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Reviewed by:
  • The Language of the American South, and: The Southern Belle in the American Novel
  • Margaret Jones Bolsterli
Cleanth Brooks. The Language of the American South. Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures 28. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985. 58 pp. $9.95.
Kathryn Lee Seidel. The Southern Belle in the American Novel. Tampa: U of South Florida P, 1985. 202 pp. $19.00.

Brooks's lectures are about the origins, nature, and use in literature of Southern language. They are entitled "Where It Came From," "The Language of the Gentry and the Folk," and "The Language of the Present Day." The basic premise expounded in the second and third lectures is sound and beyond argument. Nobody could deny that the South has produed a rich, varied, and elastic language that has provided the material for a unique regional literature. Nor could one deny that part of the skill exhibited by good Southern writers has come from their acquaintance with the language of common people as well as the well-to-do. However, the thesis of Brooks's first lecture here, "Where It Came From," poses a problem. This lecture is a rehash of the argument of his 1935 book The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain, which illustrated to his satisfaction at that time that the provenance of Southern English is so demonstrably set in the southern counties of England that the language of Uncle Remus and a list of east Alabama words compiled by L. W. Payne in 1908 owe virtually nothing to the influence of black speakers. That he might have been satisfied then with what was at best a partial truth is understandable because of the "nonperson" status of blacks and because of the state of linguistic theory and social history in America in 1935, but returning to that position in 1984, ignoring forty-nine years of scholarship (some of which was engendered by Brooks's own original argument), and confining to a paragraph of forty-two words his entire consideration of the contribution of blacks to Southern language seem like foolish consistency, surprising in a mind as great as that of Cleanth Brooks. The result is an incomplete and distorted vision of the complexity of the origins of Southern language.

Kathryn Lee Seidel's The Southern Belle in the American Novel is much more useful. This is a thorough and comprehensive treatment of the image of the Southern belle in the American novel from Bel Tracy in John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832) to Gail Godwin's characters in A Mother and Two Daughters (1982). By a complex approach to this hundred and fifty years of tradition, Seidel traces the belle's progress as "a perfect vehicle for representing the flowering of the Old South in antebellum times through the rape of the South during and after the Civil War and the decay of the South in the glare of modernism in the twentieth century." The belle is examined as both cultural artifact and literary character. Part One, "Genre and Convention," defines the belle and her place in Southern literary tradition from Swallow Barn through the historical novels of the Depression. Part Two, "The Psychology of the Belle," breaks the historical approach to explore the formation of the belle and the consequences of pruning human beings to fit the mold. Part Three, "Myth and Meaning in the Southern Garden," examines the image of the belle in cultural and literary myths of the South. The work has been thoroughly researched and is meticulously documented and valuable for insights into minor figures such as Isa Glenn and Frances Newman as well those writers who come immediately to mind such as William Faulkner, Ellen Glasgow, and, in this context, Margaret Mitchell. [End Page 609] It is a genuine contribution to the canon of scholarship about the South, one that will be useful to anyone interested in its culture and literature.

Margaret Jones Bolsterli
University of Arkansas


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