What’s the Story #48

What, you might ask, would inspire a magazine based in Pittsburgh to put together a “Southern Sin” issue?

A couple of years ago, I went down to Mississippi to brainstorm a Southern issue of the magazine with Neil White. Neil’s a sinner, for sure. Twenty years ago, he was making a name for himself as a successful publisher and philanthropist. He had expensive cars, luxury boats, and posh houses—and a secret: He was living way beyond his means and began making bad choices to keep his business afloat. Eventually, he was investigated by the FBI and found guilty of check kiting, and was sentenced to eighteen months in a federal penitentiary for his sinning ways.

Neil served his time in a minimum-security prison in Louisiana, which also happened to house the last leper colony in the United States. During his time there, Neil not only learned repentance and humility, but he found a topic for a book. His memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, took him ten years to write after being released from prison and returning to Oxford, where he has rebuilt his publishing business and also co-directs the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference.

During my visit, Neil introduced me to a number of other writers and publishers in Oxford, including Beth Ann Fennelly, the poet and essayist who is also director of the creative writing program at the University of Mississippi. Along with a small group that included Fennelly’s husband, the novelist Tom Franklin, and a couple of bottles of brown liquid, we chose “Southern Sin” as the theme for this issue.

Are we hypothesizing that there’s less sin to the east, north, and west, or that there’s a special style of sin in the South that distinguishes it from the sin prevalent in other parts of the country? For that matter, what do we mean by “sin”?

There are, as you might know, seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. The list was first articulated by Pope Gregory I, the most prolific of the early popes, and although the definitions of the terms have changed somewhat over the years, the topic of sin has been a constant source of fascination and inspiration for artists and writers, from Dante and Thomas Aquinas to the modern day. The young adult novelist Robin Wasserman, for example, devotes one book to each sin in her “Seven Deadly Sins” series.

But, for me, the most intriguing and compelling exploration of sin in the United States today is being conducted by Thomas Vought, a geographer at Kansas State University. In 2009, Vought, with three colleagues, published a study of “The Spatial Distribution of the Seven Deadly Sins.” Since we are all about creative nonfiction in this magazine, we’d hoped that Vought was practicing the immersion method in his researching of the seven deadly sins. That’s what we would have done.

But, being geographers, Vought and his colleagues devised indexes for measuring sin and overlaid the results on a county-by-county map of the United States. Greed, for example, calculated by comparing average incomes with the number of inhabitants living in poverty, was prevalent in New England, Arizona, California, Nevada, and, surprisingly, in upscale areas like Denver and Seattle. There were gluttony “hot zones” in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Texas.

Dante defined envy as “love of one’s own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs,” and Aquinas says envy is “sorrow for another’s good.” Vought found hot zones for envy (calculated by rates of theft per capita) in the Pacific Northwest, California, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, as well as in large metropolitan areas, like New Orleans.

Mainly, though, in Vought’s findings, the South was distinguished by the prevalence of wrath and lust. Perhaps it is not surprising, then—though I confess I was unaware of Vought’s work until recently—that the sins addressed in most of the essays selected for this issue are related to those sins. Certainly, our editors weren’t surprised that lust was the sin most frequently addressed in the nearly six hundred essay submissions we received for this issue.

Interestingly, lust originally meant simply intense desire, often in the context of a desire for money, fame, or power; it came to refer primarily to sexual thoughts and feelings only later. To be clear: most of the essays we got were about sex, and not money or fame, and in Vought’s study, lust was measured by per capita rates of sexually transmitted diseases. 

In “The Renters,” Chelsea Rathburn, a lonely divorcee, makes ends meet by renting a room in her house to illicit lovers, adulterers with a taste for light bondage and a desire for an audience. Amy Thigpen’s “The On-Ramp” is also (to say the least) juicy, and M. H. Kennerly’s “Shacked Up” portrays a young woman as she takes the big step of moving in with her boyfriend.

More seriously, there’s wrath—uncontrolled hatred and anger, measured in Vought’s work by per capita rates of rape, assault, and murder. In Sonja Livingston’s “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie,” unrelenting lust triggers tragic wrath. The narrator of Max Garland’s “Sin” is a fire-starter, and Michael Copperman’s “Harm” depicts a parent beating a child in school—with the teacher standing by helplessly. “Prism,” by Rachel Michelle Hanson, is a taut and frightening story of a woman senselessly murdered by her husband.

The last essay in this issue, Harrison Scott Key’s “The Wishbone,” about football in the Deep South, depicts pride. Because there was really no data available to compute pride, Vought defined this last sin as an aggregation of the other six—and his map shows a huge red swath of it running from eastern Texas all the way to the Atlantic.

So. Neil, Beth Ann, Tom, and I were on the mark as related to sin in the South. There’s a lot of it going on!

I’m delighted to acknowledge Neil, here, as the donor of the $5,000 Creative Nonfiction Southern Sin prize for the best essay. And I’m very pleased to announce that the winner is Harrison Scott Key’s “The Wishbone.” I hope that all of the essays in this special issue will intrigue and titillate you—but Key’s is also wickedly funny.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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