The History of Southern Literature Summary


The History of Southern Literature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The History of Southern Literature achieves a comprehensive account of literature produced in the Southern United States from the Colonial beginnings in the seventeenth century into the 1980’s. The book is divided into four sections: “Colonial and Antebellum Southern Literature, 1607-1860,” “The War and After, 1861-1920,” “The Southern Renascence, 1920-1950,” and “The Recent South, 1951-1982.” Each of the four sections includes a general introduction to the period; each is so organized that it might stand alone as a reference volume for its period.

The plan of the work appears to have been influenced by the earlier and more comprehensive A Literary History of the United States (1948) by Robert E. Spiller and others. Both works are divided into numerous chapters, each by a specialist in the field. In the current volume, less than half as long as the Spiller work, there are forty-nine contributors, most of them recognized and some distinguished authorities. Such a diversity of perspectives necessarily results in widely varied styles, approaches, and interpretations; yet the editors have succeeded in achieving a degree of coherence despite the region’s extraordinarily varied and rich literary heritage. In some measure, this success is attributable to previous scholarly interpretations of the South and its literature that undergird many portions of The History of Southern Literature. To one who reads through the entire work, the most conspicuous differences are stylistic.

An earlier literary history of the region, Jay B. Hubbell’s The South in American Literature, 1607-1900 (1954), concludes with the year 1900. Its successor devotes more than half of its six hundred pages to literature produced after 1920, an indication of the abundance of literary output in the region during the twentieth century. Each chapter normally provides a scholarly introduction, either to an individual writer, to a group such as the Agrarians, to a genre such as “The New Poetry,” or to a brief literary period, for example, “Antebellum Fiction.” A few chapters relate the literature to the historical, intellectual, and socioeconomic currents of the time, thus providing an account of literature in its larger contexts.

In chapters on individuals, the emphasis falls upon the typically Southern portion of the author’s canon. In “The Mind of the Antebellum South,” Lewis P. Simpson stresses Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), largely because Jefferson explored conflicts and themes that would have a profound impact upon the region’s future. In the chapter on Thomas Wolfe, his early novel set in North Carolina, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), receives more attention than the later novels set elsewhere. William Faulkner’s A Fable (1954), set outside the South, receives only a brief mention. In his analysis of Tennessee Williams’ dramas, Jacob Adler clearly concentrates on the major works that are distinctly Southern—The Glass Menagerie (1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).

When The History of Southern Literature addresses questions such as What constitutes Southern literature? and Who qualifies as a Southern author? the answers prove somewhat ambiguous, requiring judgments to supplement and modify clear definitions. In general, The History of Southern Literature includes writers who were born in the South, who spent at least some of their formative years there, and who make use of themes, settings, and characters recognizably Southern. Geographically, the region comprises the eleven former Confederate states, but even this distinction must be refined somewhat. Some areas of contiguous or border states are or have been predominantly Southern in culture and heritage; writers from these areas have been included when their works relate to the South. Jesse Stuart from Kentucky, Mark Twain and Kate Chopin from Missouri, and John Barth of Maryland represent significant examples. Writers born in the South who left it to pursue their careers elsewhere—Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote, among many others—are claimed for the region.

On the other hand, merely having been born and reared in the South does not necessarily mean that a writer is Southern. Texas affords good cases in point. Among the state’s writers, only Katherine Anne...

(The entire section is 1826 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXII, October 1, 1985, p. 186.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, October 15, 1985, p. 1130.

Library Journal. CX, December, 1985, p. 110.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, December 1, 1985, p. 18.

Texas Monthly. XC, December 1, 1985, p. 18.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVII, January 14, 1986, p. 28.