January 27, 2006
"Why Do They Exist At All"
Our Southern History seminar began, as any examination of the topic must, with a discussion of the origins of the region and its identity. While I already addressed this topic somewhat here, there is a great deal that was left unsaid. Most importantly I neglected to mention that neither I nor anyone before me can say with any real certainty what factors caused the South to exist as it has and does, but everyone has a theory.
I waded through quite a few of these theories during my research last semester, and our reading this week from Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer examined a few more. The idea that captured my imagination while I was writing my paper was that of the Southern historical consciousness. The Southern mind has generally been keenly aware of the events of the past which have led to the situations of the present. Surely, though (as I realized upon further reflection), this is merely one more facet of that mind, one more symptom of whatever it is that has made this region different from all the rest. The Southern historical consciousness is an effect, not a cause.
Theories as to what actually produced the Southern personality and the region's separate identity are wide-ranging indeed. Some attribute the differences to issues of climate, some to issues of cultural background, and some even to endemic diseases like pellagra. Fischer makes a compelling case for, in particular, the combination of the aristocratic cavaliers from England who settled in Virginia and the Carolinas and the impoverished Scotch-Irish (which is to say, Scots from Northern Ireland) who settled in the colonial backcountry of the Appalachians.
The Virginian aristocrats brought with them a rigid caste system, ideals of inviolable personal (Fischer calls it "hegemonic") liberty which did not extend beyond the landed gentry, and a strong sense of honor. The Scotch-Irish yeoman-farmers brought a determination to look after their own affairs, militant religious beliefs and practices, and a preference for fighting rather than labor.
These two different cultures shared a deep, intense loyalty to, and connection with, family (which would gradually extend to encompass their immediate community, eventually their entire state, and much, much later, the entire nation). They shared the hot, humid climate of the South. They shared the rugged conditions of settling an uncivilized wilderness. In particular, the Scotch-Irish brought over generations of experience with life in borderlands, where the delicate balance between differing cultures could frequently explode into violent conflict.
All of the elements that Fischer introduced and examined were well-presented and well-argued. However, what fascinated me the most was his examination of the emotional, reactionary aspects of what was to become the Southern personality. The Scotch-Irish in particular were a passionate people, while the Virginians were a people who would throw caution and rational thought to the wind in the defense of honor. The combination of these would tend not only to place reasonable thought and action in a subordinate position, but even to make them seem wrong in certain circumstances. This is precisely the sort of thing which, for me, helps to explain the dozens of ironies and contradictions in Southern history.
As a side-note, it has recently occurred to me that (sticking with my own personal experience) this same aspect of the Southern mind has translated over into the modern Southern Christian mind. There are so many things that Christians think that strike me as bizarre and contradictory . . . Things like, I dunno, God loves Republicans, Capitalism, and War. God loves the death penalty. God loves bigotry against foreigners or homosexuals.
Well, I shall refrain from proceeding any further along this line lest I lose all coherence and abandon the topic at hand entirely. Hopefully, as the class proceeds, we will get a clearer picture, if not of exactly why the South exists as it does, then at least of what that existence consists of.
January 25, 2006
Adultery, Incest, & Miscegenation! Oh, My!
I just finished Absalom, Absalom! yesterday (yes, it took me quite awhile), and I find that it is the best book about the South that I have yet read. It captures every important facet of Southern history from the Antebellum period to 1910, although putting it that way makes it seem less incredible than it actually is. Also, I think Faulkner is crippling my ability to form short, coherent, and meaningful sentences.
The novel follows Quentin Compson (one of the four narrators in The Sound and the Fury) as he discovers the dark truth behind the story of Colonel Thomas Sutpen, a local legend. The story comes to him in fragments and out of order, from various narrators with varying degrees of reliability: Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law and almost-wife, who has hated him with a burning passion for most of her life; Quentin's father, recounting information he has heard from his own father, one of the few men who ever got close to Sutpen; and, finally, from a figure straight out of the legend itself, come back to haunt Sutpen's old plantation mansion.
We hear the story first as Quentin hears it, told, as I said, out of order, in bits and pieces, with many details (both major and minor) completely wrong. Many portions are repeated from different angles. Then, Quentin returns to college in Massachusetts where he stays up late one freezing night with his Canadian roommate, Shreve, and attempts to piece together the details he has collected to tell the true story of Colonel Sutpen, which becomes representative of the true story of the entire South.
Sutpen grows up poor in the western part of Virginia which will eventually break off from the rest of the state when the Civil War begins. This is the backcountry, where all men are created equal and individualism is king. However, when Sutpen's mother dies the rest of his family slowly slips back towards the Virginia coastland, eventually settling on a large plantation where his father assumes a servile position beneath the local cavalier.
One day, Sutpen is sent to deliver a message to the house, and finds himself turned away from the front door by a negro servant. The next day he runs away to Haiti, determined to somehow build himself up to a position equal to that of the plantation owner. In Haiti he succeeds in making his fortune, and marries a woman who bears him a son. His plan seems to be well on track. Then, he makes a shocking discovery. His wife is an octoroon (one-eighth black), thus making his son also of African descent. This will never do. Sutpen sets them up for life in New Orleans and abandons them, travelling to Mississippi.
He comes rolling in with a wagonload of "wild negroes," tricks local Indians out of 100 miles of pristine land, and builds an enormous mansion on it with the help of a French architect that he nabbed from New Orleans. In the meantime, he fathers a daughter, Clytie, with one of the few black women in his bunch. Once his plantation is up and running, he finds himself a wife among the locals: Ellen Coldfield (sister of Rosa). Over the course of the next few years, he has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.
They grow up, Henry grows to college, and meets Charles Bon (who is Sutpen's first son, unbeknownst to Henry). Henry brings him home and he becomes engaged to Judith. Bon is prepared to simply walk away from this engagement, and the family, at any time if Sutpen will merely acknowledge their relationship, but instead, Stupen freaks out which causes Henry to freak out and leave with Bon, giving up his inheritance.
The Civil War happens, and Sutpen, Henry, and Bon all get caught up in it, leaving everything else on hold for four years. Henry and Bon return to the Sutpen home after the war is over and Henry shoots Bon at the front gate, delivering this news to his sister as she is putting the finishing touches on her wedding dress, and then disappearing forever. Ellen Coldfield is dead by this point, and Rosa moves out to the plantation. Colonel Sutpen returns home from the war and proposes to Rosa, who accepts. Then, Sutpen proposes that they perform a "test-run" before they get married, and if Rosa has a son, they will go ahead with the wedding. She is carried back to town on a wave of righteous indignation and never speaks to him again.
Sutpen opens a small store on his property, with the help of Wash Jones (a white trash squatter) in order to stay afloat. He eventually seduces Wash's 15-year old granddaughter and fathers a daughter with her. When he discovers that she has not borne a son, he prepares to abandon her, but is murdered by Wash, who then also murders his granddaughter and her new baby before being killed by a posse.
Years pass, and Clytie fetches Bon's son (child of an octoroon mistress, much like Sutpen's) from New Orleans. The child, in a fit of rebellion against his white blood, marries a poor black woman, who bears him a mentally-retarded son. They both die, and Clytie and the son, Jim Bond (great-grandson of Sutpen), take care of what little is left of Sutpen's enormous plantation alone. Finally, a figure from the past returns to the mansion to die, and is discovered by Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson. Clytie sets the mansion on fire and dies in the blaze. The only Sutpen left standing is Jim Bond, who continues to haunt the ruins of the mansion indefinitely, wailing and shrieking over Clytie's death.
There is a great deal that could be said about this book, obviously, as it functions on quite a number of different levels simultaneously. Read literally, it is full of questions regarding the nature of memory and history, and the style of Faulkner's prose (the confused, jumbled ruminations and speculations of biased narrators regarding long-gone events) is a theme all by itself. There is the obvious link to the biblical story from which the title of the book is drawn. Many of Sutpen's problems result from his children, both legitimate and illegitimate, and his efforts to sire a suitable heir to what he has created.
Most fascinating to me is the way in which the entire story serves as a metaphorical representation of the South's dark past. I read that Faulkner's original title for the book was "Dark House," a reference both to Sutpen's eerie, foreboding mansion and to the South itself. Just like Sutpen, the Old South had not reconciled its white sons with its black ones, and just like Sutpen's house, it came to ruin. Ultimately, Henry kills his brother not because Bon keeps a black mistress, nor even to save his sister from incest, but because a marriage between Bon and Judith would be miscegenation. This is a horror that no white person in the South will abide.
The other aspect of the story that fascinated me was the role played by Quentin. Quentin is not a Sutpen at all, but it falls to him, as a white child of the South, to receive this story and to try and make sense of it. As the younger generation, this burden of Southern history falls squarely on Quentin's shoulders and he must deal with it as best he can and try to understand why it exists. Late in the novel, as the story of the Sutpens is nearing completion, Shreve and Quentin have a very telling conversation.
"I just want to understand [the South] if I can [. . .] Because it's something my people haven't got. Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We dont live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves [. . .] and bullets in the dining room and such, to be always reminding us to never forget. What is it? something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens' children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge at Manassas?"
"Gettysburg," Quentin said. "You can't understand it. You would have to be born there."
"Would I then?" Quentin did not answer. "Do you understand it?"
"I dont know," Quentin said. "Yes, of course I understand it." They breathed in the darkness. After a moment Quentin said: "I don't know."
The novel ends with Quentin lying in bed, trying unsuccessfully to convince himself that he does not hate the South. Anyone who has read The Sound and the Fury knows that within six months of the end of this novel, Quentin will commit suicide. But, of course, that work was published before this one, and this one is set before that one, so the two do not reference each other at all. No literary criticism that I have perused attempts to draw any connection between the events of Absalom, Absalom and Quentin Compson's suicide.
This makes sense from a literary perspective, considering that the two novels were necessarily composed independently of each other. However, if we think of Quentin as a separate entity, a fully realized character with his own, independent existence, the implications of his suicide, and the reasons behind it, become much more interesting.
But I'm not prepared to go into all of that at this juncture. Suffice to say that I have successfully completed my 3rd Faulkner, and loved it. And I'll be sure to read another . . . y'know, sometime.
January 24, 2006
On the Scarcity of Recent Blogposts
Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim, "I do enjoy myself," or, "I am horrified," we are insincere. "As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror" - it's no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.
-E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
January 18, 2006
The Final Courseload
Ha! Who am I kidding? As if this isn't the first semester of the rest of my life . . .
Intro to Poli. Sci.
My only comfort is that Dr. Johnson is teaching the class. I have no personal interest in Political Science whatsoever, and as a class to take in my last semester, I consider it a shame on the order of having wasted my senior year in high school on government and economics. Bleah. The course, apparently, will consist of four short writing assignments and four exams. It will not be a difficult class, but I'll probably have a hard time getting an A. I don't work well when I'm not motivated by the material.
Hilarious side note: LeTourneau claims to be educating me in "History and Political Science" and the latter will appear on my degree. This, however, is the first and only political science course I have ever taken. It is one of two that the school offers at all. And, I'm not required to take this specific course for that degree. I'm taking it for my English degree.
Intro to Fine Arts
Like political science, I have had no classes in the arts, how to understand them, and how to appreciate them. My feelings about this subject, however, could not be more different. I'm really enjoying this class, and I expect will be both fun and useful. The reading quizzes are a nuisance one needn't put up with in most of his classes, but I can deal. We'll be taking a field trip later in the semester to the Dallas Museum of Art, and that will be a lot of fun I'm sure. I've been hearing about the Watson field trip and watching friends make it for years now. Finally time to go myself. Meanwhile, his lectures are hilarious and entertaining, as always. Last class he spent 20 minutes railing about "Precious Moments" and his visit to the Precious Moments Chapel.
Seminar Readings in Southern History
No monster papers this semester, but probably a great deal more reading than last semester. Dr. Johnson handed us our syllabus and our first reading assignment yesterday. We'll have eight weeks of guided reading, with a 2-3 page analysis paper due each week, and then we'll be on our own to write an 8-10 page paper which either examines the historiography of a particular topic, or examines primary source material to produce a work of original research. Not too bloody difficult, is it? Our first reading, however, is quite lengthy, containing two excerpts from Albion's Seed and an excerpt from The Slave Community. I also hope to have my own field trip to Vicksburg sometime this semester. A bit of research indicated that it is only three hours away, a straight shot down I-20. I need to be sure and get over there . . .
Hero Quest and the Holy Grail
This will be a fun class for sure. It is, of course, a Dr. Watson class, and its topic is a pet favorite of mine. I actually dreamed up a fantasy class that was very similar to this a few semesters ago . . . and now it's here! I actually don't need the credit, but I certainly wasn't going to pass it up. This class is precisely the reason why I've taken summer courses and worked harder than I needed to a few semesters. A light final semester gives me opportunities I would not otherwise have.
Dr. Watson has us reading Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes this week. On Thursday night, I will be presenting on "The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot)" with Wilson, Moore, and Sharpton. We will also read From Ritual to Romance, Le Morte D'Arthur, and The DaVinci Code this semester. Plus, Watson has us watching quite a large number of movies ranging from The Lion in Winter to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I also plan to do an individual presentation on The Once and Future King in lieu of one of the three sets of five journals. I already have a critical study on the way from inter-library loan.
As for other responsibilities this semester . . . I'm still writing for the paper, I'm still secretary of AHM (we don't do much, but we do a few things), and there's the minor matter of a wedding to help plan. In addition to the field trips I've already mentioned, AHM hopes to organize an expedition to John Brown for the C. S. Lewis and the Inklings Conference. And Martinez discovered a live performance of The Phantom of the Opera in Dallas that we would like to try and see.
I expect to have fun this spring.
January 12, 2006
Business As Usual
My Schedule for Spring '06:
Introduction to Political Science - Dr. Johnson (12:25-1:20)
Introduction to Fine Arts - Dr. Watson (12:00-1:20)
Independent Study in Southern History - Dr. Johnson (Exact Time in Flux)
Poli. Sci. (12:25-1:20)
Fine Arts (12:00-1:20)
Hero Quest & the Holy Grail - Dr. Watson (6:00-9:00)
Poli. Sci. (12:25-1:20)
I'll be sure to post more about my classes when I have a bit more time to evaluate them (Southern History hasn't met yet, for one).
Top Ten Movies of the Fall Semester and Christmas Break:
This list is slightly unusual because I didn't watch as many movies last semester as I normally do. As a result, I had a much smaller pool to choose from, and there are a few movies on this list that wouldn't normally have made the cut. Nevertheless, there are some true all-time favorites up there, and I hope to see some really good stuff in the days ahead as well. Meanwhile, to make up for it, check this out. It's the sequel to Dogville, and I can't wait to see it (there's a trailer up here).
January 11, 2006
Myth and Myopia X: Whither Southern History?
While earlier authors had written to mold the South, to define it, to shock it, to glorify it, or to shame it, the men and women of the second generation also sought to explain the South, to capture its fading qualities, and to nudge it in the right direction. The chief concern of the first generation could perhaps be identified as an examination of the hierarchical struggle for dominance between Southern memory and Southern history (embodied in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!).
While this remained a concern during the second generation, the focus had somewhat shifted to the hierarchical struggle between the concern of maintaining established societal norms and the concern of allowing for basic individual rights and freedoms. This was, of course, a reflection of the struggle for desegregation; a final titanic effort by the entire nation to throw off the dead weight of generations of bitterness, poverty, and deprivation since the end of the Civil War. And, while the fight for equality was far from over by 1970, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s marked a watershed just as critical in Southern history as the Civil War had in the 1860s. By the 2060s, will the people of the South finally have learned just to be civil?
Positive changes which have transpired in the decades since 1970 have led many to maintain that the Garden of Eden descriptions of the colonial period and the New South myth of the early 20th century have finally fulfilled their promise in visions of the Sunbelt South. As has always been the case with such speculation, however, the South is not a paradise yet. Its problems are not over, they have simply changed. Nevertheless, the South has largely succeeded in leaving the term "Benighted" far behind.
Meanwhile, it is perhaps arbitrary at best, erroneous at worst, to place the end of the Southern Literary Renaissance in 1965. Its only significance in this respect is as the year when Flannery O’Connor’s final work of fiction was published posthumously. Many other dates have been suggested as well. A great many other authors of the Renaissance were dead by this time, but a great many more were still alive, and some continue to write today. Perhaps it is safest to assert merely that sometime between O’Connor’s death in 1964 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the second phase of the Renaissance came to an end.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a third generation of important Southern writers continued to produce regional material even as the South continued to change. Some have stated that the Renaissance is still going on, and will continue as long as the South remains a distinct region with something to say about itself.
However, in terms of a sudden flourishing of literature produced by a group of authors with more or less common concerns and experiences during a period of rapid change, the Renaissance period falls approximately between 1929 and 1965, representing a definite intellectual break from everything that had come before in the region. The thriving of Southern culture which began in earnest in 1929 may continue indefinitely, but its vital importance to a region at a critical turning point in its history has, for the moment, ended.
Meanwhile, for a very enlightening article about the current state of the South provided to me by my good friend Daniel Gallagher, click here.
January 10, 2006
Myth and Myopia IX: Good Southern Writers of the Second Generation
Naturally, many of the authors already discussed are very difficult to assign to specific, narrow periods, as many of them continued writing well into the 1970s and 1980s. However, those writers who became prominent literary figures during the Great Depression are generally regarded as the first generation of the Southern Literary Renaissance. Following the return to prosperity which took place during World War II, a second generation of Southern writers continued the legacy of the Renaissance before many in the first generation had left off.
Some of these authors have already been reviewed. But the South after World War II was beginning to change very rapidly. Finally able to begin shaking off the images of a Benighted South, the region was enjoying a new prosperity. Soon, though, the African-American crusade for civil rights would once again influence the national image of the South for the worse. Meanwhile, a whole new group of powerful Southern voices flooded the literary market with their works.
Among these authors were Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Smith, and Flannery O’Connor. Among the themes they addressed were the increasing struggle Southerners faced in joining the modern world, and the ever-pressing question of whether the South would be able to remain a "white man’s country" much longer.
At the heart of Eudora Welty’s writing there is a sense of the importance of the South as a setting, of the importance of the past, and of the importance of connections within family life. The best representative of her distinctly Southern fiction is probably Delta Wedding (1946), which portrays a large Southern family in the early 1920s gathered together to celebrate the wedding of a daughter.
Carson McCullers published her first (and possibly best) novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in 1940. She became famous with the publication of The Member of the Wedding (1946). The book is an exploration of relationships and individuality as the main character experiences isolation from everyone around her. Much of her writing uses the South symbolically to represent the problems and the worries of all of America. McCullers also dealt sympathetically with both sides in the question of race during the early 1940s, but held out little hope for future change. Her attitude towards the South, unlike Welty’s, remained ambivalent, and her writing has even been classified as Southern Gothic by some.
Tennessee Williams, a playwright, wrote several popular plays and screenplays during the 1940s and 1950s. Like William Faulkner and Lillian Hellman, Williams helped to transform a number of his own works into movie form. With a penchant for the grotesque, Williams’s plays and films often depict a very decadent vision of the South as a region full of eccentricity and violated sexual taboos. However, they can also profoundly depict a South in the throes of transformation from old to new.
In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) two fallen aristocrats, Blanche and Stella, find themselves living in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Stella, symbolically making herself comfortable with the brutish and uneducated New South of the future, has married Stanley Kowalski, a low-class, often abusive man. Blanche, on the other hand, a sensitive former English teacher who has found herself unable to cope with the fall from wealth and society that life has dealt her, becomes increasingly unstable, entering a fantasy world rooted in the nonexistent past of moonlight and magnolias. Eventually it is revealed that not everything is as it seems in Blanche’s past. She too has behaved both immorally and opportunistically in order to survive in the New South, but her mind is too fragile to survive the effects of her actions.
A later play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), presents a family of lower-class whites risen to power and prestige, but now rapidly falling to pieces as the family patriarch nears death and his two sons and their wives squabble over the inheritance and attempt to come to terms with issues of their own. The title character, "Maggie the Cat," wife of the younger son, expects her only victory in life to be that of a "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," simply to stay where she is as long as she can.
However, the ending brings familial reconciliation with it. Maggie, addressing her husband Brick in the final scene, seems almost also to be addressing the Old South in the voice of the New when she says, "Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you, gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of, and I can!"
Lillian Smith became one of the strongest white Southern voices in favor of civil rights beginning in the mid-1940s. Her writing arose less from "a sense of personal guilt than [from] a feeling of shame for the behavior of [her] homeland." She wrote with a strong awareness of the close correlation between "white supremacy and white male supremacy." Her best known works are Strange Fruit (1944) and Killers of the Dream (1949, rev. 1961).
In the latter, which opens with the words "even its children know that the South is in trouble," she asserted that the burden of whites was their childhood, how they had been raised all their lives to believe and act. To Smith, the killers of the dream were "Southerners who honored and passed on a flawed Southern culture" to their children. Her book is a moving autobiographical examination of the development of Southern culture and its flaws. Smith charged that Southern whites had "segregated Southern money from [the poor white] and [. . .] segregated Southern mores from [the rich white] and [. . .] segregated Southern churches from Christianity and [. . .] segregated Southern minds from honest thinking and [. . .] segregated the Negro from everything." Unlike many Southern social critics of her day, who were advocating a gradual move towards true racial equality, Smith continued to call loudly for an immediate end to segregation until her death in 1966.
Undoubtedly the most important literary voice of the second generation, however, was Flannery O’Connor, who completed two novels and two collections of short stories between 1952 and her death in 1964. Additionally, her collected essays were published under the title Mystery and Manners in 1969. These essays attempt to explain both the Southerner and the Southern writer. O’Connor was often referred to as a Southern Gothic, but her use of the grotesque was very different from that of previous authors who had received that label.
"In the 1930s Erskine Caldwell had written about the grotesque inhabitants of Tobacco Road and attributed their condition to a social system that could be redeemed through political and economic reform. Two decades later, Flannery O’Connor wrote about more or less the same people and attributed the condition of each to an unfulfilled longing for God’s grace, which made social reform rather beside the point." O’Connor asserted that "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted," and her fiction labors within this context.
Her stories are distinctly Southern in a variety of ways, most notably her use of humor and stereotypes. Among the themes she develops are: tension between city and country, anti-intellectualism, the centrality of family and community, the prominence of history and the past, parent-child relationships, racial tension, and self-knowledge and hypocrisy. However, dominating all of these ideas, or perhaps binding them together, is the presence of strong religious motifs and the overpowering force of God’s saving Grace. O’Connor’s characters inevitably find themselves confronted by a drastic, often violent, situation which leads to a moral epiphany.
January 09, 2006
Myth and Myopia VIII: The Old South Strikes Back (and Other Sundries)
By now, a counter-Gothic movement was beginning to rise within the South. Stark Young had already proven the success of positive portrayals of the Old South when a young Atlanta journalist (and former colleague of Erskine Caldwell) named Margaret Mitchell responded to the Gothic novelists with a historical romance of her own.
The book was Gone with the Wind, and it was an instant best-seller when it was published in 1936, selling a million copies in six months. Gone with the Wind became the smash-hit of the decade, and a movie version, which premiered in Atlanta in 1939, is still the highest grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). Cash calls the book "a new confession of the Southern faith" and the scene it prompted in Atlanta when the movie was released "one of the most remarkable which America has seen in our time." The publication of Gone with the Wind, which won the Pulitzer Prize, both demonstrated and revitalized the popularity of the South’s mythic past throughout the United States. A host of novels in the same vein followed closely in its wake.
The book itself follows Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled and selfish Southern belle, from her idyllic existence in the antebellum South, through the hardships of the Civil War, and into her opportunistic struggles during Reconstruction. However, although the movie version falls squarely into the fallacies of Southern myth, the novel is much more complex, striving for some level of historical accuracy while often portraying its characters as flawed.
Following directly in the footsteps of Margaret Mitchell was the African-American writer Frank Yerby. His first Southern historical romance, The Foxes of Harrow, was released in 1946. Yerby dominated the market for about two decades, writing (strangely) for an audience which was largely composed of white females. Although he won an award for his short fiction (which dealt with racial issues) in the early 1940s, many of his critics complained that he disregarded questions of race in his later works. To this, Yerby replied with his stated belief that a writer should not "inflict on the public his private ideas on politics, religion or race."
Two other Southerners, William Alexander Percy and Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, asserted the value of their Southern heritage during the 1940s with autobiographical works. Both exhibit the typical Southern historical consciousness in their work and wrestle with assumptions which have been instilled in them all their lives about sectional and racial differences. Percy, with Lanterns on the Levee (1941), defended the region against liberal criticism from the North while reminiscing about his tranquil youth in the South. Speaking for the Southern aristocracy, he tried to rationalize and justify white supremacy.
Du Pre Lumpkin, on the other hand, took a quite different approach in The Making of a Southerner (1946). She struggles to overcome the generations of racism and acceptance of slavery which exist in her family history, ultimately recognizing the incompatibility of prejudice and Christianity and rejecting the attitudes of the past.
Shelby Foote published six novels during the late 1940s and early 1950s, most of which were set during the Civil War period. However, his tour de force, The Civil War: A Narrative, was a three-volume history which he began in 1954. His immersion in the period and intense familiarity with it earned him the admiration of a number of fellow authors and is indicative of a writer who sought to celebrate the South and its history without either worshipping or vilifying.
Throughout the Southern Literary Renaissance, authors appeared and disappeared, often completely independent of any group and with little in common save that they were all Southern natives. No two lists of the important voices of the period look exactly alike, partly because few examinations of the Renaissance are able to devote sufficient space for a comprehensive study and so some writers must go unmentioned. Almost inevitably, these are the ones who are not easily categorized, operating on the fringes of the Renaissance, or only publishing one important work in their entire careers.
Katherine Anne Porter, a Texas writer, examined universal themes about human mythmaking, often making use of the South and of Southern history. Beginning in 1930, she wrote stories and short novels almost exclusively, with the exception of one full-length novel, Ship of Fools (1962). Her style is deeply personal, opening itself up to the reader and allowing the reader to be drawn deeper into the story and the experiences of the characters.
Lillian Hellman, of Louisiana, wrote numerous plays and screenplays from the 1930s to the 1960s. Her best known work is The Little Foxes (1939), a story of family greed set in the post-Civil War South. Although Hellman moved to New York City at a young age, her family roots were buried deep in Southern soil. Truman Capote was another such writer. Born in New Orleans but moving to New York City as a child, Capote became instantly famous when he published his first novel in 1948. He continued to write prolifically, often about deeply Southern characters like the exiled Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). His crowning achievement came with the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965. It was the first non-fiction novel.
Capote’s childhood friend, Harper Lee, also achieved lasting fame with her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which combines a tender, nostalgic, coming-of-age story with themes of racism and injustice in small-town Alabama. And Walker Percy, orphaned as a child and raised by his father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, used his Christian existentialist beliefs and Southern settings and characters to explore universal themes in novels like The Last Gentleman (1966).
During the Renaissance, African-American writers were also beginning to gain a significant voice. While their impact may have been less at the time than that of white authors (and less than it would be later), they still had much of importance to say about the region they had inhabited as a race almost as long as the Europeans, and in which they too had played a vital role. Many prominent black authors emerged from the Harlem Renaissance and produced literature equally important in the South.
The best examples of such writers are Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Hughes, although not a Southerner, borrowed heavily from the Southern black experience in his poetry. Hurston published several novels in the 1930s and 1940s which discussed the racial problems of the South in softer, less vindictive terms than other African-Americans. Her most important work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), gained immense popularity after her death as a portrait of the strength of black women in the South. However, other black authors criticized her work, most notably Richard Wright.
Wright’s most important works, Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), portrayed a very violent picture of black life. His often amoral characters reflect the effects of their environment, and are plagued by the effects of poverty and prejudice. Ralph Ellison, yet another important black writer of this period, was inspired to become a writer as the result of a chance reading of “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot.
Moving to New York, he met and was heavily influenced by both Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. His most important work, Invisible Man, received the National Book Award when it was published in 1952. It chronicles the life of a black man who finds that he is socially invisible in the white man’s world. Meanwhile, poet and novelist Margaret Walker challenged the romanticized vision of the Old South in her works, particularly in her novel Jubilee (1966).
January 08, 2006
Myth and Myopia VII: The First Generation Looks Homeward
When Thomas Wolfe published Look Homeward, Angel and William Faulkner came out with Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury in 1929, people all over the United States began to notice that something unique was stirring in the South. Faulkner published three more major works during the next three years. In 1930, Katherine Anne Porter produced Flowering Judas, and in 1932 Erskine Caldwell delivered Tobacco Road and T. S. Stribling’s The Store won the Pulitzer Prize. And, of course, I’ll Take My Stand was released in 1930. The Southern Literary Renaissance had begun in earnest.
It would, perhaps, be best to begin with William Faulkner, who is called "the major writer to emerge from the Renaissance and the greatest American writer of the 20th century [. . .] a writer for the ages, a Shakespeare in Southern homespun." Faulkner, a native of Mississippi and the great-grandson of a Confederate officer, created a fictional county in his home state, which he called Yoknapatawpha, and where most of his novels are set. His works create a detailed history for Yoknapatawpha, and populate it with a cast of rich, Southern characters, which Faulkner then uses to examine important questions about the South, its history, and its predicament.
Faulkner’s novels are often full of horror, violence, and the grotesque, portraying bleak visions of a disintegrating Southern society where honor and valor have all but disappeared. His characters find themselves trapped in destructive, repeating cycles set in motion long before they were born, and which they are seldom able to break free of. Some reflect the sadness and nostalgia of fallen greatness, while others represent the worst of human nature: savage, corrupt, and selfish. His style was heavily influenced by James Joyce, and his greatest works are narrated using a complex stream-of-consciousness point of view that switches between various characters.
In As I Lay Dying (1930), for instance, Faulkner speaks in no fewer than sixteen voices as he tells the story of the Bundren clan’s struggles to transport the body of Addie Bundren to its final resting place far away from their home. Faulkner went on to alternately produce novels and Hollywood screenplays for over three decades until his death in 1962. Many critics, however, state that he had passed his creative peak by the mid- to late-1940s. Certainly his influence in the Renaissance is most strongly felt during the Depression years, after he had first burst upon the literary scene. Faulkner’s novels, in the words of one of his characters, "Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all."
Thomas Wolfe only managed to publish a few novels before his untimely death in 1938. Nevertheless, his impact during those years was undeniable. William Faulkner ranked him among the greatest writers in America. Wolfe’s writing was informed by his personal experiences in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, by his studies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, and by his travels in Europe. He realized that progress was slowly transforming the South, making it a part of modern America, but also that Southerners had by no means yet joined that world. He lived in an atmosphere of great change, of forward movement, and this movement is reflected in his writing.
Wolfe’s work was particularly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel; he attempted to account, as much as possible, for all of human experience, emphasizing the interconnected nature of history. "Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time," he declared in his first novel. Wolfe had a desire to tell the truth about the people of the South, and could be quite critical of them, particularly greedy, scrambling efforts to attract wealthy tourists. However, he could no more abandon his Southern roots than he could purge them from his writing (as much as he tried to speak for all of America). "His was the story of a man at odds with an environment that both bewildered and charmed him."
Erskine Caldwell, unlike either Faulkner or Wolfe, wrote in a very plain, stark style. Caldwell (who set his novels in his home state of Tennessee) wrote with a social agenda, decrying the dehumanizing effects of poverty on tenant farmers and of racial injustice on blacks in the South. His novels, like those of Faulkner, were sometimes full of violence and grotesque characters, but they lack the balance Faulkner’s nostalgia sometimes provided in his own works. Caldwell’s picture of the South, then, is also an extremely critical one. His South is full of lynchings, rape, and starvation. The atmosphere is oppressive, yet his characters impel a bleak sort of humor in the midst of their surroundings. The title of his most successful work, Tobacco Road, became a byword for rural poverty and [he] established a vogue of tenant literature for a decade."
T. S. Stribling, who began publishing novels a few years before any of the other three, portrayed Alabama in the same way the others were portraying Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Stribling’s historical trilogy, published in the early 1930s, ostensibly traced the economic development of northern Alabama from 1860 to 1920. However, Stribling wove themes of racial injustice and Southern narrow-mindedness into the story as well. While his work lacked the extremities of monstrosity sometimes achieved by Faulkner and Caldwell, he certainly didn’t whitewash the South either. For reasons which remain obscure Stribling published his last novel in 1938, even though he didn’t die until 1962.
In 1941, Cash observed that "if a few greeted such writers as Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, and Caldwell with tolerance [. . .] the prevailing attitude toward them was likely to be one of squeamish distaste and shock, of denial that they told the essential truth or any part of it [. . .] of bitter resentment against them on the ground that they had libeled and misrepresented the South with malicious intent." Yet, whether or not their opinions were popular among Southerners, the fact remained that the rest of the country was beginning to take notice.
To the audience of the 1930s, "long conditioned by attacks on the Benighted South and by liberation from gentility [. . . the literary] thrust seemed to be at best a liberal critique of contemporary error, at worst a sensational exposé of degradation." The works of such authors soon came to be known as "Southern Gothic," a label that would plague many other Southern writers for decades to come. Meanwhile, the South continued to suffer from the extreme poverty of the Great Depression, and events like the Scottsboro trial of the 1930s and Roosevelt’s statement in 1938 that the South was "the Nation’s No. I economic problem" ensured that the image of the Benighted South would remain entrenched for some decades longer.
Meanwhile, some authors chose to approach the subject of the Depression from a different, less Gothic angle, most notably James Agee of Tennessee. In 1936, Agee journeyed to the South with photographer Walker Evans to produce an article on sharecroppers for Fortune. The magazine ultimately rejected the article, and it grew steadily in size and scope until it was published in 1941 under the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Although little noticed at first, it was eventually hailed as “the most sensitive and effective evocation of tenant life.” Nor was it the only book released at the time which made use of photography to document Southern life during the Depression. Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White produced You Have Seen Their Faces in 1937, and other writer-photographer teams followed suit, combining social reportage with striking images.
January 07, 2006
Myth and Myopia VI: The Fugitive-Agrarians Take Their Stand
Aside from Glasgow’s novels, the first true rumblings of Renaissance began with the publication, in April of 1922, of the first issue of the Fugitive, a small literary magazine created by a group of academics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Fugitive Poets would soon become extremely important to the literary rejuvenation of the South. Despite the initial movement to reject and flee the region suggested by their name, they would eventually seek to speak for traditional Southern values.
Although more than a dozen people moved in and out of the group over the years, the four major forces in terms of literary contribution were Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. After the Fugitive ceased publication in 1925, the four of them, and others, continued to write about and discuss the South from a variety of viewpoints.
The shift in perspective which changed the Fugitives, fleeing the South, into Agrarians, defending what they believed to be its central values, most likely had its focal point in the image of the Benighted South, which reached a fever pitch during the Scopes trial in 1925 thanks to men like H. L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow.
In 1930, the four major Fugitive Poets, along with eight others, compiled and published I’ll Take My Stand as “12 Southerners.” The work was a manifesto, of sorts, with the Agrarians declaring their belief that Southern culture and identity depended on its agrarian heritage; a heritage that would be destroyed by industrialization. In addition to the major Fugitive Poets, Stark Young and Andrew Lytle were also important literary contributors to the manifesto.
The 12 Southerners’ aims as part of the movement (although some of them would later abandon the position) were truly ambitious, amounting to nothing less than to create a myth, "an aesthetic, religious humanism [. . .] intended to [. . .] subvert progressive, industrial, scientific values." Their values were, perhaps, a bit naïve, but they stood for (among other things) the inherent value of individual human beings. They “found the worship of the Old South and the hymns to the New South equally repellent,” and earnestly and openly sought a middle ground, embracing the best of both worlds without glorifying either.
At this point, proceeding chronologically rather than thematically becomes somewhat useless in a discussion of the works of a wide variety of authors.
Most of John Crowe Ransom’s major poetry was already published by the time I’ll Take My Stand was compiled, and Ransom’s poetry often showed only a tenuous connection with the South in any case. Quite the contrary, his initial goal, like that of the other Fugitives, was to revolt against and flee from that heritage. Nevertheless, his influence on the other Fugitives, and later Agrarians, was profound. Having already established himself as a poet and respected professor by the time the Fugitive began publication in 1922, he had become, and would remain, a central figure in the group.
The shift from Fugitives to Agrarians is most strongly evident in the writings of Allen Tate and Donald Davidson. Within a few years of the Scopes trial, Tate published the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," called "the centerpiece of modern Southern poetry." In it, he asked, "[. . .] Shall we take the act/To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave/In the house? The ravenous grave?" It is a moving reflection on the power of the past over the present, even as it questions the wisdom of granting too much power to the past.
While Davidson reflected nostalgically on the past, Tate maintained the perspective of modern man’s inability to regard history objectively. Both Tate and Donaldson wrote profusely during their lives, mostly in the form of poetry and essays. Between them they commented with eloquence and wisdom on the changes taking place in the South during the Renaissance.
Robert Penn Warren, a younger classmate of both Davidson and Tate, was the most gifted writer of the Agrarians. He is the only person to receive a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction (for All the King’s Men, 1946) and poetry (for Promises: Poems 1954-1956), and he received a third Pulitzer (for Now and Then) in 1978. His first novel, Night Rider, was published in the 1930s, but most of his major fiction was published after 1943. Often his novels operate (ostensibly) within the framework of actual history, but the circumstances are reworked freely for Warren’s purposes. His main themes largely revolve around the effects of Original Sin on characters whose idealism and certainty of laboring for an upright cause draw them into guilty involvement in activities which are less than morally upright. Sometimes they are able to find ultimate redemption, and sometimes they fall short.
Andrew Lytle’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand, like much of his fiction, revolved around the importance of the deteriorating yeoman farmer to the South, and lamented the resultant decline of folk culture. Another key aspect of Lytle’s fiction was the centrality of the family unit in Southern history. Many of his novels and nonfiction works are set during or near the Civil War, and Lytle carefully examined both positive and negative aspects of Southern history.
Caroline Gordon, the wife of Allen Tate, was one of the earliest and most prolific novelists among the Agrarians, although she did not contribute to I’ll Take My Stand. She was intimately familiar with Southern life, and each of her novels represented a successful experiment with a new form. Her 1937 novel, None Shall Look Back, has been called "possibly the best novel ever written about the Civil War experience."
Stark Young’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, the final piece in the book, was entitled "Not in Memoriam, But in Defense." In it he stated that "out of any epoch in civilization there may arise things worth while, that are the flowers of it. To abandon these, when another epoch arrives, is only stupid." Young’s fiction reflects his desire to identify and preserve the positive elements of life in the Old South. His historical novels often paint a very rosy picture of the past, particularly So Red the Rose (1934).
Near the end of that novel, one of the characters says, "Democracy, a good theory, a great human right, which works out none too well; slavery, a great human wrong, which works out none too badly." Many of the Fugitive-Agrarians "skirted perilously close to the line that separated their traditionalism from that of the plantation myth." Stark Young embraced that line.
January 06, 2006
Myth and Myopia V: The Foundations of Renaissance in History and Legend
Soon, mythic figures began to grow out of the twelve years of Reconstruction following the Civil War as well. Opportunistic and exploitative Yankees (or carpetbaggers), traitorous and collaborationist Southern whites (or scalawags), and ignorant, violent black freedmen became the bogeymen of Reconstruction.
The heroes of Reconstruction were honorable and decent, but greatly abused, former Confederates, who often fought back courageously in the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan against the oppressive military governments and disfranchisement imposed on them by Radical Republicans.
This view of the period, inaccurate as it was, rapidly entered the mythology of Southern history. It, too, remained popular well into the 20th century, embodied in novels such as The Clansman (1905), histories like The Tragic Era (1929), and movies like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
The Old South, the Lost Cause, and Reconstruction myths combined to create a colorful pageant of historical progression consisting of innocence, fall, and redemption. There is an undeniable appeal to this version of events, however untrue. And, though it was omnipresent in the South, it was not the only self-image in the Southern mind between 1877 and 1920.
As the former Confederate states struggled to rejoin the nation, preserve their distinct identity, and industrialize and revitalize their economy, the myth of a New South began to appear. Unlike the Antebellum, Confederate, or Reconstruction South, the New South does not refer to a period of Southern history per se. It represents an optimistic goal, often declared to be just around the corner throughout the years from 1880 to 1920, but never quite arriving.
It dangled, like a carrot on a stick, in front of hopeful businessmen, politicians, philanthropists, and so forth as an imminent regional transformation which would result in a South free of the burdens of conflict, poverty, and backwardness. "By 1890, the myth of the New South as a land that was rich, just, and triumphant was perceived as reality by many Southerners." Despite continued wishful thinking, hopes for true prosperity and equality would continue to be frustrated until almost 1970.
The historical reality of life in the South before 1920 was much different. Although the region did indeed industrialize rapidly, out-producing the rest of the nation in textiles by 1915, the cost was high. Exploitation was the norm in business practice, and this made poverty worse rather than alleviating it. The plight of blacks in the South between Reconstruction and the First World War was worse than it had ever been before or would ever be again.
Sharecropping bound most blacks to the land, disfranchisement stripped their voices from them, and, beginning in the 1890s, Jim Crow laws formed a rigidly segregated society. Conditions conspired to keep African-Americans in their former place so that, by the time the South began to experience some prosperity decades later, the systems of segregation had become deeply entrenched through multiple generations.
This destitute, violent, low-culture environment produced rumblings of a new image of the South by the end of World War I. This South came to be known as the "Benighted South," a savage, barbaric region of the country. The image was fed throughout the 1920s by events such as the infamous Scopes trial in 1925, the violent rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, nightriding, and periods of race rioting such as the outbreak of 1919.
In late 1917, opinionated Northern journalist H. L. Mencken published an infamous essay entitled "The Sahara of the Bozart." Republished in 1920, the essay attacked the cultural and intellectual stagnation of the South. Mencken stridently declared that "[the South] is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. There are single acres in Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac; there are probably single square miles in America [. . .] It would be impossible in all history to match so complete a drying-up of a civilization."
The response from the South was, predictably, immediate and violent, with loud protestations from all quarters. Not long after the clamor had begun to die down, however, the beginnings of a new flowering of Southern literature began to be seen in the region. Some people, including Mencken himself, believe that the "Sahara of the Bozart" essay played a role in causing this sudden burst of cultural activity. However, while there may have been some slight catalytic effect from this cause, the movement was really a product of much more complex forces (already described here). The works of Ellen Glasgow had been laying the creative foundations for decades, and the consistent failure of the South to achieve its ideals was becoming a burden to a new generation.
The writers of the 1920s and 1930s were members of the first generation to emerge free of direct experience of both the nostalgia of a lost, antebellum Eden and the bitterness of Radical Reconstruction. The sudden flaring up of Southern introspection is both understandable and impossible to account for in light of the "Benighted South" image alone.
January 05, 2006
Post-Christmas Guatemala Update
Well, you haven't heard from me in a while because the freaking internet has been down throughout large portions of the country since Christmas Day. It's still down in various places, including at our house, but my dad has it at the office, and I am posting from . . . thence. Or whatever.
Anyway, Christmas went pretty well. I spent Christmas Eve helping with this and that, and then we had our traditional meal of chalupas and enchiladas at 3:00 in the afternoon instead of the usual supper time. The changed time was the result of cataclysmically bad planning on the part of person or persons as yet undiscovered. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we couldn't get out of going to Fraternidad Cristiana (my parents' church). One of the orphanage girls was dancing in their Christmas program, so we all had to go, which disrupted all of our Christmas traditions.
Going out somewhere was the last thing I wanted to do on Christmas Eve, so I wasn't particularly please. Brett was even more peeved. We sat next to each other and . . . "commiserated" during the service. It was two hours long, and I've been to far more painful church services in my time. There was a really terrible "adaptation" of A Christmas Carol about halfway through, but the only thing it had in common with the original was the first name of the main character and "God bless us, every one!" at the end. I guess it was also trying to be It's a Wonderful Life and . . .The Godfather. It was bizarre and confusing, and most of the lines were riddled with obscure slang, so it was difficult to understand. Didn't really work for me.
Anyway, we returned to do the same old thing: watching the kids open presents, doing fireworks, bringing the kids' stocking over after they went to bed, and then we went home and crashed. Christmas Day was a fine affair. I didn't get many presents (since I hadn't really asked for anything besides a couple of plane tickets) but I got a lot of money which will come in quite handy.
To briefly summarize the ensuing days: I went to Alumni Day at CAG and saw various people. Afterwards Rachel and I went bowling with Asa, his younger sister Rachel, and Miss Rensch (my math and science teacher from high school). Last Friday we went to Panajachel, my favorite place in the world, to welcome the New Year. Pana is a small town on the edge of a gorgeous lake surrounded by volcanoes. It was very pleasant.
In the meantime, we've been amusing ourselves with this and that. Micah got the first season of Lost for Christmas, so we watched all of that. Freaking show is nothing but a big tease . . . grrr. We've also watched season two of Monk, we'll make a start at season three before we leave. That's such a great show. Rachel and I played through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for X-Box together. Micah got it for Christmas. It's a pretty good game as long as you can utterly ignore the source material and the wretched camera angles . . . *cringes.*
So, that's all the news for now. I'm sure I'd have posted a great deal more about all of the above if we'd had internet, but that's the way it goes. I'll be back in town on Sunday afternoon, and I can't wait to see everyone. Farewell 'till then.