The Porch: A Place of Literary Prominence

From the set of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' i i

Actors Gregory Peck and Mary Badham review the script for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird on the movie set's front porch. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
From the set of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Actors Gregory Peck and Mary Badham review the script for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird on the movie set's front porch.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Scroll down to read excerpts from contemporary Southern writers.

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The front porch of a home in Hillsborough, N.C., i i

The front porch of a home in Hillsborough, N.C., from Algonquin Books' Out on the Porch. Elizabeth Matheson hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Matheson
The front porch of a home in Hillsborough, N.C.,

The front porch of a home in Hillsborough, N.C., from Algonquin Books' Out on the Porch.

Elizabeth Matheson

In American literature, the porch is a stage where the symbolism is often as thick as the summer air — a transitional space between the cocoon of home and the cacophony of the outside world.

Out on the Porch, a slim picture book, collects photographs and memorable literary passages about porches by authors such as Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner.

The idea for the book began in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Algonquin Books editor Shannon Ravenel's own front porch.

The book, published originally in 1992, proved so popular that it's still in print and has led to an annual porch calendar.

Ravenel says that when many people think of a "Southern porch," the image that springs to mind is from Gone With The Wind.

But any discussion about Southern porches would be incomplete without mention of the porch from Harper Lee's Pulitzer-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. A young tomboy, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, narrates the story of racism and injustice in a small Alabama town.

"Conversations on Southern porches back in those days were between adults, and the children were supposed to be seen but not heard," says Ravenel. "But they listened and heard everything, and in Scout's case, acted on things."

"The porch wasn't quite in the house and yet it wasn't out in the yard," says Ravenel. In the Deep South, when workers came to the house to speak to the boss, they would usually stay on the porch rather than come inside the house.

As result, "the porch has been the place where a great deal happens, where there are complications or conflicts or confrontation between characters," Ravenel says. But it's also a place that evokes many peaceful memories.

Ravenel says that even for the new generation of Southern writers, the porch is still an important place, citing authors such as Michael Parker, Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith. For example, McCorkle, who has lived in Boston for years, still writes about screened-in sleeping porches.

Excerpt: 'If You Want Me to Stay'

If You Want Me to Stay Cover

Tank and Carter were hot, hungry, tired, aggravated, smelly. I could not distract them. They wanted out of that pickup.

"We haven't seen him in an hour," said Carter. "He's sleep."

But there was no telling. When it ran its course he drifted off from the awful strain of it. Like running a marathon, I heard him tell Mama once. Slept like he was dead for twelve hours and when he woke up he did not know squat. Blacked out like a drunk man.

Except he was not a drunk. With his work friends he'd drink a beer to be polite but you could tell he didn't like the taste of it, sipping it, holding it finicky up against his chest. He's a good man, my daddy. Did you know that in the fall he'd sign us out of school and load us up in the pickup and drive us to Raleigh for the state fair? And in the winter he'd turn right around drive us back up there for the circus? Sometimes we'd all ride over to Wilmington to attend SuperFlea and my daddy would know nearly all the people running the booths, whatever it was they were selling, old Coke signs or cassette tapes or Depression glass, he'd have them talking about favorite breakfast meat. I knew my mama loved my daddy. She must not of been feeling too good about herself right along the time of that broken up day, her one girl set up any place will tolerate her foul mouth and her three boys locked in a boiling pickup out in the no-tree-plantedest yard in the whole state and her high up in some hotel talking on the phone to some girl from work about I don't know shoes or what kind of food you ought to order on a first date with a stranger.

I knew she knew we were out there. If people loved you and you were in trouble that trouble rumbled in their stomach. They'd be driving along and get a ice-cream headache telling them you were in need. Happened to me whenever Tank or Carter ran off in the woods and Carter came up on a bee's nest which, he was violently allergic, or Tank got chased by some wild I'll-eat-any-damn-thing dog. People if they loved you, they had to leave though. Don't ask me why, it don't make sense to me, it's just something that happens. But see, I must not could love right. I would not leave my little brothers there with him and I was for damn sure not about to let Sheriff Deputy Rex take them.

Tank said, "He's sleep."

Carter pried up the door lock and put his hand down to open the door. Myself I slapped the merciful Jesus out of that boy. About Jesus and all, I don't think so, but what I like is prayer, even if it's just singing or moaning while chewing the edge of your pillowcase when you're fixing to flood the sheets with tears.

Tank went to thrashing so I slapped his mess too. Then it was a tangle and crisp hot slaps on sweaty skin and grunted cussing of boys too young to know how to cuss and Carter pulling up the lock and me locking it back down. Finally he got it up and opened the door and flew out across the sandy yard up the steps into the dark-mouthed house.

"Holy moly," I said.

Tank went to wailing. I hugged him quiet. He was shaking so hard the springs in the seat were singing.

I had to crack the window wider because me and Tank, waiting to see what was going to happen, breathed up all the oxygen. It was straight nervous fumes up in there. Tank's quart had gone to really humming. Neither of us could breathe good.

Then Carter came strolling out on the porch. Screen door slapped his leisurely ass like it'll do a slow old back-leg-dragging dog. He held his hands up All Clear.

"He ain't even in there," he hollered.

Tank made a noise in his throat, a half-strangled hiccup, when we seen the shadow darken the rusty screen. Carter was shrugging and fixing I could tell to strut his cocky stuff, I told you so, son, us sweating away in that pickup all day and he ain't even in here.

Daddy had Carter in a headlock before the screen door popped closed. Carter stared sadly at the bunch of bananas Daddy was carrying. With his free hand Daddy put the whole bunch up to Carter's mouth. "Eat, monkey," he told Carter.

Tank was up in my lap, wedged hard against the steering wheel. He had his arms around my neck and I could feel the laughter welling up in his slight little chest. It vibrated and spilled out across the cab.

"Eat monkey, eat monkey." Carter opened up his mouth, took a peel-and-all bite.

"Let me hold one of them bananas, Cart, I'm starving," said Tank. He laughed and laughed.

"Shut up now," I told Tank. "That ain't funny."

Daddy crammed the banana stem in Carter's mouth. Carter's face was wrinkly red. Tank's crazy laugh sucked continuous into sobbing.

"What's he doing what's he doing what's Daddy—"

"Hush," I told Tank. But he wouldn't so I squeezed so hard he choked. I don't know why. I guess because I knew I had to get out of the truck and stop Daddy and let me ask a question: What about those people who leave you with some sweet, ancient, set-in-their-ways, been-years-since-they-even-thought-about-children grandparents and claim they're going to come back for you and you don't hear jack from them for going on, what's it been, eight or nine months? What about somebody who would drop you off one Friday at dusk and act like they'll see you in a matter of days and then don't even write or call or nothing? Who do they think they are? I felt Tank choking under my squeeze, looked over at Carter choking on bananas not ten feet away and I wondered why in the hell she ever named me after my daddy.

From If You Want Me to Stay by Michael Parker. (c) 2005 by Michael Parker. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Excerpt: 'Ferris Beach'

Ferris Beach Cover

It was dark by five o'clock when Misty and I went out on the sleeping porch to get my transistor. "Why is it out here anyway?" Misty asked. "It's too cold to sit out here." She flopped down in the rocking chair and propped her foot up on the railing. She was wearing lace-up boots with heavy treads, like what a mountain climber might wea, and bright red-and-yellow striped socks.

"Hey, look" she said suddenly, and sat up straight. I followed her hand as she pointed to Merle's house, and I focused on the water-pipe sounds coming from below, where my mother was in the kitchen.

"So?" I finally asked.

"Why, you can see right in their windows," she whispered. Then she slapped at me in the same way a cat might toy with a lizard. "Don't try and tell me that you don't ever look over there." She paused and crossed her heart with her hand to indicate a solemn swear. "If you do, you're a liar and will burn in hell."

"Shhh," I whispered, and pointed to the floor of the porch, though I knew there was no way my mother could hear us talking because the windows were all closed.

"All those times I've called, and your mama said you were sitting on the porch." Misty could mimic my mother to a tee, and she did it then with her shoulders thrown back and mouth sucked in. "You sit here and look at the Huckses' house. It's like Rear Window. You spy on your neighbors."

"No, I don't." I sat down in the glider and then followed her gaze, a bar bulb sharpening the walls of the Huckses' kitchen.

We both just sat, watching like a movie, and then Merle came out the back door and, in the yellow glow of the outside light, started moving around some old tires and other junk that was stacked back there. Dexter came up on his Harley and sat in the dark driveway gunning the engine.

"There he is," Misty whispered, ignoring my attempts to go inside. "He is kind of cute in a real rough way, isn't he? Sort of like a small Charles Bronson." I started to say "or Charles Manson" but bit my tongue.

From Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle. (c) 1990 by Jill McCorkle. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Web Resources

Books Featured In This Story

Out on the Porch

An Evocation in Words and Pictures

by Clifton Dowell

Hardcover, 122 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Out on the Porch
Subtitle
An Evocation in Words and Pictures
Author
Clifton Dowell

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If You Want Me To Stay

by Michael Parker

Hardcover, 177 pages | purchase

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Title
If You Want Me To Stay
Author
Michael Parker

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Ferris Beach

A Novel

by Jill McCorkle

Hardcover, 343 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Ferris Beach
Subtitle
A Novel
Author
Jill McCorkle

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