Two Ways to Approach Southern Literature

Article excerpt

Scholars in American literature as a rule have approached the study from a background in English and at times other European literatures. The earliest directors of graduate study in the national literature--not much over a generation ago--had received their training before American authors and works gained entrance into either graduate or undergraduate courses. This sequence was not new, of course; the earliest teachers of modern literature--whether in America or Europe--came to it from training and experience in the ancient literatures. In each instance the new field for scholarly study and writing gained acceptance only in slow steps and owed much of its progress to a few notable exemplars: George Ticknor and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow might be cited for the study of modern literature; William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville for the recognition of American literature; Fred Lewis Pattee and his academic heirs for the study of American as an independent literature.

It goes without saying that academic opposition to recognizing American literature has been often narrowly based, and at times without any base at all. It may need to be said, however, that ultimate gains have accrued because much of the scholarly writing on American literary subjects has come from pens experienced with older and traditional literatures. Such writing can be expected to profit from perspectives, bases for comparison, bodies of literary theory, and acquaintance with major authors and works that lend assurance in the handling of the new literature and lessen the dangers of parochialism and absorption in the immediate.

Southern literature is seen properly, I believe, as a segment or an extension of the national literature (though contemporaneous rather than subsequent). Important early describers and interpreters of Southern writing, such as William Peterfield Trent, William M. Baskervill, and C. Alphonso Smith, had their main scholarly interests in other areas, and indeed in remote areas. If the special insights of W. J. Cash's The Mind of the South seem to be owing to the author's emotional response to the distinctive elements in the history of the region and the relationships in his own time, it yet may be asked whether his insights would not hold up better if they had been formed within a sharper awareness of the full literary, cultural, intellectual, and social context in which the South existed. Perhaps this is to suggest only that literary scholars should have the same breadth, the same bases for judgment, that the creators of literature possess. Southern authors have shared in the universal literary heritage, and they have recognized from the beginnings to the present that their region would furnish only a lesser portion of their readers and only a negligible portion of the outlets for publication, in either books or periodicals.

I would not want to imply that close study and thorough acquaintance are handicaps to literary interpretation. If the perceptions in D. H. Lawrence's essays on American authors are due in part to the distance of their origin, the perceptions are discounted on every page by evidence that Lawrence was writing about a realm that was foreign to him in literal fact and in sympathy. Nor would I want to seem impatient with literary study by regions or sections. The large scale possible to such study has obvious advantages. The background can be known in its fuller scope; lesser writers can be seen as influencing the major writers, or supporting or contradicting them, as the case may be. A large-scale picture may disclose among lesser writers trends, pressures, stimuli, and responses that were crucial but not conspicuous with the major authors. Such a picture may reveal that novelists or poets all but forgotten by a later generation so dominated the literary scene in their own time as to exert unsuspected influence on others who stand in historical perspective as their betters. …