The History of Southern Literature

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1826

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.

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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 Porter and the contemporary William Humphrey receive serious attention, if one excludes O. Henry, whose sojourn in the state is briefly noted. Without defining the difference, The History of Southern Literature distinguishes between Southern and Western or Southwestern literature when it omits any mention of Texas writers such as J. Frank Dobie, Elmer Kelton, and Larry McMurtry. The values, myths, and themes of Western literature, deriving from a frontier culture economically buttressed by cattle ranches and oil, differ markedly from those of the Old South. Also omitted from critical consideration are books by non-Southerners that deal in a nominal or cursory way with the South: J. W. DeForest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), and Edna Ferber’s Show Boat (1927) and Giant (1950).

Among writers centrally important to the South, one finds very few omissions, though one cannot expect to find every author worthy of consideration, particularly among contemporaries. The Texas author William A. Owens, whose novels have East Texas settings and who was for a time a New York neighbor of Carson McCullers, might well have found a place among recent novelists, and the omission of so prominent an author as Mississippi’s Willie Morris will seem an oversight to many readers.

The History of Southern Literature traces the course of literary production from its origin in Virginia westward throughout the entire region. Literary activity moves along the coast from Virginia to the Carolinas, Georgia, and New Orleans; it moves somewhat more slowly west to Tennessee, to the border states, and the Western frontier. Although not all writers are identified by their native states, it is an inescapable conclusion that Mississippi, which contributed so little to early Southern literature, has contributed an extraordinary largesse to literary production since the Renascence. Among Mississippians writing during this century are Stark Young, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote—the list might be extended much further. In contrast, states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas appear to have made comparatively modest contributions to the region’s literature, though they have produced distinguished writers.

Reading through The History of Southern Literature, one is struck by how isolated the early Southern writers were. Long after other parts of the nation had developed significant literary schools and movements, such as the neoclassical Hartford Wits in Connecticut, the American Renaissance of New England, and the Chicago School of the early twentieth century, the Southern writers remained individualistic—forming no school, sharing no close literary associations. This situation changed with the Southern Renascence (1920-1950), with literary and intellectual centers developing in Richmond, Charleston, Nashville, and New Orleans. This period of thirty years produced more literature in the South than the two-and-a-half centuries before the Civil War. The Renascence was, however, more than an aesthetic movement. It produced major efforts at revaluation of the region itself—its past and present. Southern intellectuals attempted to define the region, to chart its future, and to put into perspective the war that had ravaged the region economically and culturally.

Unlike some writers of the Renascence, the authors of The History of Southern Literature do not evoke nostalgia for a romantic and appealing antebellum culture. Without being strident, they generally agree with views of the region advanced by Southern critics such as H. L. Mencken, W. J. Cash, and others, views that hark even further back in time to writers such as Hinton Helper and Mark Twain. The brilliant intellectual activity flourishing in the Virginia of Thomas Jefferson, promising a bright future, withered during the nineteenth century. The plantation system and the essentially one-crop economy based on slavery produced aesthetically and intellectually stultifying conditions. The need to defend slavery in the antebellum South, a system of labor that the outside world had long since rejected, absorbed in a futile activity many otherwise creative intellects. Intellectual achievement of all kinds remained at a low ebb for many decades. Even most scientists at Southern colleges and universities had been educated in the North. After the Civil War, the region compounded its economic woes by developing segregation, repressive laws, and a one-party political system. Thus, patterns of literary development which emerged in early America did not reach the South until the third decade of the twentieth century.

The fourth section, dealing with recent Southern literature, departs from the format of the earlier sections by allotting a much larger proportion of the whole to individual writers. In the first section down to the Civil War, only four authors are accorded entire chapters—Captain John Smith, William Byrd, William Gilmore Simms, and Edgar Allan Poe. The second division devotes chapters only to Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Henry Grady, the advocate of a “New South” built upon industrialization, cheap labor, and racial segregation. The Renascence provides chapter-length studies of William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, and Robert Penn Warren—four of twenty chapters in the unit. In the final section, eighteen chapters are devoted to contemporary writers—though it should be noted that these chapters are briefer than the earlier ones, averaging about three pages, or approximately one-third as long. The editors have chosen to give as much attention as possible to contemporaries, tacitly acknowledging the difficulty of accurately assessing the achievements and importance of contemporaries. The approach highlights the astonishing growth of literature in the South, not simply fiction, but poetry, drama, and literary criticism as well. At the very least, these chapters introduce the most characteristic features of an author’s work; at their best, they provide the reader with a balanced critical analysis of the important works and a judicious assessment of the writer’s achievement.

The History of Southern Literature will serve primarily as a reference book, not ordinarily read in its entirety but used to check facts, periods, and the minute details of literary history. Yet it will also provide valuable concise and critically sound introductions to the work of individual authors as well as groups such as the Agrarians, the Fugitives, and the New Critics. Although the text does not include a comprehensive bibliography, a lengthy appendix discusses important books on the South—literary anthologies, histories, studies of the economy and society of the region. The index will be helpful to students and serious scholars alike.

The editors have made a conscious and deliberate effort to place proper emphasis upon the contributions of black and women writers. The plan of the work itself contributes to this purpose, for the greater part of the work is devoted to the twentieth century, a time when women and blacks were afforded opportunities previously denied them. In ever-increasing numbers, they have fulfilled their creative potential, contributing richly to the literature of the region. Paradoxically, for a region that oppressed blacks because it undervalued them and repressed women because it idealized them, a literary history which emphasizes recent Southern literature makes the contribution of the two groups both conspicuous and estimable.

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