- Inventing Southern Literature
Michael Kreyling’s new book continues his ongoing effort to reconfigure the study of southern literature. As early as 1985, Kreyling denounced the stifling consensus at the heart of most attempts to explain the South and its literature, particularly the period generally designated as the Southern Renaissance. Inventing Southern Literature extends Kreyling’s presentation of his major contention—that southern literature, as it is collected in anthologies and taught in universities, is an invention marked by the usual postmodern constructs of gender, race, and class. Perhaps only the “southernists,” those devoted to perpetrating the traditional paradigms, will take issue with Kreyling’s arguments.
Kreyling begins with “the South” of the Nashville Agrarians, the twelve men who in 1930 produced the regional manifesto I’ll Take My Stand. Kreyling here reminds us that the South of the late twenties and early thirties was engaged in a “culture war” that, in its fierceness and intensity, rivaled the cultural skirmishes that characterize our own era. Unlike Lillian Smith, who claimed that the Agrarians had failed their region more than any other group of writers, Kreyling’s goal is not to render such a sweeping if well-deserved judgment. Rather, his chapter examines the many ways in which it “was not so much ‘the South’ that triggered I’ll Take My Stand as the presence in the cultural/historical arena of competing ‘orders’ of cultural power that threatened to imagine [End Page 1023] the South in other ways, ways that would have disenfranchised the Agrarian elite.” Germane to Kreyling’s analysis of the Agrarians is the cultural theory of Karl Mannheim, particularly Mannheim’s understanding of how cultural elites seek and maintain power through the processes of intellectual production.
Kreyling then moves to two heirs of the Agrarians—Richard M. Weaver, a defender from the right, and Louis D. Rubin, a liberal apologist. Few critics by the late thirties were looking to the Agrarians for answers to the region’s problems. Weaver was a notable exception. “A return to the few, universal propositions of a classical culture was needed, Weaver believed. He saw the American South as this cultural salvation and he invented—as a consequence of this idea—its literary-intellectual history accordingly.”
Kreyling’s analysis of Rubin is perhaps more intriguing, but only because Rubin is a more intriguing and influential writer. With his many books and anthologies, Rubin has dominated the study of southern literature in the second half of the century. For this reason alone, it is interesting to see Kreyling expose the tensions in Rubin’s attempts to historicize southern texts during the era of New Critical hegemony. Kreyling poses a crucial question: “How long could the literature of the South be excused from owning up to the culture’s racial praxis?” It is on the subject of race that Rubin’s work is most vexing. Kreyling wonders how Rubin could ever manage to conclude that “the southern community was neither pro- nor antisegregation”; further, “[h]ow does one ‘see’ and rebuke ‘dehumanization and materialistic, acquisitive society’ on the one hand and not, on the other, see and rebuke the dehumanization of black human beings during slavery and under Jim Crow?” Kreyling contends that even “Rubin’s more recent work seems to continue in the vein of nostalgic detoxification of the southern image.”
Rubin also figures prominently in Kreyling’s chapter on southern literary anthologies, in each of which the South has been constructed or made to order for a given cultural moment. Editors of southern anthologies have tended to provide and then repeat a definition of southernness to the point at which the definition “achieves the status of datum.” Central to Kreyling’s understanding of anthologies and canon formation is Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition (1983), especially Hobsbawm’s analysis of those traditions in which the main purpose is “socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value systems, and conventions of behaviour.” The good news is that the community of southern literature scholars is now more encompassing than ever, [End Page 1024] including large numbers of women, people...