A Southern Renaissance

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Anyone who came of age in the contemporary South, and who is even remotely conscious of that anomaly, “being Southern,” has probably grown up hearing and breathing many of the magic names: Will Percy, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, Lillian Smith, C. Vann Woodward, Howard Odum, Rupert Vance, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and certainly W. J. Cash. The writings of these people—even when they are cited by those who do not read them—provide the major ideas and images and the evocations of a region intensely, defensively, even morbidly conscious of itself and its problems. Each of these writers has created at least one classically definitive work on the Southern mystique; a work about which thoughtful Southerners will have heard, perhaps even read and studied. Among the fictionists, the definitive work might be Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses; among the historians, it could be Woodward’s Origins of the New South; among the sociologists, it might be Odum’s Southern Regions of the United States; and among the journalist-observers, it must be Cash’s The Mind of the South.

Published four decades ago, The Mind of the South remains the great referential touch-stone: a flawed, controversial, passionate, insightful document. Richard H. King, in his richly informed study, A Southern Renaissance, evaluates Cash’s book as one of those unusual works which improves upon rereading. He describes it as exciting, audacious, and “compelling even when it cannot persuade.” Those exact words might well be applied to King’s own book. His study does continue to reward upon rereading. Many will find his approach at times audacious; yet, he is always provocative and informative. As a scholarly landmark, King’s book will be—like Cash’s—investigated, castigated, lauded, and used by students of Southern history and culture for years to come. The book has, for instance, thirty-eight pages of chapter notes which, unlike most footnotes, are as sprightly and informative as the text. It is hard to read them without feeling an urge to dash off to the library to pursue further this or that reference. His sixteen-page index, too, is full, thorough, and very helpful.

Notably, A Southern Renaissance is more than a mere historical account. It is an important, analytical work on a difficult subject. Any geographic and culturally peculiar region is impossible to write about definitively. Thus, King, a Tennessee-born, University of North Carolina-trained cultural historian, takes meticulous care first to define the regional and temporal boundaries of his subject, and then to limit (in order to deepen) his specific citations. No one, of course, can write about “the South.” King explores here what he calls the “progress in self-consciousness” of a select group of Southern writers and intellectuals who were active between 1930 and 1955. Within those seemingly stringent confines, he systematically and soundly presents an enormously stimulating and various body of ideas.

King finds useful Woodward’s location of the origins of the Southern Renaissance as being 1929, the year which saw publication of both Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. He also agrees with Woodward’s summation of the Renaissance as being a singular flowering of the literary arts. For purposes of his study, King has used 1955 as the year the main phase of this “well ran dry,” as the South became preoccupied with cold war, civil rights—with “other voices, other rooms.”

Not intended, as King makes clear, to be a complete intellectual or literary history of the Southern Renaissance, this study rather examines only the attempts of a few white Southern writers and intellectuals who came to terms with the problems of their history, their region, and their culture. Because he concentrates only on those writers who see “the South and its tradition as problematic,” King excludes such minority writers as Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, and Flannery O’Connor. Rightfully, he notes that a complete history of the Renaissance would “demand extensive treatment.” His reasons—debatable from several points—for excluding certain writers are, nevertheless, interesting: black writers are not included because their great theme was “to escape the white South;” women, with the single exception of Lillian Smith, are not included because, despite the “considerable merits” of their works,” ... they were not concerned primarily with the larger cultural, racial, and political themes” on which King chooses to focus.

Dealing thus with a relatively brief, although vigorous, span of time and utilizing a strictly selected, although prodigiously productive, few people, King’s study suggests and explores the profound psychological forces which gave this particular development of historical consciousness its singularity. It is at the psychological level of his careful preparations, his exclusions and definitions, that King’s deepest interests and his real methods become apparent. They are controversial and exciting. Not a traditional historian, he is mainly interested in the “whys” of the “whats” and the “whens.” An admitted theoretician, not a recorder, he is profoundly influenced by Freudian psychology.

King is a young scholar who speaks of being “immediately and permanently hooked” on a writer. He cites Jack Nicholson’s performance in Easy Rider, as an example of a Southern “type.” Typically, too, his strongest indictment of anyone seems to be that they are “morally obtuse.” He defends psycho-history, as well, as an “unfairly maligned” subspecialty among his colleagues. His approach, its necessary density and allusiveness, and wide-ranging and challenging juxtapositions, unfortunately, will put many readers off. His readership will be made small not because he is hard to follow, but because he is someone with whom it is hard to keep pace. He draws lines of connection...

(The entire section is 2492 words.)