Introduction: The New Southern Studies and the New Modernist Studies

By Stecopoulos, Harilaos | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Introduction: The New Southern Studies and the New Modernist Studies


Stecopoulos, Harilaos, Philological Quarterly


This special issue of Philological Quarterly takes its inspiration from he roughly coterminous appearance in the year 2000 of the New Southern Studies (NSS) and the New Modernist Studies (NMS), two academic movements that have through conferences, special issues, monographs, and book series helped shape contemporary work on American and twentieth-century literature. While hardly the only innovative scholarly initiatives to appear at that historical moment--one might also cite the emergence of Animal Studies, among other examples--the New Southern and the New Modernist Studies prove particularly noteworthy due to their large institutional footprints. Unusual among new scholarly formations, both movements have been quick to take organizational form. The New Southern Studies has redefined the aims and purposes of the longstanding Society for the Study of Southern Literature (SSSL); the New Modernist Studies has underwritten the creation of extraordinarily successful Modernist Studies Association (MSA). Whatever the future of these new scholarly projects, they have for the present assumed a certain organizational gravitas that warrants critical attention.

Towards that end, it's worth recalling a bit of literary critical history. Both the old Southern and the old modernist studies were born of roughly coeval literary formations. Modernist studies emerged from literary modernism (ca. 1890-1950), without a doubt the most influential aesthetic movement of the twentieth century. Southern studies, in large part, Southern literary studies, responded to--and helped shape--the canonization of Southern literature, a phenomenon usually identified with the Southern Renaissance (ca. 1929-55). Those new literary formations and their scholarly camp followers were profoundly interdependent. The efflorescence of Southern writing that began with William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Katherine Anne Porter's Flowering Judas (1930) grew from the slightly earlier modernist triumphs of T. S. Eliot (as a St. Louis native something of a border Southerner himself), James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. The institutionalization of a particular American variant of modernism depended, in turn, on the valuation of Faulkner's Yoknawpawtapha saga, the poetry of Allen Tate and John Crow Ransom, and James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, among other key works of the Southern Renaissance. (1) As critics were quick to point out, each of these literatures found its raison d'etre by confronting the burden of tradition on the one hand and the shock of modernity on the other--a Janus-faced challenge that inspired wildly imaginative forms and adventurous new aesthetics. In Robert Penn Warren's comment on the Renaissance: "After 1918 the modern industrial world, with its good and bad, hit the South; all sorts of ferments began.... There isn't much vital imagination, it seems to me, that doesn't come from this sort of shock, imbalance, need to 'relive" redefine life," (2) Significantly, some of the most influential modernist critics were the same litterateurs who helped create Southern studies, among them, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and Warren himself.

Given this esteemed ancestry, New Southern and New Modernist Studies scholars have been somewhat equivocal with respect to their "newness:' Much persists of more traditional approaches to scholarship in both projects; as influential new modernist Susan Stanford Friedman has admitted, "the power of those early concepts of modernism ... remains" (3) Yet at the same time, those scholars have launched sustained attacks on the elitism they locate in both the old Southern and the old modernist studies. New studies scholars have emphasized that a fascination with avant-garde and "edgy" aesthetics did not at all mean that modernist studies' high priests (Hugh Kenner, Richard Ellman, Malcolm Cowley) and Southern literature's boosters (Cleanth Brooks, Louis Rubin, C. Hugh Holman) embraced an ecumenical approach to the literary object. …

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