Long Shadows: Ross Spears and the Southern Renaissance

By Whaley, Donald M | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 1988 | Go to article overview
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Long Shadows: Ross Spears and the Southern Renaissance

Whaley, Donald M, Literature/Film Quarterly

Long Shadows: Ross Spears and the Southern Renaissance Long Shadows, produced, directed, and narrated by Ross Spears . James Agee Film Project, 1987.

In his book Southerners, Marshall Frady recorded a conversation that took place in the 1960s between a student, from Georgia, and a professor. The professor asked, "But why is it all you Southerners like to cherish yourselves as a people somehow set apart from the rest of the country? Why is it all of you are always so obsessed with history, with the past? Don't any of you down there ever get tired of living your life in a museum?" The student had replied, "You know, I don't think we really do much anymore. I think all that is actually about over with."

Frady presented a picture of a South that had, in the 1960s and 1970s, "industriously undertaken to alchemize itself into a replica of Pasadena," a South in which the "downtowns of Charlotte and Columbia and Jackson have now become perfect mirrortower reflections of Everycity, and out beyond their perimeter expressways, barbecue patios and automatic lawn sprinklers have pushed out the mules and moonshine shanties." Frady believed that "in the almost touching lust of its chambers of commerce for new chemical plants, glassy-mazed office parks and instant subdivisions, the South is becoming etherized in all those ways a people are subtly rendered pastless, memoryless, blank of identity, by assimilation into chrome and asphalt and plastic." What was happening, Frady contended, was "the passing of a sensibility," and that meant, among other things, the passing of the memory of the Civil War. "Over the South now, the holocaustic battlefields of that great folk cataclysm have mostly been preened and mown into suburban golf courses and apartment terraces," he wrote, and "the memory exists only in perpetual reruns of Gone With the Wind in far-flung suburban mini-cinemas."1

The fact that Ross Spears, from Tennessee, has made the film Long Shadows suggests that Frady may have been mistaken. Long Shadows, a documentary, examines the cultural legacy of the Civil War. The film's approach to its subject matter is shaped by that particular kind of Southern sensibility that Frady believed was passing away. To analyze the film it is necessary first to examine that sensibility, a sensibility associated with the literature of the Southern Renaissance and with the writings of historian C. Vann Woodward.

David Madden has pointed out that for Southern writers in the early twentieth century the Civil War "was the central experience in their lives and the lives of the people they wrote about."2 Faulkner's Civil War novels, Absalom, Absalom! and The Unvanquished, illustrate in just what way the War was a "central experience" in the lives of white Southerners born around the turn of the century: these novels are not just about the War; they are also about listening to old people tell stories of the War. Absalom, Absalom! is set in 1909 and centers on nineteen-year-old Quentin Compson listening to a survivor of the War, Rosa Coldfield, tell the story of the Sutpen family - a story that takes place in the Civil War era. In The Unvanquished, Faulkner's narrator is Bayard Sartoris, who tells what happened to the Sartoris family in the War and Reconstruction. The novel begins in 1863 when Sartoris is twelve; Sartoris is just the right age, in other words, to have lived into the twentieth century. One way to read the novel is to read it as if you were a young Southerner listening in the early twentieth century to a survivor of the War tell about events of his youth.

Listening to survivors of the War was an experience central to the lives of white Southerners of Faulkner's generation and central to the literature the Southern writers of that generation created. Survivors of the War became "living symbols"3 of the connection between past and present. They reminded young Southerners of the South's defeat and explained to young Southerners why life in the South was a life of hardship and scarcity (".

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