Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Transported Traditions: Transatlantic Foundations of Southern Folk Culture

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Transported Traditions: Transatlantic Foundations of Southern Folk Culture

Article excerpt

   "Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations."

      --Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1)


As John F. Kennedy declared in his 1959 book title, the United States is "a nation of immigrants." How then, with their deep and diverse old-world roots, did our immigrant ancestors cross the cultural divide to become Americans? The prevailing view through the mid-twentieth century was that of total assimilation, taking as its model the metallurgical melting pot, an image popularized by Israel Zangwill's 1908 play of that title whose protagonist proclaims, "America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming" (33). The Anglo-Jewish son of eastern European immigrants, Zangwill set his play in New York, and it is to that turn-of-the-century urban population that his metaphor was most often applied.

By the 1970s this model was losing favor as ethnicity became desirable and multicultural entered our vocabulary. We came to realize that it is not necessary--indeed, not possible for newcomers to fully jettison their old-world ways and that selective continuance of those ways serves as a "cultural shock absorber" to facilitate accommodation. An alternative acculturation model--the "salad bowl"--was offered: despite homogenizing pressures, most ethnic groups have retained distinctive cultural identities, with each component of the larger entity still distinguishable from the others. This food imagery was more palatable to our new ethnic consciousness and seemed to approach more closely the realities of Americanization (D'Innocenzo and Sirefman).

While the salad-bowl paradigm may be useful in describing America's ethnic diversity, it doesn't go far to explain the country's regional diversity--geocultural differences so significant as to have fueled, perhaps ignited, a civil war. A suitably complex model here may be the human personality Just as an individual's personality is shaped by a combination of nature and nurture (no need to go into the debate as to which is dominant), so too does a region's "personality" arise from the encounter between heredity (cultural rather than genetic, of course) and environment. Since cultural heredity consists of group-shared ideas and behavior often brought from elsewhere, knowledge of the early influential settlers' backgrounds is crucial, and is the subject of this essay. The environment to be considered is both physical (e.g., climate, terrain, natural resources) and social (contact among the region's various population groups). This equation, when combined with the impact of economic and political history, goes a long way in accounting for a region's personality.

At the intersection of settlement history and social environment, and key to understanding how regional cultures develop, is a process known to social scientists as creolization: the blending of ideas from different groups occupying the same area to create something new. The term is most often used in linguistics (for example, to explain the emergence among African Americans of coastal South Carolina and Georgia of the Gullah dialect, with its mix of African and English vocabulary and grammar) but is applicable to other fields. The American idiom of jazz arose in New Orleans as a blend of African rhythmic and ensemble patterns, European instruments, and blues and sacred songs, overlain with an African-American genius for improvisation (Joyner 14-15, 196-98).

In keeping with the southern locus of these illustrations, and continuing the food imagery of the salad bowl, an appropriate metaphor for creolization is the gumbo pot. The hearty soup known as gumbo is a hybrid created by southern Louisiana's various population groups. The cooking process begins with the French technique of roux (flour slowly browned in oil); the soup gets its name from ngombo, an Angolese word for okra, the mucilaginous vegetable transplanted from Africa and often added to the pot; while the alternative thickening and flavoring agent, file (powdered sassafras leaves), is a Choctaw Indian contribution. …

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