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In the last five years or so, an avalanche of scholarly books and journal articles have continuously riveted the attention of academicians on the powerful twentieth-century Renascence of Southern literature and Southern writers. A trinity of exceptional critics, Cleanth Brooks, J. V. Ridgely, and Ladell Payne have contributed to this massive and extraordinary outpouring of critical studies with contributions, for example, on the rich dialect language of the South as "the lifeblood of Southern writing," on the relationship of "the idyllic plantation South" of the nineteenth century to the vitality and dynamics of the twentieth, and on the place and influence of the black novelist in contemporary and Southern literary traditions. In addition, distinguished and internationally-known fiction writers and poets like Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers continue to be the focus of attention by a plethora of academic critics: Neil Nakadate, Victor Strandberg, Floyd C. Watkins, Frederick Asals, Louise Westling, and Jennifer L. Randisi.
Now, another trio of writers has been added on to this roll of distinguished critics. Ted R. Spivey, a veteran English professor at Georgia State University, [End Page 251] has written an extraordinarily stunning explication on the writings of Walker Percy and Conrad Aiken, using the figure of the ancient shaman as the catalyst for collating both the writers' "intentions and artistic performances." On the other hand, Michael Kreyling, an English professor at Vanderbilt University, provides a fresh and realistic insight into Southern literature, using the figure of the hero through the early 1800s to the 1970s. Kreyling's main argument is that the figural hero is "continuously identifiable" throughout the period he examines, although the hero changes as does each period in the continuum. Finally, a group of leading scholars have written a set of essays, Time's Glory, which emphasize a more direct and a more "inclusive reading of the Warren canon."
Spivey's book, by and large, is the best of the three, not simply because the comparison between Aiken and Percy is so well-advanced and readily transparent but because the whole cultural period of the twentieth century is reflected in the essays, fiction, and poetry of these major writers. What the two men have in common, Spivey argues, is a life-long pilgrimage to attempt to unify the sciences and the humanities. In a reference to Mircea Eliade, "the greatest living authority on shamanism," Spivey contends that Percy and Aiken discovered early in their own lives "a sense of personal and social alienation," but through time and through religion, science, and the arts, they centralized the unity between their lives and their artistry, a concept seldom achieved by other writers, including James Agee and Thomas Wolfe.
Spivey's skill as an insightful critic is best demonstrated in his comparisons of Aiken and Percy as both personalities and philosophical novelists or poets. Both men came from upper middle-class parents: Aiken was eleven when his father killed his mother and then committed suicide; Percy was thirteen when his father committed suicide. Many are the amazing parallels between the two men in education, professional interests, and philosophical mentors (the latter, English, American, and European), but the most interesting and perhaps ironic parallel in relation to life and time spans is that they wrote their first novels (Blue Voyage and The Moviegoer) at approximately the same age, Aiken at 63, Percy at 64. With Aiken's Ushant in 1962 and Percy's The Second Coming in 1980, the shamanistic plan of healing mind and body, Spivey argues, brought unity to their lives and their art. The Writer as Shaman is a major contribution to the critical studies on Percy and signals a resurgence of academic interest in Aiken.
Michael Kreyling, whose...