MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
In the last weeks of summer we're examining the role of the porch in American culture. We've looked at architecture, the porch and community, and we decided that it would be just plain wrong if we didn't also consider the role of the porch in American literature. The porch, after all, 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. So many compelling scenes have played out there.
Unidentified Man: It was a summer of wisteria. The twilight was full of it and the smell of his father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda, the fire flies blew and drifted in soft random.
Unidentified Woman #1: It was when my mother came out to the sleeping porch to tell me good night that her trial came. The sudden silence in the double bed meant my younger brothers had both keeled over in sleep and I in a single bed at my end of the porch would be lying electrified, waiting for this to be the night when she'd tell me what she'd promised for so long. Just as she bent to kiss me, I grabbed her and asked, where do babies come from?
Unidentified Woman #2: Standing alone on the porch, Beloved is smiling, but now her hand is empty. Seffa is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Seffa has been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind.
NORRIS: That was a reading from Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Before that we heard selections from Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Many of these passages are collected in a small picture book called Out on the Porch: An Evocation in Words and Pictures. And it's just that. Along side these writings are pictures of all kinds of homes with porches, from simple shacks to antebellum mansions.
The idea for this book began in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Shannon Ravenel's own front porch. She's the editor of Algonquin Books. Out on the Porch proved so popular that after a decade, it's still in print and it's also led to a yearly calendar. Shannon Ravenel says when many people think of a Southern porch, the image that usually springs to mind is from Gone With The Wind.
Ms. SHANNON RAVENEL (Algonquin Books): Big columns. The movies have loved that kind of porch, I think. Movies about the South always have a huge house with huge white columns, well, I guess to denote a certain class of Southerner. But Tara's porch was quite - do you remember it?
NORRIS: Oh yes, of course. I remember and I think it was actually called, in the book it was referred to as the veranda.
Ms. RAVENEL: I think it was, Michele. I think you're completely right. It is in this quote that we have in the book as well.
NORRIS: Now we can't talk about porches in Southern literature, I guess, without mentioning Harper Lee.
Ms. RAVENEL: No, you really can't. When I think of To Kill a Mockingbird, I think the whole thing took place on a porch, but of course they ran back, she and the little boy ran back and forth from one porch to the other all through the book. But the porch, of course, played a huge role. It was because, I think a lot of that book takes place in the summertime. It was the place people gathered and where Scout would have heard what was going on in the trial. I mean it was the place children picked up on what was going on. Conversations on Southern porches, you know, back in those days were between adults and children were supposed to be seen but not heard.
NORRIS: Off in the corner playing marbles or something.
Ms. RAVENEL: Right. Right. Heard everything and in her case, acted on things.
NORRIS: What is the role of the porch in literature?
Ms. RAVENEL: What is the role of the porch in literature? Well, it's a room. I think Reynolds Price has a wonderful way of putting it. He says it's a room, it has been in American history, a room that was between the outside and the inside, so that certain kinds of negotiations and social occasions could occur on the porch because it wasn't quite inside the house and yet it wasn't out in the yard. You can imagine that in the deep South. When workers came to the house to speak to the boss man, usually they would stay on the porch, rather than come all the way inside the house.
So in Southern literature, the porch has been the place where a great deal happens when there are complications or conflicts or confrontations between characters. The other part of the porch in literature, I think, is a lot of peaceful memories seem to stem from times spent on the family porch.
NORRIS: It's not unique to Southern writers, but you see it so much more in Southern literature. Is it something that we see even today among young writers, since you spend a lot of time working with young writers?
Ms. RAVENEL: I think so. I am still working with young writers, and I can think of one very new book that we published recently called If You Want Me to Stay by Michael Parker, which is about two children whose father is nuts, basically, and they are sort of hiding from him in a trunk, and he's always on the porch looking for them in a very sort of menacing way. I think a lot of people the age of Michael Parker and people like Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith, they use what they remember very much in their books.
And Jill McCorkle has been living in Boston all these years and I'm not sure she has a screened sleeping porch in Boston, but she used screened sleeping porches in several of her novels. AndI think it's sort of a nostalgia thing that people would like to think that we Southerners are still sitting out on the porch. And for the most part, I think we are if it's cool enough. You know, we have ceiling fans and cold drinks, and I eat on a screened porch everyday in the summer.
And I think porches will probably always play a role in the literature, though the lines between the regions are fading and I think air conditioning, just to be practical about it, is probably going to change things a little bit.
NORRIS: Shannon Ravenel, it has been a pleasure to speak to you. Thanks so much.
Ms. RAVENEL: Thank you, Michele. I loved it.
NORRIS: Shannon Ravenel, editor of Algonquin Books.
You can read excerpts from novels by Michael Parker and Jill McCorkle, two of the newer Southern writers we just spoke about, at NPR.org. While you're there you can also share some of your porch stories. And by the way, Shannon Ravenel's favorite porch scene comes from Zora Neale Hurston's book Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Ms. RAVENEL: The sun was gone but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was a time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now the sun and the boss man were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.