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Struggles Over the Word:
Race and Religion in O'Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Wright
Timothy Caron. Struggles Over the Word: Race and Religion in O'Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Wright. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2000. 162 pp.
The publication of this volume is fortuitously timed: the author explains that one of his goals is "to contribute to the on-going negotiations of just what it is we mean when we use phrases such as 'Southern literature' and 'Southern studies,'" a debate that has developed increasing vigor in the past year. Though Caron could not situate his work in relation to the most recent entries in this discussion, his scholarly approach, deftly stated and defended, is nonetheless a useful contribution. Noting previous scholarly failures to provide a racially "integrated study of the South's literary culture," Caron studies the writing of both black and white southerners in relation to an institution that has influenced multiple aspects of regional life—southern Protestantism. This approach enables him to acknowledge both similarities and differences in black and white southerners' experiences, and to examine these works in the context of conflicting religious rhetorics. Explaining that white and African-American southern congregations each emphasize biblical authority, he demonstrates that they interpret those scriptures differently, white Protestantism emphasizing "personal piety and salvation to the virtual [End Page 499] exclusion of concerns over social justice," and African-American Protestantism viewing "the Bible as a document of liberation, containing God's promise of delivery in the here-and-now." By positioning these literary works in relation to regional interpretations of the Bible during the post-Civil War South, Caron creates a potentially productive sense of the discursive connections among them; his approach allows him, for example, to find similarities in Hurston's and Wright's treatment of the Black church, despite the oft-noted political and aesthetic differences between the two writers.
Caron's focus on the Bible as an intersection between fictional tropes and institutional rhetoric produces great coherence, but his study could be enriched by further consideration of the multiple forces influencing writers' interpretations of "the Book." Treating Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood as exemplary of "one common white Southern response to politics' 'intrusion' into religion by emphasizing the need for individual redemption," to cite one example, he is able to position the novel in a social and religious context, but his reading of the novel, as even he suggests, does not diverge significantly from previous "religiously-oriented" studies of O'Connor's fiction. One senses a missed opportunity when he notes O'Connor's disdain for "Cold War liberalism," a moment that could lead to a discussion of the relationships between the white southern Protestantism with which he aligns Wise Blood (through discussion, in part, of O'Connor's essays) and other influential cultural and political formations. Such information would not only lend precision to his historicization of white southern churches, which Caron currently conducts with much greater attention to their pre-Civil War past than to their contemporaneous institutions, but would also enable him to consider the other discourses against which O'Connor might be positioning her insistence on salvation.
O'Connor's redemption-oriented work serves as a sort of foil in this volume; Caron describes William Faulkner's Light in August as a display of "antagonism toward the manifestations of a Southern tradition of racist biblical interpretation," Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain as a demonstration of the Bible's "powerful models for constructing an affirming African-American community," and Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children as an illustration of "how to use biblical discourse to politically mobilize these communities." Though these discussions leave [End Page 500] one wishing for greater attention to the complexities of both textual and historical worlds, they nonetheless serve to enrich the reader's sense of the nexus between these works and their social and spiritual contexts. As Caron persuasively argues, the importance of...