December 15, 2005

Myth and Myopia I: A Brief Introduction to Southern Intellectual History

It began as a requirement to research and write a 20-25 page paper on some topic relating to the intellectual history of the United States and my own vague idea of doing something related to the writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. It became a 33-page survey of Southern intellectual history up to about 1970 focusing on the importance of the Southern Literary Renaissance between 1929 and (approximately) 1965. In fact, the full title is "Exorcising the Demons of Myth and Myopia: The Southern Literary Renaissance, 1929-1965."

This paper was obviously the major thrust of my efforts during the entire last half of the semester. I consulted (in varying degrees of depth) around fifty sources, both primary and secondary, and poured virtually all of my creative drive during that month and more into crafting something I could be proud of. Naturally I wanted it on here in some form, even if no one reads it. And, also naturally, there's no way I'm going to display it within a single post . . . that would be nightmarish and would virtually guarantee that no one would read any of it.

The prospect of serializing this paper, added to my ten-part "Top Fifty" list which spanned the last month, led me to create a new category in the sidebar: Serials. I have no plans for any such serials aside from these two things in the immediate future, but you never know what may crop up. In the meanwhile, I'll be publishing the Southern history and literature paper in bite-size, topical chunks until it's all up here . . . hopefully no more than nine or ten parts. We'll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I shall begin by introducing the topic as I see it and trotting out my thesis as quickly as I reasonably can.

In 1928, historian Ulrich B. Phillips stated that the central theme of Southern history was that the South should be and remain "a white manís country." Less than forty years later, this no longer seemed like a possibility for the South of the future. A key flow of changing thoughts and attitudes during these pivotal decades took place within the Southern Literary Renaissance: a flowering of literary production by Southern authors which was impressive in terms of volume, national popularity, and as a reflection of, and force for, cultural metamorphosis.

William Faulkner, the literary giant of the period, and the legions of Southern writers surrounding him, revolted against generations-old assumptions about their society and its history and criticized Southern mores even as they recorded, and sometimes celebrated, a way of life and a significant American worldview which became suddenly marginalized over the course of just a few generations. Writers during the Renaissance took the first steps in Southern history towards uprooting deeply dishonest ideas about Southern society and the past by honestly examining and openly questioning the validity of them.

Of course, a truly holistic approach to the subject, while ideal, would not be complete without four things:

-First, a plenary picture of the entirety of Southern history, tracing the development of the region, its people, and their identity from the colonial foundation, through the all-important Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and finally to the first rumbles of Renaissance which began in the modernist milieu of post-World War I America.

-Second, an exhaustive survey of each of the dozens of literary voices, major and minor, storyteller and poet, historian and critic, who carried the Renaissance forward, along with an examination of important themes and ideas in their writings and the response of their society.

-Third, representative excerpts from their work to demonstrate the widely varying styles employed and subjects addressed by the writers of the Renaissance.

-Fourth, a discussion of the impact of the Renaissance on Southern, American, and literary history both during and since the middle of the twentieth century, including a historiographical review of differing viewpoints on its effects, to firmly place and understand the movement in its complete context.

Needless to say, this paper will not attempt to take a truly holistic approach to its subject, lest it become instead a stack of volumes. Rather, it will simply attempt to briefly account for the intellectual history and attitudes of the South until the 1920s in order to illustrate the significance of the development of the twentieth century intellectual movement known as the Southern Literary Renaissance. Even such a short and incomplete treatment of the subject, however, requires some inclusion of each of the elements already discussed (save, perhaps, the third), beginning with an outline of Southern history.

Every aspect of Southern life is so closely tied to memory of the past, whether truth or fantasy, personal or transmitted through the traditions of family and community, that there can be no hope of understanding the Southerner without some sense of this heritage. This principle applies equally to the minds and personalities of the South, its social structure, behavior, and hopes and expectations for the future. It is precisely that peculiar consciousness of, and concern with, history which sets the literature of the South apart from that of any other region in America.

Posted by Jared at December 15, 2005 06:00 PM | TrackBack