According to Dr. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University, from 1933 to 1967 the South had one-fourth of the nation's population and one-third of its poverty. During that same time, it also had 40 percent of the United States' Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, six of whom were from Mississippi and Alabama, arguably the country's most impoverished states.
It seems the region's hardscrabble red clay spawned storytellers as well as sharecroppers.
I began a recent literary tour of Alabama in Montgomery, the state capital. Two writers — one of fiction and the other, non-fiction — that are closely associated with this city weren't born in Montgomery, or even Alabama, but their legacies live on here.
The fiction writer was F. Scott Fitzgerald, the darling of the Jazz Age (he is said to have coined the term to refer to the excesses of the 1920s). The author of The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon was born in St. Paul, Minn., and during the height of his fame, lived the life of an expatriate in Paris and on the French Riviera.
But it was to a two-story red clapboard house in the old Cloverdale section of Montgomery that Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, an Alabama native, returned in 1931 to live. Today, the house is a museum dedicated to the lives of the glamorous but doomed couple.
Visitors can tour four main rooms that cover six periods in their lives — from the early years, when Scott was a student at Princeton and Zelda Sayre, daughter of a prominent Montgomery judge, was a rebellious socialite doing cartwheels on the steps of the state Capitol building with her friend, future actress Tallulah Bankhead — to Scott's final years in Hollywood and Zelda's in a North Carolina mental hospital.
The other galleries chronicle their life together and the intense competition that developed between the two. Despite his early success, Fitzgerald had lingering doubts about his writing, and Zelda, not content with her role as his muse, was determined to become a novelist herself. Her lightly regarded novel Save Me the Waltz was a counterpart to her husband's own tale of a disintegrating marriage — and in a case of art imitating life, the wife's descent into mental illness — Tender is the Night.
Though the museum is well-curated on every level, I found the most poignant exhibit to be the gallery of delicate watercolors done by Zelda as part of her therapy while she was a patient at Highlands Mental Hospital in Asheville, N.C.
Away from the leafy suburbs, in the center of downtown, is a different sort of literary shrine: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the only church that Atlanta-born Dr. Martin Luther King ever pastored. It sits just a block from the Alabama State Capitol building (in later years King's nemesis, Gov. George Wallace, had a view of the church from his office window).
King spent six years here, from 1954 to 1960, and organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott from his basement office. Visitors can sit at Dr. King's desk, tour the sanctuary where his pulpit still stands, and see the colorful mural depicting civil rights heroes.
While King compiled his own writings in an anthology, A Testament of Hope, it was his influence on other black writers that is truly remarkable, says Trudier Harris, professor of English at the University of Alabama.
"From the 1950s up to today, more than 50 African-American writers have incorporated Dr. King into their writings, including some like poet Nikki Giovanni who, in her work, initially opposed his methods of non-violence," Harris says.
Should you want some soul food to go with your literature, head for Martha's Place, where the fried chicken, collard greens and candied yams are not to be missed, and where Martha Hawkins greets every diner like long-lost kin.
Over a second helping of yams, I ask Hawkins about her own book, Finding Martha's Place, in which she chronicles her struggles with grinding poverty and mental illness, and explains why at the restaurant she only hires people who are down on their luck.
"I don't want to know about your past," Hawkins tells people seeking a job. "Tell me what you want your future to be."
In Fannie Flagg's novel A Redbird Christmas, a Chicago man, Oswald T. Campbell, believing that he has only a few months to live, follows a postcard to the sleepy community of Lost River, hidden along the bank of a winding waterway in southernmost Alabama.
Here, he meets such unforgettable characters as the postman who delivers mail by boat, the rival ladies' secret societies — the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots and the Mystic Order of the Dotted Swiss — and a remarkable red bird named Jack.
If you're thinking that a place such as Lost River exists only in fiction, you haven't been to Magnolia Springs. Here, where red clay gives way to the sandy soil of the Gulf Coast, is Flagg's real-life Lost River.
Magnolia Springs seems a place out of time; Oswald T. Campbell's postcard sprung to life. Gracious homes and gardens line quiet streets shadowed by the magnolias that gave the town its name. Live oaks festooned with Spanish moss form natural canopies resembling green cathedrals. St. Paul's Episcopal Church, listed on the National Register, sits next to the town hall, the main gathering place in A Redbird Christmas.
A number of clear natural springs bubble up around the Magnolia River, which wends its way through the town, and on which mail is delivered year-round by boat. Like Camelot or Brigadoon, Magnolia Springs seems other-worldly, as if it might vanish at the blink of an eye.
On a Wednesday night, I made my way to Jesse's, a charming white cottage surrounded by flower gardens, that backs up to the river. This is Magnolia Springs' only restaurant, and on this night it was packed with locals relishing the chef's New Orleans barbecued shrimp and whiskey steak.
"This place is a favorite of Fannie's," the waiter who seated me said. The Birmingham-born author, who now lives in California, once had a home here and returns to visit several times a year.
I had barely settled into my chair when a tall, lanky man approached and offering his hand, introduced himself as Glenn Moore.
"In case you were wondering, I'm the character of Stick in the book," he said with obvious pride, despite the fact that Stick was described as having the physical appearance of a "sleepy praying mantis."
"Fannie always told me I looked like one," he said, not the least put out by the comparison. "I guess I do."
With that, I took a sip of wine, sat back and prepared to listen to Moore's discourse. After all, it wasn't every night that I got to have dinner with a character from a book.