Reinventing the South: Versions of a Literary Region

Reinventing the South: Versions of a Literary Region

Reinventing the South: Versions of a Literary Region

Reinventing the South: Versions of a Literary Region

Excerpt

In one sense, what follows is a random selection of essays written over the past twenty years or so. In the midst of this seeming randomness, however, there is an implicit pattern, which says much about the phenomenon we choose to call modern southern literature. By now, the myth of the Southern Renascence has become numbingly familiar. Prior to the War between the States, the South had had a flourishing culture—if not equal in total output to that of New England, then at least competitive and certainly distinctive in character. Then, in the fallow decades after Appomattox, the southern people devoted almost all their energies to keeping body and soul together. Former aristocrats were impoverished by Emancipation and Reconstruction, while poor whites and freed blacks tended to do even worse. The leisure provided for some by a slave economy was gone, and with it the arts had seemed to disappear.

As late as 1920, H. L. Mencken could say of Dixie:

In that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a sin
gle picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capa
ble of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single
opera house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays….
Once you have counted Robert Loveman (an Ohioan by birth)
and John McClure (an Oklahoman) you will not find a single
southern poet above the rank of a neighborhood rhymester.
Once you have counted James Branch Cabell (a lingering sur
vivor of the ancien regime: a scarlet dragonfly imbedded in
opaque amber) you will not find a single southern prose writer
who can actually write. And once you have—but when you
come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, archi
tects and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not
even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf.
Nor an historian. Nor a sociologist. Nor a philosopher. Nor a
theologian. Nor a scientist. In all these fields the south is an

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