanded by the editors of the Review into chapters of a boo on Southern Literature." That book never formulated; however, the ideas that Snelling lays out in her article run throughout her and Smith's writings throughout their careers. 

Drawing on her background in psychology, Snelling uses Karl Menninger's term "chronic suicide" to detail the ways that Southern writers either rely on stereotypes of African Americans or ignore them completely in their writing and how these facts both play into the pathological tendencies of the South and hinder its artistic achievement. Snelling writes that Menninger "uses the term 'chronic suicides' for those individuals whose destructive tendencies, not beneficial manifestations yet restrained by conscience from obvious external violence, turn back upon their owner to undermine and cripple certain of his functions." 

Snelling and Smith continually lament the state of Southern fiction in their writing. In her review of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Smith writes, "But perhaps we are treating too seriously a book which has no claim surely on literature but is rather a curious puffball compounded of printer's ink and bated breath, rolled in sugary sentimentality, stuck full of spicy Southern taboos, intended for and getting mass consumption. Harmless enough. Unless it has done what its publishers claim 'set a brand new standard for fiction.' That we should be inclined to take seriously."    

Reviewing William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Snelling praises Faulkner's literary talent and his presentation of the South. However, she also states that "seldom can the reader turn a dozen pages without being confronted with some gratuitous horror; some spectacle which might have been lifted with no extenuations from the most shameless thriller. Or he encounters an appeal to race fears and prejudices having about the connection with the essential story that dinosaurs have with the superiority of a particular kind of motor oil." 

Snelling's "Southern Fiction and Chronic Suicide" is an essay of literary criticism, written during the reign of the New Agrarians and in the burgeoning shadow of World War II. It is a piece that engages with Southern literature during the period, asking the reader to think about the impact that literature has on enacting societal change. 

Possible Activities

Possible Activities

  1. Have students look at Smith and Snelling's journal and reviews of works by Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Evelyn Scott, or other authors that Snelling mentions in her article. Then, have students look at mass market reviews of these work. Students can then compare and contrast the varying reviews of the work and explore what these reviews say about Southern literature during the period. 
  2. Have students research the Southern Agrarians who arose out of Vanderbilt University and published I'll Take My Stand: The South and Agrarian Tradition in 1930. Students can read some of the essays in I'll Take My Stand and look at them in relation to Smith's and Snelling's writing, examining how each of the authors thought about the South and Southern Literature.   
  3. Alice Walker, in "Saving the Life That is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life" (on the left), writes, "black writers and white writers seem to me to writing one immense story--the same story, for the most part--with different parts of this immense story coming from a multitude of perspectives." Thinking about Walker's statement and Snelling's similar statements in her essay, have students research Southern literature in the twenty first century, focusing on the diversity of voices writing from and about the region. 



  1. In "Southern Fiction and Chronic Suicide," Snelling writes, "The bulk of that fiction which the South has acclaimed as her own during the century has, sometimes tacitly, sometimes blatantly, sometimes ingratiatingly even to those who reject its major premise, supported the myth of white superiority either by evading the issues and those phases of life which overlap it or by utilizing one or another of these type forms.” Thinking about the period in which Snelling wrote her essay, what does she mean by this statement? 
  2. At the end of her essay, Snelling argues, to a certain extent, that literature can change and they also reflect societal change. How can art, literature specifically, bring about societal change? How did art, in the South, work to bring about change? 
  3. Over the course of her essay, Snelling discusses stereotypes and how stereotypes make their way into fiction. What does she say about stereotypes in Southern literature and their impact of readers? 
  4. Of some writers, Snelling notes they have avoided writing about race; however, she argues, "to live in the South and produce fiction of high order which does not touch on color demands either a phenomenal artistic imagination or a phenomenal preoccupation with personal (as distinct from sociological) problems." What does Snelling mean by this statement and her discussion of Thomas Wolfe and James Branch Cabell? Do you agree or disagree with her statement? Why or why not?