For those few scholars out there who continue to perceive the South as H. L. Mencken did—"that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums . . . that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate . . . that vast plain of mediocrity"—Fifty Southern Writers After 1900 gathers ample evidence to the contrary. Whereas Mencken dismissed all Southern writers save James Branch Cabell, this collection suggests 48 other reasons, in addition to Cabell and to Mencken himself, why scholars might want to turn their attention southward.
Fifty Southern Writers After 1900 examines two groups of writers: those members of the Southern Renascence who published between 1920 and 1950 and the "new generation" of writers who published within the last thirty or so years. (For those [End Page 259] interested in a still broader scope of literary history, the editors offer a companion volume, Fifty Southern Writers Before 1900.) Each essay focuses on an individual writer and features five components: "a biographical sketch, a discussion of the author's major themes, an assessment of the scholarship, a chronological list of the author's works, and a bibliography of selected criticism."
Several discussions are excellent—those of A. R. Ammons, James Dickey, Ernest Gaines, and William Styron, in particular. At least a half-dozen surveys, despite their necessary brevity—for instance, those of Lillian Hellman, Walker Percy, and Caroline Gordon—are pleasant expositions. On the other hand, Robert Penn Warren and Tennessee Williams are dealt with too summarily, causing more injury than enlightenment. As in any collection, the editors must make reasoned judgments regarding whom to include, whom to exclude; few scholars would produce identical lists. Despite this disclaimer, it seems to me that Alice Walker and Lillian Smith certainly should have merited a place in this collection; T. S. Stribling and Jesse Hill Ford also deserve mention as minor writers. Fifty Southern Writers looks at authors in all genres, but the fiction writers (and especially the Grand Master Faulkner) garner the most attention, leaving only 20 percent of the selections to be divided between dramatists and poets. Finally, the proofreaders missed one glaring error: Eliot's masterpiece is called The West Land on page 459.
Quibbles aside, Fifty Southern Writers adequately fulfills its stated purpose of an overview of the writers' lives and works. However, overview it is; those who consult the volume will do well to remember that it is only a survey, a volume intended to be reductive. For reference or refreshment, then, or for a general introduction to some of the minor writers, the collection is valuable and helpful. For any weightier scholarship, Fifty Southern Writers sufficiently and effectively whets the appetite, but it does not satiate.