Book Reviews -- Vietnam and the Southern Imagination by Owen W. Gilman Jr

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Vietnam and the Southern Imagination. Owen W. Gilman, Jr. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. xii +204 pp. $35.00, cloth.

This solid critical study takes up a neglected but significant topic: how the cultural heritage of the South has shaped the southern literary response to the Vietnam war. Gilman performs a craftsmanlike job of defining southern culture in terms of a long-standing warrior tradition rooted in chivalry; a strong affinity for history; a deep identification with the land and natural habitat; a profound sense of home and family; and continuing problems with gender friction, racial conflict and (un)regenerative violence. Currently, these cultural hallmarks are suspended between an Agrarian ideal and encroaching materialism, a process which threatens to strip the South of its special qualities and homogenize it into a consumeristic wasteland.

Vis-a-vis the Vietnam War, Gilman is careful to emphasize that connections cannot be reduced to a mere parallelism of defeat--the Civil War as a topological analog to the Vietnam War. Southerners are not the only Americans to suffer loss; Gilman points as well to the experiences of Native Americans, African Americans and women.

Gilman's most interesting finding is that southern literature consistently identifies Vietnam (the country) with the South. One fascinating bit of evidence comes from Barry Hannah's short story, "Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet": the character Li Dap, a North Vietnamese Army general who was trained at the Sorbonne, "knows Robert [E.] Lee and the strategy of Jeb Stuart [the famous Confederate cavalry commander], whose daring circles around an immense army captured his mind. Li Dap wants to be Jeb Stuart" (81).

In several fictions, Americans in Vietnam "find" the South "in country," as in Loyd Little's novel Parthian Shat, where Sergeant Santee says of Vietnam, "This land stirs deep, nearly lost racial memories of a time and a country before this life" (97); Santee eventually decides to remain in Vietnam and establish a manufacturing enterprise. …